Growing the green

2017-04-23 06:00
(AP)

(AP)

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Farmer Brown, the owner of an 86-hectare mealie farm in northern South Africa, was the target of a major drug raid by police a few weeks ago, which saw the confiscation and destruction of his “medical garden”.

Furious but undeterred, he apologises with a string of laughing emojis for not getting back to me sooner.

“Sorry, but I’m busy pharming here,” he writes.

The witty agricultural specialist and medical marijuana champion was caught during the raid while he was in his kitchen making medical marijuana coconut tinctures, which he uses topically and orally for an array of personal health issues.

“It was an anonymous tip-off from someone nearby,” he tells me when I ask how his small crop came to light. “But thousands of people are doing this in the farming community. Some are doing it for medicinal reasons, others for recreational use – big commercial farmers, and the guy in the mountains just growing for his own medicine. But there are definitely thousands of people doing it, even more so now that we can see there are some conscious people who have the sense to make it easier for South Africans who actually need the plant.”

The conscious people Farmer Brown is referring to are a dedicated network of social activists committed to seeing the “relegalisation” of marijuana in South Africa. The network is steered by Johannesburg’s infamous Dagga Couple, Myrtle Clarke and Julian Stobbs; Jeremy Acton from the Dagga Party of SA; the Rastafari community; and the late MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, whose dying wish in 2014 was to see dagga decriminalised in South Africa.

The road to legality

Legal weed is quickly becoming a reality in South Africa. On March 31, Acton’s five dagga-related charges dating from 2011 were deemed unconstitutional by the Western Cape High Court – a major win for those defending him and for those who stand to benefit from the outcome.

On the same day that President Jacob Zuma fired our finance minister, headlines around the world pronounced: “Cannabis can now be grown, smoked at home, court rules” (The Citizen); “Marijuana Now Legal in South Africa” (Indian Spice), and “South African Court OKs Marijuana for Home Use” (Voice of America).

But since then, the Dagga Couple says, 12 people have been arrested for marijuana possession and use.

“It’s partly our fault, actually,” Clarke tells me this week when I ask why there was confusion over the law.

“We clicked ‘send’ on our press release as soon as the ruling was announced, but should’ve written something a little less, well ... when we were less excited for everyone. We’ve sent out a lot of follow-ups since then – about putting the cart before the horse – and, hopefully, the message is getting out there. But our advice to everyone for now is to behave like nothing happened; to protect themselves like they did before the ruling.”

So what’s the big deal about the court’s findings?

Paul-Michael Keichel from Schindlers Attorneys, which represents the Dagga Couple, says: “The ‘big deal’ is that, if the Constitutional Court confirms this decision, South Africa has effectively legalised the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis. Currently, the law ‘prohibits the use of cannabis by an adult in a private dwelling where the possession, purchase or cultivation of cannabis is for personal consumption by an adult’.

“Pending the Constitutional Court’s decision, South Africans have been afforded a defence that they didn’t have before. This is a big deal if the consequences of this interim order filter down to those enforcing the prohibitory laws,” Keichel says.

But it takes a long time for the law to catch up with the people on the ground who enforce it.

In the meantime, Keichel says: “A grower and a user cannot, presently, protect themselves against being arrested by members of the police who do not understand, or have been misled in respect of, Judge Dennis Davis’ judgment.

“However, if their use and/or cultivation falls within the parameters expressed in paragraph 3 of the order, they can escape prosecution.

The best thing for now is to accept the current state of confusion and not invite trouble until further green lights have
been lit.”

Join the queue

For Farmer Brown and thousands of others who have been arrested for the use of or cultivation of dagga, there is still time to Join the Queue, a joint initiative between the nonprofit company Fields of Green for All and the Dagga Couple. It was established to provide access to legal information and to outline the options available to South Africans who face cannabis-related criminal charges.

The organisation is pushing for all arrested parties to apply for a stay of prosecution that should see their cases postponed until the outcome of a bigger case – the Dagga Couple’s now infamous Trial of the Plant, which will seek to relegalise marijuana in South Africa. The case is set down to be heard by Gauteng’s Judge President from July 31 to August 25.

“It’s not nice being arrested,” Farmer Brown tells me. “They put you in a cell with rapists. For you to be in the hands and cross hairs of the police is not a good thing. The one guy was like: ‘Yeah, guys. Sorry, we’re just doing our jobs.’ I agree with this. But remember, the police during apartheid were also ‘doing their jobs’. It’s nonsense – they’re wrong and they’ll see it when the trial comes around.

“At the end of the day, the product is agricultural and medicinal. I can get fibre and food from the same plant that you smoke. I can literally build a house with it. There are more than 40 derivatives from one plant – not even mealies can do that,” Farmer Brown says.

Growing the green

Thousands of people have applied for licences to grow the plant as they hope that the Dagga Couple win the case.

“The fact of the matter is that this cannabis business is already happening – from the townships to the penthouses of Sandton. I heard a great quote the other day: ‘The success of a country’s drug policy can only be measured by the size of its black market.’ This says a lot about us right now,” says Clarke.

I spoke to one of the “Sandton penthouse” growers this week. He is someone who is operating at a much higher, more professional level of production. Known as Manhattan Silver, he urges: “Don’t be scared to grow.”

He has not been arrested, but says that it’s “equality before the law” that we need right now, and that he will do anything to support the Dagga Couple.

Manhattan Silver has been a consultant for many of the so-called growops operating in Johannesburg, the number of which he declines to reveal.

“I’ve had some lovely tea and scones at the set-ups I do,” he tells me.

“I would advise anyone wanting to get into growing to start small and pay your school fees. Begin with some bag seed and go back to the basics of growing. There are some growshops you can visit locally that will help you with all the equipment you need.”

For the basics, he suggests stores such as greenthumb.co.za for supplies, and there are a number of online sites that sell seeds that a quick Google search will reveal. The seeds are at this stage still illegal, but the internet is full of sites selling them – when one shuts down, another pops up in its place. Another option, Manhattan Silver tells me, is to ask a friend who uses dagga for some of their leftover seeds, which you can germinate.

Farmer Brown says: “Stay organic! If you want to expand into something more electronic later, you can, but start with something basic.
“Put it in the ground, wait for the season, and give it some sun. There are ways of doing it nicely – have a nice, clean garden. But leave the breeding to the guys who want to do it.”

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