Decriminalising dagga can create jobs


IF YOU were told that abuse of a particular drug caused memory lapses and blackouts, even brain damage; increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer of the bowel, breast, liver and other organs; liver disease and a range of mental illnesses, as well as death if you overdose; wouldn’t you think that this is one drug we should surely ban – even though moderate consumption is held to be good for your health?

If you were then told that this drug is involved in one-third of all acts of aggression and over half our road traffic accidents, wouldn’t you be surprised to find that this drug is legal?

But it is. Alcohol is freely available in liquor stores and supermarkets and shebeens. Meanwhile cannabis, said to be a brilliant pain reliever for cancer pain, chronic pain and more, is the drug that’s banned. Even though you cannot die of an overdose of cannabis.

Yes, like alcohol, like many medical drugs (sleeping pills and the like), cannabis can cause damage if indulged in to excess. Yes, it can be a gateway drug (to the use of other harder drugs), but highly accessible alcohol can be too: in a paper published early last year, researchers said "Alcohol was the most widely used substance among respondents, initiated earliest, and also the first substance most commonly used in the progression of substance use."

I knew three drug users years ago: one a neighbour, a wild guy who scored regularly in Woodstock – dagga, which he mixed with ‘buttons’ (Mandrax or methaqualone), and smoked in a ‘witpyp’; another was a lonely giant of a man who had lost wife and child, and smoked one or two joints a day; the third, a madcap daughter of the upper classes who must have spent half her salary on wine and cocktails.

My witpyp-smoking neighbour straightened up miraculously when the obstacles to his marriage fell away, and turned into a solid citizen; so did the gentle giant, who married and morphed into a proud papa when they had a baby.

The rich girl, I hear, partied on until she died some years later in a car accident. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that alcohol was involved.

So it’s always puzzled me why we put energy and resources into hunting down people who smoke weed, while alcohol is legally promoted as glamorous and a cultural signifier. Surely it’s addiction that’s the problem we should be tackling, and not the drug of choice?

When a test case like the Dagga Couple comes to court, I really relish the chance see the science put before the court. We missed out on some of it, of course; the state “delayed the trial in the first week by trying to have all the annexures to the dagga couple's evidence removed from court evidence. They argued it was irrelevant. The annexures included all the scientific studies that were used by expert witnesses to back up their opinions. The state did not win […] but the delay in the trial meant US oncologist Donald Abrams could not testify on medical uses of cannabis...”

Which really annoyed me – the possible medical uses are what I’m really interested in.

Last week, the state and co-defendant Doctors For Life caused further delay – they finally filed evidence, all 4 000 pages of it, which should have been filed back in March. Of course the opposing legal team had to accept a delay in order to “properly consider” those documents.

By the way, does anyone know why the state welcomed Doctors For Life as co-defendant in this matter? It’s a small international organisation with 1 500 members – it’s not clear from the website if that’s all in, or just in South Africa. If the latter, there are more than 35 000 doctors registered in South Africa, so that would be less than 5% of our doctors.

That’s hardly representative. And one of its three goals is a “basic judeo-christian ethic in the medical profession” – at odds with our constitution, which requires equity of religious observance. I don’t understand their prominent role in this.

I have no skin in this game, by the way; it’s been years since I drank a glass of wine, let alone anything else. (My addiction was smoking; I started at 17 and it took me twelve attempts to give it up. Next month, I celebrate 17 years since I succeeded.)

But criminalisation has not worked all that well, globally, as a tactic in the “War on Drugs” – illicit drug use and non-medical use of prescription drugs has expanded hugely during that war.

Decriminalisation, on the other hand, has its successes: despite condemning Portugal’s policy of decriminalising drugs 16 years ago, when it was initiated, the UN now calls it “best practice”  – it’s achieved success by treating addicts as patients, not criminals.

Police and public figures want Australia to follow suit: “The Australia 21 report proposes redefining drugs as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal justice one – an approach that has been adopted in 11 states of the US, several western European countries, India, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and many other countries...” Ireland, too, has welcomed possible decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.

Why should South Africa, too, not redirect resources and funds to treating addicts, rather than making criminals of users, especially of ‘soft’ drugs like cannabis and Psilocybin mushrooms? Then those with medical conditions can take advantage of their therapeutic uses too.

And just by the way, South Africa could have a new, job-creating industry, too.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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