Why dagga should be legalised

2012-04-11 00:00

IT was 2 am on a cold August night last year when six screaming and heavily armed members of the SA Police Service 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, some court-ordered operation on a heavily fortified residence belonging to a member of organised crime or a raid on the house of a government official suspected of serious corruption. 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 hosts a range of public social, creative and therapeutic activities (some of which involve the use of dagga) as part of a small business called the Jazzfarm just outside Johannesburg — 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”, as they were branded by the media once news of the incident got out, have decided to mount a constitutional challenge to the South African law (the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, No 142 of 1992) that criminalises the possession and use of dagga. In their own words, they want to “stand up and fight the law to change the root of the problem”.

Like the dagga plant itself, that root is surrounded by a great deal of prejudice, misinformation, assumption and downright ignorance. As Stobbs and Clarke’s founding affidavit for their case shows, “the word ‘dagga’ originates from an old Khoi word, dacha’, which was the original name for the cannabis plant … 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” even as it has also become the popular name in South Africa (and thus is used in this article) for what is globally known as cannabis.

Wrapped around this ideologically infused linguistic manipulation is a history of which, no doubt, few South Africans are aware. South Africa 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”. In other words, the historic legal basis on which the criminalisation of dagga rests, and has always rested in South Africa, is inherently racist.

When it comes to the properties of the plant itself — and noting that the cannabis plant has been used, in one way or another, 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 SAPS), which have now filed replying legal papers in opposition to Stobbs and Clarke’s case, baldly state that dagga “negatively affects the psychological wellbeing of users” and that “the purpose of prohibition is to protect the health and wellbeing 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, which reflect the standard line of a majority of governments across the globe, directly contradict hundreds of scientific and medical studies and surveys conducted over decades which conclusively show, time and again, that dagga contains a wide range of positive medicinal and therapeutic properties. These include treatment for, among others, various cancers, autism, diabetes, hepatitis C, glaucoma, skin allergies, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression. Likewise, an overwhelming preponderance 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 a published article in the South African Medical Journal by its own editor, Dr JP van Niekerk. Besides detailing the long history of the use of dagga for many social and spiritual purposes, Van Niekerk cites a recent medical study in the United Kingdom which shows that dagga is far down the list of harmful drugs, while alcohol and tobacco (both legal) alongside several other drugs that can be legally procured are far higher up the list. According to Van Niekerk, the current classification of drugs is “unscientific and arbitrary” and what we need is an evidence-based approach and formal assessment of harm when it comes to dagga.

Possibly the most astounding fact of all when it comes to the health-related and overall social effects of dagga use is that “there is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality”. This is contained in a late eighties United States Department of Justice “findings of fact” legal matter by administrative judge Francis Young, who notes that a dagga smoker would need to consume around 680 kilograms within 15 minutes “to induce a lethal response”.

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; leaves for mulch and compost; hemp seed oil for things such cooking oil, soaps, cosmetics, lotions, oil paints and industrial lubricants; and the stalk for products like paper, packaging, industrial textiles, clothing and various building materials.

The reality is that there are potentially massive social, medicinal and economic benefits of decriminalising dagga (hemp) production and use. This is especially relevant in respect of poverty-stricken rural communities such as those in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape where dagga is already de facto, one of the main (currently illegal) sustaining cash crops.

As has been shown the world over, and South Africa is no exception, the continued criminalisation of dagga has only served to catalyse its production and distribution by organised crime. Only just last year, the City Municipality of Copenhagen overwhelmingly voted to legalise dagga. Its spokesperson declared that “decriminalising cannabis is the best way to fight organised crime”.

Continued prohibition makes ordinary people who are simply trying either to make a living and/or enjoy the social pleasures of a joint, criminals, effective enemies of the state. Not only is the enforcement unnecessarily draining our national fiscus of a large amount of funds but it is also wasting the time and resources of law enforcement agencies and further incubating corruption within their ranks. Besides general populations, the medical community and increasing numbers of politicians, there are growing calls from law enforcement personnel themselves, including a national resolution some years back from our own Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), for decriminalisation.

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 Clarke who desire a rational and informed debate around decriminalising dagga, but also millions of others in South Africa who grow and use the plant.

• Dr Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist. This article first appeared on the website of The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za).

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