Gustav Thiel

While the head of the SA Narcotics Bureau (Sanab), George Mason, has refused to name the poisons being used to kill dagga fields in Swaziland, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, environmentalists fear that the herbicides could harm other crops, cause damage to human health and force growers into environmentally sensitive areas.

Senior Superintendent Mason confirmed this week that the destruction of dagga crops has resumed after a two-year lull. He denied that there had been a moratorium on cross-border operations.

"These operations are extremely expensive. It was mainly because we had no money to maintain our helicopters that we have not been doing them," he said.

Earlier this month Mason briefed MPs about plans for "Operation Matekwane". He said the operation would begin on September 24 with the approval of Swaziland. Lesotho was excluded from the operation as it had not been present at a key meeting.

Mason told the Cape Times that "a variety of chemicals" were used in the operation. "All I am willing to say is that the chemicals we use have been approved by the proper authorities," he said.

Keith Cooper of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA said Sanab is known to have used Glyslophate in their operations. "Because they use helicopters, the chemical spreads over a large area, which means they normally destroy other crops, like peaches, as well."

Cooper said Sanab operations force cannabis growers into sensitive areas, which in the long run may cause large-scale environmental degradation. "The government must understand that most of the cannabis growers depend on the crop for their living. The money should rather be spent on the upliftment of these communities."

Ted Legget of the University of Natal's Centre for Social Development Studies said: "A drug like crack cocaine is a lot more harmful and the resources should be used to fight the spread of this drug. The practice of crop eradication is really feudal."

But Frank Albert, head of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Pretoria, disagreed, saying: "We will support the process through offering training programmes. We held a workshop in Pretoria last week where an agreement was reached with South African authorities for joint use of training facilities and equipment."

Mason said Sanab still regards possession of or dealing in dagga as a serious offence and that talk of decriminalisation of dagga is unfounded. "We signed the 1988 UN convention prohibiting the illicit trafficking of narcotics, which specifies that steps must be taken against cannabis offenders," he said.

Meanwhile, United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa - a former leader of the dagga-rich Transkei region - has called for a public debate on the smoking of the plant for recreational and religious purposes. "Though I support the law, I think we need to look at the issue. In Europe people smoke cannabis openly."

In the first six months of this year, 1 058 people were arrested for possession of dagga, and 2 353 people were arrested for dealing. Almost 70 000kg of cannabis was seized by Sanab in the same period.