Welcome to Johannesburg's 420 dagga café, reloaded

04 January 2019 - 15:06
By Iavan Pijoos
A dagga cake that was served at a birthday party at Randburg's 420 Café in December 2018.
Image: via Facebook A dagga cake that was served at a birthday party at Randburg's 420 Café in December 2018.

On one of the busiest roads in Randburg, Johannesburg, people openly “puff and pass” marijuana while listening to banging soul-food music.

The 420 Cafè has been operating for a year now, although the venue has changed. We visited the restaurant at Randview Shopping Centre on the busy Jan Smuts Avenue. It was previously situated in the country’s financial hub, Sandton. Its name, 420, is slang for marijuana. The phrase is said to originate from users in the United States getting high on April 20 at 4.20pm, as part of a campaign for drug laws to be eased.

As you make your way up the stairs, you are greeted by a board stating: ­“Sandton View Coffee House and Bar. Home of Phaze Karaoke.” A restaurant of that name closed down a year ago.

When entering, a bouncer searches bags to ensure no one brings in their own weed.

His chair is next to an old jukebox.

Joints are smoked freely in the café, on condition the marijuana is bought there.

A board outside 420 Café, where people get together and freely smoke joints.
Image: Iavan Pijoos A board outside 420 Café, where people get together and freely smoke joints.

Clouds of smoke fill the venue, accompanied by loud ’90s, RnB and hip-hop tunes.

In any other restaurant, you take a seat and wait for a waiter to come to your table. Not at 420 Café.

“Are you first-time visitors? We have house rules. You order a drink and go sit at a table. I will then bring you a menu,” a waiter tells us while we peruse the drinks on the shelves.

We ordered two Coca-Colas and took a seat at a table close to the bar. There are interesting designs on the tables. Ours is decorated with colourful marijuana plants.

The waiter approaches us and takes a small menu out of his back pocket. The weed menu.

Prices on this menu range from R100 to R1,000. The cheapest beer is R50. Yes, you have to go there with extra cash.

My cousin, a passionate weed smoker, orders the Buddha cheese for R160.

Cheese is a strain of cannabis plant grown in the United Kingdom.

There is, however, a trick to ordering weed.

When you pay cash, you pay the price stated on the menu, but when paying by card, the café charges a 10% fee.

“It is better to pay cash,” the waiter tells us, before leaving to fetch our order. 

He returns a few minutes later and hands us a gram of weed.

While my cousin uses a crusher to “chop the zol”, two patrons sit next to us with a bong.

A popcorn machine stands next to the bar. It answers my question: “What do they eat for munchies?”

The venues does, however, have a menu for munchies – toasties, burgers and breakfast. 

The munchies menu offers things like John Dough (fried prizza base and dip), fried or grilled halloumi, and cheezy chips.

The munchies menu at 420 Café.
Image: Iavan Pijoos The munchies menu at 420 Café.

The café is busy, with a few people milling about upstairs on the balcony lounge.

The hours are convenient, catering for those wanting a mid-morning coffee and cannabis break or those wanting to feed their munchies at lunchtime, as well as patrons who prefer staying until the café closes.

The casual snooker player that I am was happy to see three pool tables next to the balcony. As we play a few rounds, more people pop in to drift through the afternoon.

Before we leave, we thank the waiter and greet the bouncer.

“Hope to see you again,” the bouncer tells us as we make our way out.

The joint is openly operating as the first “official” venue to sell dagga in South Africa, although its legal status is unclear.

While private consumption of dagga by adults has been legalised in South Africa, the Constitutional Court’s 2018 ruling does not allow for dealing in the drug. Dagga users may also not sell it to their friends.

Anine Kriegler, a criminology researcher at the University of Cape Town, noted in 2018 that it would be up to parliament to add detail to the court judgment before a new regulatory system could be adopted. 

If you need a snack, there is a popcorn machine next to the café's bar.
Image: Iavan Pijoos If you need a snack, there is a popcorn machine next to the café's bar.

“Significantly, this change came after a legal challenge in support of the right to privacy. It did not result from a popular vote or from a shift in government policy, based on public health principles.

“... Some of the key issues that will need to be addressed include how far privacy extends, exactly what products should be regulated, how non-users will be protected and what to do about the existing criminal market,” she said.

Legal frameworks that could be assessed by SA legislators include the commercialised system developing in parts of the US, where businesses sell cannabis in much the same way as alcohol. Another is the medicalised model of Uruguay, where cannabis can be bought without prescription at pharmacies.

Kriegler believes other countries could offer more appropriate comparisons. Jamaica has set its limits at possession of 56.6g and the cultivation of up to five plants on any premises. Colombia’s limits are 20g or up to 20 plants.

“An important question is whether South Africa will allow cannabis social clubs – structures for the non-profit production and distribution of cannabis among a closed group of adults,” said Kriegler. This is the “Spanish model”.  She added: “Such clubs should enjoy the same protection on the basis of privacy, although their regulation introduces additional complications.”

In considering a new legal policy, Kriegler said parliamentarians would also have to decide what substances would be included in the law, such as hashish (a concentrated resin made from cannabis), cannabis oils or synthetic cannabinoids.