A user takes a drag of a spliff. File photo: Dumisani Dube

 

Johannesburg - Andre du Plessis admits it proudly. Yes, he was the one who had disbursed the mysterious bankies of dagga seeds to the tables of delegates attending a government-hosted conference on the medical use of cannabis this week.

“God is in every garden,” smiles Du Plessis, of the Cannabis Working Group.

“Do try to grow those seeds. Plant them, water them and watch them grow.”

Of the stash of only three seeds that Du Plessis had deposited in small, zip-locked bags, some had been furtively stashed into handbags, while others were left, rejected at the Kopanong Conference Centre in Benoni.

The two-day conference, which the Department of Social Development and the Central Drug Authority hosted, brought together health experts, religious groups and civil society organisations, and was the first of its kind in South Africa to debate the potential medicinal use of cannabis.

 

But for Du Plessis, legal medicinal use is not enough. “We have the opportunity to make history in South Africa and to use cannabis like other countries in Uruguay and America.

“There are people there making good business, children are protected… we can regulate, control and minimise harm.

“Whether we legalise it or not, the reality is that people are smoking and growing it right now. Whether the law changes, cannabis will continue to be used. They haven’t managed to eradicate it.”

Like Du Plessis, who uses cannabis to treat his migraines, proponents of medical marijuana tout its efficacy for the treatment of epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

 

This week’s debate will inform the Medical Innovation Bill before Parliament.

But Du Plessis, who provided medical cannabis to the bill’s creator, IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, when he was in the final stages of lung cancer, maintains it is not well-suited to South Africa’s needs.

Last year the MP lost his battle against cancer.

 

“We have to do legalisation holistically, we can’t separate it. There are industrial uses – you can build houses from hemp and recreational uses.”

In 2013 his working group presented government with their own position paper on the benefits of legalising the drug.

But while Du Plessis has the answers clearly in his mind, other delegates like Angela Salter are uncertain.

She has seen how drugs destroy lives – both her brothers are addicts. Salter, a nurse, social worker and representative of the Central Drug Authority, works in a drug treatment centre in Limpopo. “I’m leaving this conference totally confused. Yes, there is some medicinal value, if they can just keep it restricted to that form, for epilepsy, cancer and pain.

“But it needs to be tightly regulated.

The people here are not checking the psychotic effects of dagga. If we legaliseit we’re going to have a lot of mad kids walking in the street. Our children will be zombies.”

Quentin Ferreira, a clinical psychologist, who has worked at Sterkfontein Hospital and drug treatment centres in Ekurhuleni, told the Saturday Star that more money needs to be spent on drug treatment, rather than prosecution.

He says in Ekurhuleni, for example, there isn’t a single detox centre.

Ferreira adds that sending users to jail doesn’t solve South Africa’s drug problem.

Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the Deputy Minister of Social Development, told delegates cannabis needs to be understood before it’s ever legalised. This week’s round table on its use is “long overdue”.

“This is the beginning of a lengthy dialogue through which we hope to take all South Africans along when the country’s final position paper on cannabis use is determined.”

Saturday Star