Decriminalising Dagga: Let a Real Debate Begin

By Dale T. McKinley · 10 Apr 2012

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Picture: Brian Robert Marshall
Picture: Brian Robert Marshall

It was 2am on a cold August night last year when six screaming and heavily armed members of the SA Police Services forcibly removed their driveway gate and tried to bash down their kitchen door.

But, this wasn’t a stealthily planned arrest of much-sought after murderers, some court-ordered operation on a heavily fortified residence belonging to a member of organised crime or a raid on the house of a government official suspected of serious corruption. No, it was members of a police dog unit without a warrant, ostensibly looking for a ‘drug lab’ on the small-holding of two ordinary citizens who also happen to be recreational dagga smokers.

For the next five hours, Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke - whose residence hosts a range of public social, creative and therapeutic activities (some of which involve the use of dagga) as part of a small business called the ‘Jazzfarm’ just outside Johannesburg - were subjected to verbal and physical abuse and threatened with violence. After their house and adjoining cottages had been virtually ransacked, the police ‘seized’ a small quantity of dagga and hauled them off to a local police station. After being charged with possession of dagga, they were eventually released after posting bail several hours later.

Instead of taking the easy way out and paying a bribe to make the charges go away, the ‘dagga couple’ - as they were branded by the media once news of the incident got out – have decided to mount a constitutional challenge to the South African law (the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, No. 142 of 1992) that criminalises the possession and use of dagga. In their own words, they want to “stand up and fight the law to change the root of the problem”.

Like the dagga plant itself, that root is surrounded by a great deal of prejudice, misinformation, assumption and downright ignorance. As Julian and Myrtle’s founding affidavit for their case shows, “the word ‘dagga’ originates from an old Khoi word - ‘dacha’ - which was the original name for the cannabis plant … this was then ‘Afrikanerised’ by the authorities such that the phonetic ‘Ga’ – an expression of disgust in Afrikaans – was incorporated into the word for its emotional effect.” As a result, “dagga has since become a highly stigmatised and sensitive word” even as it has also become the popular name in South Africa (and thus is used in this article) for what is globally known as cannabis.

Wrapped around this ideologically-infused linguistic manipulation is a history of which, no doubt, few South Africans are aware. South Africa holds the dubious ‘honour’ of being the first country to enact a specific law prohibiting the use of dagga. This happened in 1878 when the ‘Christian’ colonial government “tried to prevent Indian indentured labour from using their sacrament, cannabis, in a bid to convert them to Christianity”. Consistent with the racist nature of most laws passed over the next several decades, the initial anti-dagga law only applied to Indians and was then extended in 1923 “on the grounds that cannabis made mine labour lazy”. In other words, the historic legal basis on which the criminalisation of dagga rests, and has always rested in South Africa, is inherently racist.

When it comes to the properties of the plant itself – and noting that the cannabis plant has been used, in one way or another, by human beings for thousands of years – the ‘root of the problem’ is further entangled by historicised layers of embedded ‘anti’ propaganda. Indeed, the various South African government departments (including Justice, Health, International Relations, Social Development and the Police) who have now filed replying legal papers in opposition to Julian and Myrtle’s case, baldly state that dagga “negatively affects the psychological well being of users” and that “the purpose of prohibition is to protect the health and well being of persons affected by the use and possession of cannabis …”.  No surprise then that for them, there is no “public interest” in changing the existing law.

Such statements - which reflect the standard ‘line’ of a majority of governments across the globe - directly contradict hundreds of scientific and medical studies/surveys conducted over decades which conclusively show, time and again, that dagga contains a wide range of positive medicinal and therapeutic properties. These include treatment for amongst others, various cancers, autism, diabetes, hepatitis C, glaucoma, skin allergies, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression. Likewise, an overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence shows that the dagga plant contains no narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-forming properties.

The latest, localised confirmation of this is contained in a published article in the South African Medical Journal by its own editor, Dr. Van Niekerk. Besides detailing the long history of the use of dagga for many social and spiritual purposes, Dr. Van Niekerk cites a recent medical study in the United Kingdom which shows that dagga is far down the list of harmful ‘drugs’, while alcohol and tobacco (both legal) alongside several other drugs that can be legally procured are far higher up the list. According to Dr. Van Niekerk, the current classification of drugs is “unscientific and arbitrary” and what we need is an evidence-based approach and formal assessment of harm when it comes to dagga.

Possibly the most astounding fact of all when it comes to the health-related and overall social effects of dagga use is that “there is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality”. This is contained in a late 1980s United States Department of Justice ‘findings of fact’ legal matter by Administrative Judge Francis Young, who notes that a dagga smoker would need to consume around 680 kilograms within 15 minutes “to induce a lethal response”.

The dagga plant however, is constituted by far more than it’s most well known active ‘ingredient’ – Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Those varieties of the plant with little or no THC content - commonly known as hemp – have a huge range of economic uses. These include: using the whole plant for animal feedstock; leaves for mulch and compost; hempseed oil for things such cooking oil, soaps, cosmetics, lotions, oil paints and industrial lubricants; and, the stalk for products like paper, packaging, industrial textiles, clothing and various building materials.

The reality is that there are potentially massive social, medicinal and economic benefits of decriminalising dagga (hemp) production and use. This is especially relevant in respect of poverty-stricken rural communities such as those in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape where dagga is already de facto, one of the main (presently illegal) sustaining cash crops.

As has been shown the world over – and South Africa is no exception - the continued criminalisation of dagga has only served to catalyse its production and distribution by organised crime. Only just last year, the City Municipality of Copenhagen overwhelmingly voted to legalise dagga. Its spokesperson declared that, “decriminalising cannabis is the best way to fight organised crime … we hope other countries will change their views and do their own research, instead of relying on research done 50 years ago by organisations which ended up benefiting from the criminalisation."

Continued prohibition makes ordinary people who are simply trying to either make a living and/or enjoy the social pleasures of a joint, criminals, effective ‘enemies of the state’. Not only is the enforcement unnecessarily draining our national fiscus of large amount of funds but it is also wasting the time and resources of law enforcement agencies and further incubating corruption within their ranks. Besides general populations, the medical community and increasing numbers of politicians, there are growing calls from law enforcement personnel themselves - including a national resolution some years back from our own POPCRU - for decriminalisation. In the words of Dr. Van Niekerk, “using dagga may be a vice [like so many others that we as human beings engage in] but it should not be a crime”.

We should not continue to allow misinformation, prejudice and ignorance to frame any of our social, political and economic issues and challenges. In this case, it is not only Julian and Myrtle who desire a rational and informed debate around decriminalising dagga but also millions of others in South Africa who grow and use the plant. There is no better time for us all to engage in such a debate.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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10 Apr


Brilliant article, thank you Dr. McKinley.

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2 May

Spread the Word

Brilliant article Doc. Spread the word - something needs to be done and soon!!

TreeSpirit Verified user
10 Apr

Just what the pro-cannabis movement needs

Thank you ever so much for this sterlingly elucidating article Dr. McKinley. The word needs to get out that we as law abiding South Africans are sick to death of being persecuted for utilising a naturally occurring plant, which is far less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco. Why should we not be able to use such a benign substance in the privacy of our own homes? We are NOT causing harm to anyone else. The laws against cannabis are rooted in racial discrimination, which especially given our country's history makes it all the more necessary for them to be repealed. I hope there are more articles like this to come. Well done for having the backbone to write your article without fear or favour. Jules and Myrtle are two of the most inspiring people I've had the chance to meet and while they certainly don't deserve to have had to go through this there could not be a more suitable pair to take on the challenge of standing up for their rights on this issue.

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10 Apr

Cape Town Global Marijuana March

May 5, 2012 Global Marijuana March:

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