Interpol ranks South Africa as one of the world’s top five exporters of illegal cannabis while government is punting legal cannabis as the cure-call for the country’s covid related economic woes.
Dagga users all over South Africa blew a smoke-ring of relief in 2019 when news filtered through that the government was about to legalise their favourite herb. Smokers and tokers alike expressed anticipation they would no longer have to dodge the drug squads and government spokespeople announced the exciting potential for a huge and lucrative industry based on this green gold, which has been grown and used for centuries in the hills of sunny South Africa.
But the proposed legislation, when it was finally published as a Bill, gathered a big ‘Huh?’ from the general public. In fact, it changed nothing. Far from decriminalising dagga, the new proposed laws simply created confusion.
In a nutshell, medicinal products containing a non-psychoactive extract of cannabis – ‘toothless dagga’ in effect – could be traded freely within limited dilutions and clothing could be made from the ‘harmless’ plant.
Regarding the plant itself – which is what everyone had been getting so excited about … anyone could own unlimited seeds or seedlings, but they could only possess four flowering specimens. An adult person could legally possess 600g of dried cannabis, with a household limit of 1.2kgs, no matter how many adults were in the house.
No-one would be allowed to sell any dagga at all, smoking dagga anywhere outside your own home would still be illegal and offering a free toke to anyone under the age of 15 would be absolutely forbidden.
Furthermore, the much-vaunted ‘green gold’ bonanza had gone up in a puff of smoke. The requirements to obtain a permit for the commercial exploitation of dagga for any purpose whatsoever was so ringed around with conditions and requirements that almost no-one in South Africa would qualify for a permit.
“The government is absolutely paranoid about dagga smokers,” says Charl Henning, administrator at a NGO called Fields of Green for All. “They might admit that cannabis oil for medicinal reasons is permissible, but really, what it is all about, is they do not want us to get high.”
The ‘high’ in dagga comes from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical compound found in the plant that interacts with receptors in your brain. However, cannabis also contains another compound, called cannabidiol, or CBD. Chemically the two are similar, with one important difference: THC gives you a high, while CBD does not.
In South Africa, cannabis sativa is an endemic plant, familiarly growing all over the country. What makes it so popular is that the climatic conditions in South Africa are ideal for naturally high levels of THC. It is rumoured that the government is planning to impose on commercial growers a foreign strain of cannabis (specifically a low THC-strain).
THE CANNABIS CONTRADICTIONS
At the moment, no-one has really qualified for a licence to grow and process cannabis locally, and because of expensive extraction equipment and complicated regulations all CBD oil is currently imported.
“You have this crazy situation,” says Henning, “that people who want to make a business out of cannabis would be forced to import a certain cultivar from overseas, at huge cost, and ignore the local dagga that flourishes in the veld right outside their factory!”
The financial entry level requirement for commercial cultivation of dagga is also extremely high – farmers need to invest between R2million to R3million to get started.
“When this was first announced,” says Henning, “I got so many calls from farmers, excited to think they could grow and sell dagga. But when they discovered that the regulations dictated that the product could only be grown for export and could not be sold locally, that they are compelled to have two years of experience in the formal agricultural industry, invest in a processing plant and comply with this whole raft of requirements and inputs, they lost heart. So, instead of creating an industry that really takes advantage of our amazing local product to empower our small farmers, the only people who can get anything out of this are the large multinational companies – and manufacturers overseas.”
According to Henning, there are four types of use for dagga: traditional, medicinal, industrial and recreational.
For the traditional users – the sangomas and rural people – their cultivation and use are the most pointless and difficult to police.
“But they do still arrest sangomas,” he says. “And they used to spray the fields with glyphosate poison. Now you tell me: what is more dangerous? A mild drug, or the poisonous herbicide that gets into our soil and water?”
The legal medicinal use of cannabis is focussed almost entirely on extracting CBD – the non-psycho-active compound – even though both the CBD and THC oils have apparently significant health benefits.
The industrial use of cannabis is what is commonly called ‘hemp’: the plant contains low levels of THC and the fibre is woven into fabric and fashioned into clothing. Historically, ship’s sails were always woven from hemp – which is where the word ‘canvas’ actually comes from as a corruption of ‘cannabis’.
“But the fourth use is what the government is really worried about,” says Henning. “Recreational users. We prefer to call it responsible adult use. And these users want high levels of THC. So any part of the plant that can conceivably be enjoyed for its relaxing or stimulating properties, that is where these nonsensical and arbitrary restrictions come from.”
Legal experts have pointed out the contradictions inherent in the current restrictions on growing and sharing cannabis plants, saying that they are probably unconstitutional, a violation of personal rights, and the bill was most likely drafted by people who did not understand the plant or the culture associated with ‘responsible adult’ users.
“Why, for example, must an individual without green fingers or sufficient ‘private space’ (i.e. someone not ’empowered’ to grow their own cannabis) be precluded from approaching their ’empowered’ neighbour to purchase said neighbour’s overflow cannabis (much as one may do with home-grown vegetables)?” commented Schindlers Attorneys, experts in cannabis law, in their response to the draft Bill.
“Does the state intend to discriminate against people who are not friendly with other cannabis growers and limit the rights extended in the judgment to those who are?”
Henning is passionate about pointing out that dagga is very far down the list of dangerous intoxicants – a list headed by alcohol – and is an outspoken supporter of a national campaign to have dagga completely legitimised, regulated and taxed.
“We’re not talking about plutonium here,” he says. “Dagga is not a deadly drug. All of this legislation is aimed at the recreational user, in some kind of belief that we are a danger to society. These laws were written by people who don’t know the plant, who think they are still fighting ‘the war on drugs’, and in fact these laws don’t change anything at all.”
Science is still ambivalent about cannabis. Studies have shown that habitual use can lead to memory loss, motor skills impairment, slower brain development and possible links to schizophrenia. In dagga smokers, there are higher risks of bronchitis and lung diseases.
However, this is more to do with the burning of the substance than the substance itself and also occurs with cigarettes.
More and more scientists are starting to agree that the hazards of cannabis are no greater than tobacco or alcohol, and in fact the general health benefits far outweigh the risks. Doctors who have tried both the THC and the CBD versions are impressed with results for pain relief, inflammation control, seizure treatment and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“Dagga is definitely not addictive,” says Henning emphatically. “We do agree that some people abuse dagga, but that is because they are looking for a way to deal with other problems. If they were not abusing dagga, they would be abusing some other substance.”
The biggest let-down, from Henning’s perspective, is that the new laws have not led to a new policing approach. The police are still stuck in a ‘war of drugs’ mentality, with draconian search-and-seize operations the norm.
“It has now become a counting game,” he says. “Police are still raiding people’s homes and they count the number of plants. A dagga arrest counts as a drugs charge. The system is still so corrupt. They arrive with a SWAT team and helicopters and the media in tow, and they bust into people’s homes. They terrorise the residents, demand bribes, steal their belongings, take their dagga for themselves, drag them off and lock them up. Then they brag about their arrest records. I spend most of my time advising people what to do when they are raided, what their rights are, and how they can protect themselves against corrupt police. I am tired now, and a little hopeless.”
The light at the end of the tunnel – which is not the glowing end of a joint – is that the US is in the process of freeing up cannabis use considerably, saying the partial relaxation of laws in that country have had nothing but a positive effect.
“When the US does that, it might change things in South Africa as well,” says Henning. “Usually we follow the US in many things, there seems to be this attitude that we let them make the mistakes.”
THE FINAL WORD ON CANNABIS?
Despite all the so-called misunderstanding, government recently owned up to having penned a draft masterplan to fully commercialise the cannabis industry with its eye apparently set on exporting. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development is reported to wish to relax restrictions to produce a globally competitive industry that would produce product for both local and international use.
Recently, the KZN provincial government even announced that it wanted to make the province the epicentre of cannabis exports and that cannabis farming formed part of its Covid economic recovery plan.
Unsurprisingly, precise details remain sketchy.
All that is certain is that, in South Africa right now, cannabis is available for traditional medicines and as a CBD oil for limited over-the-counter preparations. It can be sold in the form of fabric and clothing. But it is still strictly and violently controlled for recreational users and possible economic utilization.
It seems that the government is happy for you to buy socks, it just does not want you to smoke them!
Reprinted with kind permission from Out and About Africa