Dagga nation

2011-04-30 14:15

Just under the bridge running west from the Gautrain station in Marlboro lies Alexandra’s Far East Bank.

It’s a 258-hectare sprawl of RDP houses, flats and shacks, and an extension of Old Alexandra, one of Joburg’s oldest townships. Dan* goes there once a week to get his supply of weed.

“I’ve bought in many areas around this city,” Dan says in the car on the way.

His last regular scoring spot was on the other side of the city, in Windsor East, adjacent to middle-class dense Northcliff and the start of suburban Randburg.

Dan now considers Windsor East a “mini Hillbrow” flooded with crack-cocaine dealers, making it difficult for “harmless” weed merchants to serve their equally harmless clientele.

Dan (28), an attorney who works at a Sandton law firm, is unapologetic and guilt-free about his habit, which he considers to be on par with, or even less harmful than, legal practices such as alcohol, tobacco and junk food consumption.

According to him, smoking weed makes one “perceptive, uncannily insightful, tolerant and relaxed”.

He is of the opinion, like many others, that the only reason weed isn’t legalised in South Africa is because systems haven’t been created to control and tax its sale.

But he says the legalisation issue is no longer relevant as dagga is so widespread, law-enforcement officials turn a blind eye to neurotic stoners buying weed in “dodgy” areas.

It is still against the law to sell and buy weed for recreational purposes, and a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money is spent on curbing its distribution and use.

According to the Treasury’s 2011 estimates of national expenditure, the police ministry’s crime prevention and border security subprogrammes – which include the prevention of drug-related crimes – accounted for a substantial R19.5-billion chunk of the department’s R53.5?billion total budget in the previous financial year.

Drug awareness non-profit organisation TNT.org.za estimates that “60% of crimes nationally are related to substance abuse”.

Although there is no exact figure available as to how much the police spend on curbing the dagga trade specifically, it’s probably as much as that’s spent by the buying public each year, which is estimated by TNT to be R3.5?billion.

Driving into Far East Bank, Dan seems calm. He stops next to a kiosk on the corner of one of the area’s sewage-strewn roads.

There are four men sitting inside smoking, drinking and shooting the breeze while tending the kiosk, which stocks miscellaneous items for sale to the foot traffic.

Dan opens his window and asks one of the men, whom he calls Mthunzi*, what they’ve got. Mthunzi rattles off some names of dagga strains: white widow, blueberry, top-44.

Dan settles for 2 grams of top-44 at R150 per gram and Mthunzi scurries off into a patch of veld.

While Mthunzi’s gone, one of the other men in the kiosk, sporting a dreadlock-stuffed turban, looks towards Dan and they share a smile.

Two barefoot toddlers make their way across the street to the kiosk to try their luck at getting free sweets. The dreadlocked man shoos them away gently and says: “Ai, these kids trouble us.”

Mthunzi appears from the side of the kiosk and approaches the car. He gets to the window and presents the merchandise. “I’ve been smoking this one all week, fire, it’s high meditation.”

He hands over the weed and takes the money from Dan, who looks the street over one last time and pulls off towards the main road leading out of Far East Bank.

“Quite conspicuous, isn’t it?” He chuckles as he puts the weed into a compartment above the gear lever. He continues: “All these people on the pavement know what we’re here for. The first township I ever went into to buy weed was Tembisa when I was about 15. It felt strange at first.”
For someone like Dan, who is from a privileged background and can afford to drive into Alex in a city-chic, compact car, the whole thing is an experience.

He says: “Coming to the township without fear, knowing that there is nothing to fear in the first place, is comforting in a way. And with an economy like ours, rather sell weed and make money than do nothing, right?”

What Dan refers to as the “thinking man’s tobacco” has long since crossed the race-class divide. As far back as 1972 – when weed was considered a drug that would incite rape, plunder and communism – medical researchers P Logie and JE Morley investigated the prevalence of dagga use among white South African youth.

They noted: “Dagga has been fairly extensively used by the black population of South Africa for more than three centuries.

From the 1960s, dagga use among whites has become more acceptable .?.?. and today the dagga smoker is no longer to be found only among the lower socioeconomic classes.”
Currently, according to the 2nd South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey conducted in 2008 and published last year by the Medical Research Council, there’s a 10% prevalence in dagga use among all young people between 12 and 18 years.

This amounts to about one million of South Africa’s estimated 49.9?million total population.

A report by the Human Sciences Research Council on user trends in the country notes that at least 2% (more than 580 000) of South African adults have used dagga in the past month.

The same research suggests that the prevalence of use in South Africa, 3.2% of the total population, is higher than that of Asia (2.1%) and South America (2.6%).

According to Mannie, a recovering drug addict for the past 17 years and the current chairperson on public information for Narcotics Anonymous in Gauteng, at least 80% of people in the fellowship started on dagga.

He says: “The use in South Africa is widespread and this then leads to heavier drugs such as tik, mandrax, cat, crack and heroin. What you will also find is that dagga is used as a recreational drug and people don’t realise the implications of the progression to harder, stronger drugs.”

As we get to Dan’s apartment, he begins rolling a joint.

He admits to having used harder drugs like ecstasy and LSD recreationally, “maybe once or twice”, but says he hasn’t “felt their pull factor”.

He takes his first drag and exhales the thick smoke.

A few drags later, his eyes are glazed and he wears a smirk. “Relax, man, you only become addicted to crack if you really want to,” he says.

But Mannie paints a different picture. “People new in recovery believe that dagga is okay, but the disease is one of denial and addicts will want a high,” he says. *?Not their real names

» Help for addicts: Narcotics Anonymous 24-hour helpline 0?083 900 69?62

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