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High cost of SA’s anti-dagga laws

Published Oct 19, 2014


Cape Town - South Africa’s anti-dagga laws are in the spotlight. The issue is already before Parliament, and this week was highlighted at an international law enforcement conference in Cape Town when activist Julian Stobbs pointed out that the cost to the state for arresting, prosecuting and applying correctional sanctions in respect of each marijuana offender stood somewhere around R240 000.

This was money, Stobbs suggested, that could be used more effectively fighting higher-priority crimes.

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According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 68 percent of all drug busts on the African continent, and 16 percent globally take place in South Africa. The majority of these relate to dagga seizure, meaning Stobbs is correct.

The late IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini made headlines before his death by campaigning vigorously for the legalisation of marijuana for medical use, revealing he was suffering from terminal cancer – a disease he believed was in part treatable with cannabis-derived medication.

Six months before his death in August, Ambrosini introduced a bill aimed at legalising marijuana for medical and industrial use – a bill which was subsequently tabled for processing by ANC chief whip Stone Sizani after Ambrosini’s death.

While Sizani was careful to point out that the tabling did not necessarily mean the ANC supported the bill, it comes at a time when the legal status of marijuana is internationally in the balance.

Those opposed to softening the official stance argue that it is a gateway drug whose use leads to the use of harder drugs, it is harmful to health like tobacco and alcohol, and it can have a particularly harmful effect on people who have an inherent vulnerability to mental illness.

However, for the last decade, policy and law enforcement initiatives in respect of the narcotic have been under scrutiny.

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Since the 1990s the Dutch have effectively legalised the use of cannabis as a hallucinogenic and decriminalised its cultivation for personal use, though only in certain parts of the country. Following suit, countries like Spain and France have decriminalised, though not per se legalised, the dreamy herb, arguing that there is no compelling scientific evidence it is either particularly addictive or particularly debilitating.

Especially in the past half decade or so resistance to the US’s official stance has been increasingly subverted by geopolitical formations like Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China, prior to South Africa joining) who concluded agreements on drug policy – relaxing sanctions and moving to decriminalise cannabis.

Bolivia, one of the world’s major producers of cocaine, withdrew in 2011 from the Vienna Convention, which binds signatory nations to legal sanctions in pursuit of the war on drugs. Bolivian President Evo Morales is currently campaigning from the chair of the G-77 grouping of developing nations for coca leaf – the source of cocaine and in leaf form chewed as a mild stimulant – to be removed from the UN’s list of banned substances.

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Meanwhile in 2012 Uruguayan President Jose Mujica announced plans to legalise cannabis and regulate its cultivation and supply – and to tax it. Mujica argued that government control would free law enforcement agencies to clamp down on trafficking in cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs.


Under the new deal, Uruguayan citizens over the age of 18, on registration as users, are entitled to buy up to 40g of cannabis for recreational use.

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Half of all the US states – 26 of 50 and the District of Columbia – have either decriminalised cannabis for use and possession or made it legal for specific medical and other applications. At the same time, although it remains criminalised by federal law, Washington, Colorado and Rhode Island have legalised the hallucinogenic for recreational use since 2012, and in Colorado it is sold over the counter and taxed by the government.

US President Barack Obama has admitted he smoked cannabis in his youth. He went on to express the opinion that it was less harmful than alcohol and its abuse should be treated as a public health issue.

Dagga seizure and related prosecutions remain the approach of South Africa’s law enforcement authorities.

In a recent report by the Anti-Drug Alliance NGO, some of the implications are teased out, in an analysis of drug busts in Gauteng.

Here around 3 000 arrests were effected, the vast majority for dagga, leading to the seizure of drugs worth R13 million – but in the end leading to convictions in only 9 percent of the cases.

But despite the low conviction rate, the cost of keeping this 9 percent in jail would set the State back R245m, which together with the R38m spent on the arrests themselves pushed the total expenditure to nearly R300m – all this for a tangible yield of only R13m.

The effectiveness of South African law enforcement is also debatable. The bulk of marijuana in the Netherlands is reportedly sourced from this country, and a startling 80 percent of all marijuana traffickers arrested in Ireland in 2012 were South Africans peddling South African product.

In the light of these anomalies, there is a growing call to rethink South Africa’s dagga policy. While President Jacob Zuma has promised to “intensify the war on drugs and succeed”, there is likely to be intensified debate about whether South Africa’s approach to dagga should be liberalised, with the Anti-Drug Alliance noting that a third of respondents in a 2013 survey agreed that cannabis should be legalised, whereas a similar survey the previous year had found less than 10 percent supported it.

Legalised crops could become big money spinner

A ballpark estimate of just how much dagga is grown in South Africa leaves a big question mark.

Official sources are wildly erratic on the subject. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (Unodac) for instance, records some 6 000 hectares under cultivation in 1992, 2 140 in 1994, then 82 000 in 1995 before slipping back to the low thousands by 2000.

At the same time, however, revenues and exports were noted to have steadily grown, exports increasing between 1991 and 1996 from 15 percent of total production to 70 percent.

So what is this illicit industry worth? An convincing estimate is even more difficult to arrive at.

According to the UN, the average size of a cannabis field in Southern Africa (including the cultivation hubs of Lesotho and Swaziland) is some 300 square metres. Such a field will produce around 10kg of flowing tops, high in the psychotropic tetrahydrocannabinol, and around 25 to 30kg of inferior and lower-priced “majat”.

While the flowering part would fetch far greater returns in Europe and even in South African cities, the UN records that farmers will be paid around R700 for 10kg of flowering top and around R500 for the 25 to 30kg of majat.

The Unodac calculates that each hectare would yield cannabis to the value of around R40 000 on each flowering cycle, with as a many as four in a single year.

By the UN’s calculations, this would mean the average subsistence farmer (on a single flowering) would make R4 800 to R8 000 a year – only a fraction of what the dealer will accrue on the retail market, where dagga will fetch R1 a gram in South Africa and up to five times that amount overseas.

Hydroponic cultivation can take profits to a much higher level, at the same time significantly boosting the drug’s psychotropic effects – to the point where a single plant could yield cannabis to the value of R40 000 in each flowering period. In tunnels where dozens, even hundreds, of plants are cultivated, the profits can be astronomical.

If the law changed, the playing field would be somewhat levelled. The criminal syndicates which control the market and export would be cut out of the equation, and their share largely passed on to the producers – nearly all of them impoverished subsistence farmers. The government would also be in a position to tax the industry which drains the fiscus of billions of rand in policing and fighting a war that many say is already lost.

The government would be in a position to promote research into quality and cultivation as well as facilitate the export of cannabis to centres where it has been legalised, garnering foreign exchange.

Plant has been used for over 8 millennia

Carl Sagan in his Cosmos television series suggested cannabis could have been the first crop husbanded and cultivated.

Apart from the plant’s use as a hallucinogenic, it has for upwards of eight millennia of recorded history been used as a foodstuff, a source for fibres used in rope making, construction and textiles, and a source for pulp used in paper, as well as for the treatment and palliative care of a range of diseases and indispositions.

Originally found in central Asia the cannabis plant gradually found its way to the near East and India before moving on trade routes throughout the world. Possibly 2 000 years ago, but certainly 1 500, cannabis was under cultivation in Egypt and by the 14th century CE used in Ethiopia.

Introduced to Africa by traders, apparently around 1500 CE, marijuana was integrated into the ritual and shamanistic practices of indigenous inhabitants.

A shipment of Angolan slaves unloaded in north- eastern Brazil in 1549, introduced the herb to the New World. It was also in Brazil that one of the earliest acts of prohibition was recorded.

But until the 20th century, cannabis remained relatively uncontroversial. In the early 17th century, King James I commanded that US colonists produce hemp. Cannabis was subject to tax and included in the US’ Pharmacopoeia. Those who produced cannabis in quantity included several of the founding fathers of the US.

In 1915, California became the first state to outlaw possession, and particularly with the influx of Mexican workers it came to be classified as a “dangerous underground drug”.

In 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was introduced in the UN, classifying marijuana as a psychoactive drug possessed of “particularly dangerous properties”.

In 2013, the US reinforced its commitment with an above-the-line spend of $3.7 billion (R41bn) on enforcing the law in respect of marijuana, and, below the line, efforts such as continuing to support and fund crop destruction.

When the US introduced legislation banning cannabis for all but very limited industrial and medical uses in 1937, at the same time introducing a stringent tax regime, the moves were lobbied by newspaper and lumber barons, including William Randolph Hearst who also funded and promoted a ferociously anti-marijuana film titled Reefer Madness in the late 1930s. Also powerfully lobbying against cannabis were the tobacco companies as well as pharmaceutical companies. All had much to gain from the marijuana and hemp industry being banned.

In September, Vice Media published a story revealing that several prominent US academics who vigorously opposed the legalisation of cannabis, were in fact on the payroll of pharmaceuticals companies.

Weekend Argus

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