Book Review: Seeing the forest for the weed


Dagga: A Short History by Hazel Crampton


99 pages

R132 at


This short contribution from Hazel Crampton is recommended reading whether you have used dagga, still intend to or never will.

The plant plays a big role in South African society, and the ignorance that has surrounded it has not only devastated lives and communities but arguably holds back the country’s development. Legislation around “the herb” has also become a major contributing factor to inequality, particularly in rural areas.

Before I read this conversation piece, I was (presumably) like a lot of people who didn’t care one way or the other if dagga is legalised. But having considered the historical and contemporary facts in Dagga: A Short History, I’m convinced that whether dagga is decriminalised for recreational use or not, the plant’s continued hypercriminalisation is hyperwrong. Such attitudes appear to be a holdover from our apartheid past, when they were part of the racialisation of drug use and the obsession with controlling the lives of “the natives”. Prior to that, dagga was commonly used in Afrikaner recipes and remedies, sold over counters and advertised in newspapers. It’s been illegal for less than 100 years, but been a part of African history for perhaps 10 times longer.

Dagga has also, not coincidentally, been classed worldwide among the far more dangerous opiate-based drugs for nearly a century, an example of what Crampton considers an unfortunate case of “mistaken identity”, the history of which she explains.

In addition, she presents both old and new findings about the medicinal qualities of dagga, and deals with each of the concerns and criticisms about this highly contested substance. Ultimately, she dismisses the “gateway drug” idea that a dagga smoker will of necessity graduate to harder drugs and also points out that the link between its active compound, THC, and schizophrenia appears in the main to be that schizophrenics are drawn to smoking dagga, not that dagga causes schizophrenia. The smoke is indeed carcinogenic, but there are ways of limiting this problem: you could just eat your dagga.

Crampton’s harshest criticism is reserved for the so-called Drugs Act of 1971, which imposes strict penalties and a minimum sentence of 15 years on anyone found in possession of 115 grams or more of dagga, with a 25-year minimum for any subsequent conviction. It also reduces the burden of proof on the state, as it is up to “the dealer” to prove his or her innocence. The law remains nearly as punitive 21 years into our democracy – and it costs us upwards of R250 000 to arrest and convict a dagga “criminal” while our prisons burst at the seams.

This in a country struggling to find the money for the free education it was promised, and where the untaxed black market in dagga is worth billions. In 1994, it was already estimated that South Africa produced 180 000 illicit tons of dagga annually. And, to make matters worse, this year police helicopters took to throwing plant-killing glyphosate on fields in the former Transkei as part of the “war on drugs”, in the process wiping out much-needed food crops.

Only criminal syndicates appear to be better off and richer because of prohibition.

Crampton is best known for books that take one on near-fantastical trips into South Africa’s past, and there are a few moments of historical speculation that are presented as fact here, but it’s nevertheless compelling. It seems perfectly reasonable to accept that dagga has been used in southern Africa for more than 1 000 years, from Great Zimbabwe to the shores of the Western Cape, where Jan van Riebeeck first wrote about it in 1658. Incidentally, Crampton also writes that there’s evidence that the Israelites of the Bible smoked dagga for religious purposes.

The rest of the world appears well ahead of us in the rush to decriminalise Cannabis sativa and enjoy the economic boost that taxing its regulated sale brings.

How long before our legislators can peer through the smoke and see the forest for the weed?

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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