Propaganja' Aims to Clear Up the Haze About Dagga {2004} Despite the rain, May…

Propaganja’ Aims to Clear Up the Haze About Dagga {2004}

Despite the rain, May Day saw about 120 people make their way to the closed gates of Parliament in Cape Town. This was South Africa’s attempt at joining 160 other cities in the Global Marijuana March.

The numbers were telling of the obscurity of the dagga debate but did not nearly represent South Africa’s estimated 1-million smokers.

The turn-up was nevertheless colourful: barefooted youth with little hope in their eyes rolled joints while soft-skinned beauties with dirty hair brandished “legalise it” posters. Rasta brothers with bling-bling outfits zealously shared their views with a journalist from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Numerous self-styled gurus clutched research documents on dagga as an alternative energy resource, dagga as medicine, and dagga for building houses. Joints, bottled water and ganja muffins were passed around while the police kept their pose.

Rightly so, says organiser of the march, Andre du Plessis, because there is more to dagga than dope.

The emphasis on the narcotic qualities of a herb that for centuries has been a matter-of-fact feature of life in southern Africa, has obscured its economic potential as a source of oil, paper, fabrics, the ingredient for soaps and wax and – mixed with lime – as a cheap, strong brick.

This potential, Du Plessis and others argue, highlights the need to think differently about a substance that is the subject chiefly of criminal investigation, while taking too much blame for social ills. At the end of last year 4,269 people found themselves in South African jails for the use or possession of cannabis, and 1,207 for the trade or cultivation of cannabis.

Yet the focus is on waging what is arguably an apparently wasteful war on an “enemy” that just won’t go away. The sums involved are immense. Just last year, the SA Police Service’s organised crime unit seized about 5,038kg of dagga from individuals, 99 939kg from traders and 754,913kg from plantations. This excluded cannabis confiscated by uniformed police.

Cannabis, for the police, has the lure of a siren: Parliament was told last year how Philippi residents, having failed to get attention from the Nyanga police to report a rape case, fabricated a “tip-off” about a stash of dagga. The police sent five cars. But for all their bravado, police seem to be fighting a losing battle. An estimated 1-million South Africans regularly break the law with impunity. And raids fail to reduce the demand. A decline in supply merely means consumers have to pay a bit more.

And that bit more doesn’t go to the rural growers, whose livelihood often depends on their crop, but to drug lords. Some argue that more vigorous policing of the dagga trade, far from curbing its use, hikes profits and indirectly stimulates syndicate crime.

Prohibition has created a black market. Why, then, was dagga made illegal in the first place?

Was it because it posed a health risk?

Was it because it threatened the textile industry?

Or because international conventions compelled South Africa to outlaw it?

The answer is complex, and in many ways obscure. Assumption-buster Du Plessis, a systems engineer in the IT industry, has been pursuing the answer since 1998. He found that the initial reason for outlawing dagga had nothing to do with the plant’s narcotic qualities, but with the threat it posed to cotton and other industries.

Numerous laws on dagga in the 20th century were possibly racially discriminatory, and thus – or so Du Plessis thinks – unconstitutional. When Minister of Information Connie Mulder introduced the Dagga Act in 1971, he described dagga as a national emergency, arguing that white army conscripts would be demotivated, and social interaction between black and white youth would occur, if dagga was not criminalised.

Du Plessis also found out that, if legalised, cannabis could take its place as a competitive product in the petrochemical, construction, paper, pulp and textile industries. Believing that dagga could significantly contribute to reducing the housing backlog, and generate jobs, he set out to share his findings, to spread, as he puts it, “propaganja”. He was not well received.

In 2001, Du Plessis approached the Innovation Fund with a proposal as thick as a Bible. In light of the housing shortfall, estimated to be 400 000 units per year, he pointed out that houses could be built using bricks made of shredded cannabis stalks – or hurd – and lime. The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, which then managed the fund, thought he was crazy.

According to Du Plessis, it would be possible to build a hurd-brick house three times the size of a typical RDP house, for the same price. Besides being cheaper, bricks made from cannabis are, he argued, stronger, more sound-proof and a better thermal insulator than clay bricks. Du Plessis says his vision of a socially-uplifting cannabis industry was seen as nothing more than the pipedream of a dopehead. Hoping to inspire dialogue around cannabis, Du Plessis led a similar march last year and handed over a petition of 800 signatures to Western Cape Public Protector Gary Pienaar urging the government to rethink their “fundamentalist” approach to dagga. He has yet not heard from the authorities. This year’s march, he says, was to remind government that the sharing of information with the people was an essential part of democracy.

Ten helium balloons filled with hundreds of dagga seeds were released into the air. They were supposed to pop at altitude. But with the help of the wind, they ended up unspectacularly in Parliament’s gardens. Du Plessis was not concerned. For him it was a sign that, one way or another, dagga would get government’s attention.

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