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SA's first dagga growing club heads to the high court nearly two years after police raid

  • The Haze Club was founded by Neil Liddell shortly after the Constitutional Court's landmark 2018 ruling, which decriminalised the private and personal use and cultivation of cannabis in South Africa.

  • Members would send seeds to the club, and the club, in turn, would grow cannabis from those seeds on their behalf.

  • The club ran smoothly until October 2020, when police raided the premises, confiscating plants, tearing down grow equipment, and arresting Liddell.

  • The State argues that the club didn't operate in a private space and, therefore, fell afoul of the law.

  • Liddell and his legal team, before the Western Cape High Court on Monday, will use the Constitutional Court's ruling to support their argument for the collective exercise of rights.

  • Original Post by Business Insider :

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The founder of South Africa's first cannabis growers club formed in the wake of the Constitutional Court's landmark 2018 ruling will appear before the Western Cape High Court, almost two years after the operation was raided by police.

South Africa's Constitutional Court decriminalised the private and personal use and cultivation of cannabis in September 2018. Since then, cannabis culture has been thrust into the mainstream. Cannabis clubs have sprung up across the country, at least one listed company has repositioned itself as a major producer, and government has issued a raft of policy reviews to unlock the plant's socioeconomic potential.

The Cannabis Master plan, focused on commercialising and industrialising the plant, hopes to tap into a R28 billion sector while providing employment for some 25,000 people.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, during his latest State of the Nation Address, highlighted "the huge potential for investment and job creation."

The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, currently before parliament as a follow-up to the landmark 2018 ruling, looks to regulate various aspects of the plant's cultivation and possession. Although progress has been welcomed, draft versions of the Bill have been met with mixed reactions.

The changes in South Africa's cannabis culture, its commercial potential, and the Bill currently before parliament are of particular interest to Neil Liddell, founder of The Haze Club (THC).

Liddell launched the members-only cannabis growers club in early 2019, shortly after the Constitutional Court judgement.

"It [the Constitutional Court ruling] was monumental, and I think it came a lot sooner than everyone was expecting," Liddell told Business Insider SA.

"The ruling itself was great, but it left a lot of questions, which are still being answered right now."

Members, who paid a membership fee, would send cannabis seeds to THC. These seeds would be barcoded and stored on the member's behalf. THC would then cultivate the seeds and grow the cannabis in the member's allotted, 'rented' private space. The plant, once fully matured in three months, would be harvested, dried, cured, packaged, and labelled for the member's collection or delivery.

"We were certainly one of the first, if not the first [cannabis growers clubs in South Africa following decriminalisation], but definitely the first to make a big public push to say we back this model and we're not scared to say so," said Liddell.

The club ran smoothly for more than a year. "It was really working," said Liddell. "Our members were really happy, and we were happy."

But things came to a head in October 2020, when police raided THC, confiscating plants and growing equipment. Liddell was arrested and criminally charged.

The case around THC's Grow Club Model is now set for a high court showdown, which comes almost two years after the raid and amid a rapidly changing perception of cannabis, recreationally and commercially.

"They are arguing that THC does not operate in a private space," said Liddell on the main argument posed by the State. "They say because the public can join, therefore it's a public space."

"Really, what they are saying is [that] you are not allowed to grow cannabis on behalf of someone else."

Liddell, represented by his legal team, will argue, on Monday, that THC's operations were aligned with provisions in the Constitutional Court ruling of 2018.

"This court action takes the 2018 judgment and tries to take it a step further. If I can grow/use cannabis myself, then such a right should be capable of collective exercise," Liddell's legal counsel, Andrew MacPherson, told Business Insider.

"The aim is to permit the collective exercise of rights, such as a community garden, grow club etc, on the basis that not every person has the socioeconomic status to participate in a law of general application like that created by Prince 3 [the Constitutional Court's 2018 ruling]."

And whether Monday's ruling goes in favour of Liddell or the State, either side is likely to appeal, added MacPherson.

Should Liddell be successful in his bid, he warns that restarting THC will not be a simple nor quick undertaking for reasons beyond the State's likelihood to appeal, adding to an already lengthy legal fight.

"In the event that we are allowed to operate, and we win this case, we'd have to request from the courts that SAPS hand back our equipment," said Liddell.

"But the way that they [the police] tore it down, it's sensitive grow equipment and LED lights, it was all thrown around and around smashed, so we don't know what's going to be left at the end of the day."

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