Clearing the smoke on the ‘green’ issue

By Dale McKinley Time of article published Apr 13, 2012

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It was a cold early morning in August last year when six screaming and heavily armed members of the SAPS forcibly removed their driveway gate and tried to bash down their kitchen door.

But this wasn’t a stealthily planned arrest of much sought-after murderers. No, it was members of a police dog unit without a warrant, ostensibly looking for a “drug lab” on the smallholding of two ordinary citizens who also happen to be recreational dagga smokers.

For the next five hours, Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke – whose residence, the Jazzfarm, outside Johannesburg, hosts a range of public social, creative and therapeutic activities (some of which involve the use of dagga) – were subjected to verbal and physical abuse and threatened with violence. After their house and adjoining cottages had been virtually ransacked, the police “seized” a small quantity of dagga and hauled them off to a local police station. After being charged with possession of dagga, they were eventually released after posting bail several hours later.

Instead of taking the easy way out and paying a bribe to make the charges go away, the “dagga couple” have decided to mount a constitutional challenge to the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, No 142 of 1992 that criminalises the possession and use of dagga. They want to “stand up and fight the law to change the root of the problem”.

Like the cannabis plant itself, that root is surrounded by a great deal of prejudice, misinformation, assumption and ignorance. As the founding affidavit for their case shows, “the word ‘dagga’ originates from an old Khoi word – dacha. This was then ‘Afrikanerised’ by the authorities such that the phonetic ‘ga’ – an expression of disgust in Afrikaans – was incorporated into the word for its emotional effect”. As a result, “dagga has since become a highly stigmatised and sensitive word”.

Wrapped around this ideologically infused linguistic manipulation is a history of which few South Africans are aware. SA holds the dubious “honour” of being the first country to enact a specific law prohibiting the use of dagga. This happened in 1878 when the “Christian” colonial government “tried to prevent Indian indentured labour from using their sacrament, cannabis, in a bid to convert them to Christianity”.

Consistent with the racist nature of most laws passed over the next several decades, the initial anti-dagga law only applied to Indians and was then extended in 1923 “on the grounds that cannabis made mine labour lazy”.

When it comes to the properties of the plant itself – and noting that the cannabis plant has been used by human beings for thousands of years – the “root of the problem” is further entangled by historicised layers of embedded “anti” propaganda.

Indeed, the various South African government departments (including justice, health, international relations, social development and the police) that have now filed replying legal papers in opposition to the couple’s case state that dagga “negatively affects the psychological well-being of users” and that “the purpose of prohibition is to protect the health and well-being of persons affected by the use and possession of cannabis”. No surprise, then, that for them, there is no “public interest” in changing the existing law.

Such statements directly contradict hundreds of scientific and medical studies and surveys conducted over decades, which conclusively show that dagga contains a wide range of positive medicinal and therapeutic properties. These include treatment for various cancers, autism, diabetes, hepatitis C, glaucoma, skin allergies, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression. Likewise, an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence shows that the dagga plant contains no narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-forming properties.

The latest, localised confirmation of this is contained in an article in the South African Medical Journal by its managing editor, Dr JP van Niekerk, who cites a recent medical study in the UK, which shows that dagga is far down the list of harmful “drugs”, while alcohol and tobacco, alongside several other drugs that can be legally procured, are far higher up on the list. According to Van Niekerk, the current classification of drugs is “unscientific and arbitrary” and what we need is a formal assessment of harm when it comes to dagga.

Possibly the most astounding fact of all when it comes to the health-related effects of dagga use is that “there is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality”.

The dagga plant, however, is constituted by far more than its most well-known active “ingredient” – Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Those varieties of the plant with little or no THC content – commonly known as hemp – have a huge range of economic uses. These include using the whole plant for animal feedstock; hempseed oil for cooking, soaps, cosmetics, oil paints and industrial lubricants; and the stalk for products like paper, packaging, industrial textiles, clothing and various building materials.

There are potentially massive social, medicinal and economic benefits of decriminalising dagga (hemp) production and use, especially in poverty- stricken rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape where dagga is already de facto one of the main (at present illegal) sustaining cash crops.

As has been shown the world over – and SA is no exception – the continued criminalisation of dagga has only served to catalyse its production and distribution by organised crime.

In the words of Van Niekerk, “using dagga may be a vice (like so many others that we as human beings engage in) but it should not be a crime”.

We should not continue to allow misinformation, prejudice and ignorance to frame any of our social, political and economic issues and challenges. In this case, it is not only Stobbs and Clark who desire a rational and informed debate around decriminalising dagga, but also millions of others in SA who grow and use the plant.

l Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist. This article first appeared on the SA Civil Society Information Service website.

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