Dagga clouds Polly's feat

Johannesburg - Where there is smoke there is fire, or so South Africa's cricketers are likely to discover when they return home on Saturday from their tour to the West Indies.

A massive public debate has been triggered by the revelation that six members of the touring party admitted smoking marijuana in an Antigua hotel room to celebrate South Africa's fourth Test win over West Indies on April 10.

The guilty players were Herschelle Gibbs, Andre Nel, Justin Kemp, Paul Adams and Roger Telemachus, along with team physiotherapist Craig Smith.

The tourists went on to win both the Test and one-day international series, becoming the first visiting side in the Caribbean to triumph in both formats of the game on the same tour.

South Africa's sport-saturated media has, however, been filled with arguments for and against the dope smoking of the six, who were each fined 10 000 rand ($1 250) and reprimanded by a tour misconduct committee comprising management and senior players.

A redesigned South African cricket badge with a marijuana leaf as its centrepiece, instead of the official protea flower, is doing the rounds on the internet.

Gibbs, meanwhile, faces a possible three-match ban over the affair, after being given a suspended ban and a fine following a reprimand for "unbecoming conduct" during a one-day series against Australia last year.

Breaking curfew

He was punished for visiting a nightclub on the eve of a match and breaking a team curfew.

Gibbs' fate is due to be made known by the United Cricket Board this weekend.

The death of a 15-year-old Cape Town girl, Hayley Simmonds, from an ecstasy and heroin overdose last week has further heightened the debate over South Africa's growing drug problem.

Recreational use of marijuana, commonly known as dagga, was made illegal in South Africa in 1971, but sales of the drug are worth $18 billion annually and growing dagga is a major industry in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and the impoverished Eastern Cape.

Anti-drug campaigners describe marijuana as a "gateway" drug that leads smokers to more lethal substances, and the Cape Times reported in April that "since 1997, there has been a 400 percent increase in consumption of heroin (in South Africa), while the average age of users has dropped from 23 to 21 years".

But there have been widespread calls in South Africa for the decriminalisation of marijuana, among them veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman.

"The controlled use of dagga should be permitted," former MP Suzman wrote in a letter to the press in April. "For recreational purposes, it is far less harmful than alcohol. It has many medical uses.

Cash crop

"Legalising dagga would encourage the growing of hemp, from which it is derived. Paper, cloth and other substances are also by-products of hemp, an easy cash crop to grow, and a useful source of income for impoverished, rural people.

"Our politicians should grasp the nettle and deal with South Africa's outmoded attitude towards dagga."

Asked for her view of the six South African cricketers who admitted smoking cannabis, Suzman replied, "So what?"

Several letters to newspapers have strongly decried the actions of the six players.

"I hope our dagga-smoking cricketers will be kicked out of the team once and for all," read a letter in the Cape Times. "They should be banned from playing cricket entirely. They are a disgrace to our country and their supporters."

However, the players also have their supporters, among them another letter writer to the Cape Times.

"I agree that these cricketers are role models, and have not set the best example and that dagga abuse is a serious and real problem in our country today - so are alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse," the letter read.

"I just can't relate to the hypocritical outcry from various sectors - essentially, all you had here was a group of consenting adults 'letting off a bit of steam' (pun intended) in the privacy of their hotel room after a stressful and historic Test series win.

"A bit like pouring a scotch or two when you come home after a hard day at the office, wouldn't you say? And far safer if you intend driving afterwards."

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