SA debates dagga legalisation
Last year, the cost of arresting, processing and convicting the 23 000 marijuana suspects came to R38-million while the value of the confiscated drugs was R12-million
Mario Oriani-Ambrosoni is often heard laying into the government from opposition benches in parliament.
But on January 19 this year, the Inkatha Freedom Party Member of Parliament dispensed with his usually contrived animosity towards his “nemesis” to ask a bemused Jacob Zuma to champion an equally unusual cause – legalisation of marijuana.
“I’m speaking to you today somehow as a changed man, not to oppose, but to plead with you to provide the laws on behalf of many people in my condition who do not have a voice,” Oriani-Ambrosoni said when debating the president’s State of the nation speech.
“I was supposed to die many months ago and I am here because I had the courage of taking illegal treatments in Italy in the form of bicarbonate of soda and here in South Africa in the form of cannabis, marijuana or dagga,” he told a stunned house.
Oriani-Ambrosoni’s push for the centuries old ban on the pervasive use of the drug to be lifted has touched off conflicting reactions but more importantly has placed the topic back on the national agenda. Parliament is now debating a bill which seeks to decriminalise marijuana, cannabis or dagga as it is more commonly known around Southern Africa.
The Medical Innovation Bill aims to make provision for innovations in medical treatments by legalising the use of cannabis for medical, economic and industrial purposes.
While those caught with small amounts of the drug that continues to split public opinion down the middle are rarely prosecuted, cultivation and sell of marijuana have been illegal in South Africa since 1928.
The bill in its current form is cold comfort to people who use the drug for recreational purposes as government is planning to decriminalise possession mainly for medicinal purposes.
Across South Africa, the drug which was introduced to the country from Asia is used in religious ceremonies and as herbal medicine in some cultures.
The debate surrounding its use and whether it should be decriminalised, or even legalised, has been further fuelled by the drug’s legalisation in Uruguay and the US states of Colorado and Washington.
“We know that dagga is illegal in the country but because of poverty and hunger we trade it. We risk our freedom because of hunger and lack of jobs,” said Tefo Moloi a small cross-border drug dealer in QwaQwa on Monday this week.
“We purchase the dagga in Lesotho. Bringing the drug across into the country is not easy as we risk arrest and even being shot by law enforcement officers,” added Moloi.
Taxi driver, Sello Kopu, from Ficksburg who plies the QwaQwa route chipped in: “I think they should just legalise dagga as maintaining a ban on its use is virtually impossible. Everyday large quantities of the drug are smuggled across the border from Lesotho through unmanned points. It would require a massive deployment of police officers to effectively stop the traffickers.”
Kopu narrated how he once narrowly escaped arrest after police at a checkpoint found a bagful of dagga on his taxi which all his passengers disowned.
“It was impossible to identify the owner of the bag as we are not allowed to search passengers’ possessions when they board. We only make sure their bags are properly loaded on the buses. If we suspect something sinister we call the police,” he said.
Casual use of dagga is common among students, with some claiming it helps them cope with stress, especially around exam time.
University of Free State (UFS) Political Studies and Governance QwaQwa campus student, Lebohang Mofokeng, claimed in an interview on Tuesday this week the drug helps him focus when studying.
“I only smoke when I am under pressure and want to gain stamina to read for examinations. That has worked well for me so far but I am not addicted.”
But some of those who would be affected by any change in the law are not so sure about the supposed positive impact of dagga on society. Some like community worker and psychology graduate Sipho Mnyakene argue the drug is addictive, dangerous and ruins lives and families.
She cautioned against hasty changes to laws clamping down on uncontrolled use of dagga before widespread studies on how this will reshape societal norms and impact people’s health.
“I do not condone use of dagga. I have only seen its negative impact on those who smoke including loss of memory, people acting like they are seeing things or even going crazy. But if it is used for medicinal purposes I have no problem with that,” said Mnyakene on Wednesday this week.
The UFS graduate said dagga users are often irrational, irritable and prone to offending to feed their habit.
A QwaQwa based medical doctor backed Mnyakene in principle while throwing the gauntlet to supporters of decriminalisation.
“Every drug when it is not used appropriately can do more harm than good. So if there are some medical experts who can prove that dagga controls cancer that would be acceptable. However compliance with instructions must be adhered to because dagga is known for drugging people,” said Dr Simon Mokoena of Dikoena Surgery on Wednesday. In stark contrast, reformed dagga addict Lejone Pule vehemently opposes decriminalisation.
“I have done things that I regret. Dagga makes people callous and careless. In some instances, it induces a false sense of bravado which can be addictive and costly. ”
In this connection, the United Nations (UN) in 1961 passed the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs Treaty, which banned drugs such as cannabis around the world.
The convention enjoins member states to adopt strict