DEAR older generation. You were wrong about apartheid, you were wrong about same-sex marriage, and you were wrong about dagga. When the Western Cape High Court affirmed the rights of all citizens to the use and cultivation of dagga in the privacy of our own homes, thus suspending the drug laws for two years and allowing Parliament to amend the legislation, it corrected an historical wrong committed by the past regime.
The first law prohibiting the sale of dagga was put in motion by the colonial authorities in 1910. Following racist campaigns against the plant in America by William Randolf Hearst, who believed the use of dagga resulted in fraternisation between the races, in particular the scourge of white women consorting with black men, the world saw the roll-out of laws aimed at limiting dagga use. South Africa thus became a signatory to various international conventions, each one reducing the scope of the plant’s use, until the final scheduling of the plant alongside Heroin and other hard drugs.
Dagga use was thus synonymous with the counter-culture surrounding the anti-apartheid movement, in turn the apartheid state pilloried activists as mere ‘drug-users’ wanting to create mayhem to overthrow the state. Law and order was thus contingent upon the banning of people’s consciousness and our innate rights to freedom of thought. Alongside the Botha government’s Bureau of State Security (BOSS), the narc squad and thought police, armed with an ideology supplied by the NGK, which had decreed race segregation to be divinely inspired by God and the Afrikaner grip over the African hinterland to be the result of a “Covenant at Blood River”.
When the ANC finally came into power, there was every indication that dagga-smoking revolutionaries were going to legalise the herb whilst recognising the contribution to the struggle by the Jamaican Defense Force. Instead, activists like Trevor Manual exchanged their berets, dashikis and the proverbial stash, for bespoke suits, champagne and cognac. The transformation of the liberation movement into a political bureaucracy built upon corporate largesse meant that adopting the white man’s laws alongside those UN conventions supporting prohibition was now paramount.
All of this toenadering came tumbling down this week, as the Zuma administration revealed itself to be nothing more than a personal fiefdom without the support of the party, and as the President fired half his cabinet, retaining the controversial Bathabile Dlamini, the burial of struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada turned into a platform for criticism, then private dagga use was suddenly given the greenlight.
It was thus a momentous moment on Friday which saw the supporters of the Dagga Party and Gareth Prince, celebrating outside the High court. The ruling by three judges overtook political events and removed the wind from of the sails of those kind souls hoping that a parallel legislative process surrounding the use of medical marijuana would finally lead to a new regulatory environment, albeit over the slow pace of the coming decades.
The Medical Innovations Act, whose regulations are still being discussed, certainly opens the door, moving the plant from the domain of criminal law to that of public health, but the decision of the Western Cape High Court meant that constitutional considerations and private use, in particular harm reduction, will be paramount. It is merely a formality that the decision will be confirmed by the ConCourt. The ruling does not allow for the sale of the plant and only affects private use.
THE arrest of a Paris Hilton over the weekend for alleged possession of dagga, has focused world attention on South Africa’s outdated and petty anti-marijuana laws. For starters, the crime is a misdemeanor, the result of the ruling parties inability to deal with calls to end drug prohibition and the legacy of apartheid. It is also a failure of successive ANC administrations to implement the cognitive rights and liberties guaranteed by our constitution.
Consumption of dagga, zol, boom, mary jane, weed was always a factor at Mass Democratic Movement rallies. The intoxicating fumes of cannabis infused meetings held by the United Democratic Front and End Conscription Campaign. It was the staple ice-breaker when alcohol was difficult to come by and informed the lives of so many struggle activists, from Trevor Manual to Walter Sisulu himself.
Veteran journalist Dennis Becket recently confessed to smoking the herb, while the province of Mpumalanga gave a presentation on the benefits which might be gained from creating an industry based upon cannabis and hemp production.
The policy of the present government has been hypocritical at best. While officially South Africa supports prohibition, there is a mixed message which goes out to its citizens. Foreigners like Jennifer Rovero who on Saturday admitted the dagga cigarette being smoked by Paris Hilton belonged to her, are treated with disdain. Rovera was slapped with a R1000 fine or 30 days in jail and faces deportation.
In 1994 the ANC was elected on a broad social platform that included reform of the country’s repressive drug legislation. Within the space of a few short years, issues such as legalisation and decriminalisation were swept away under pressure from the World Bank and the USA which attached drug prohibition requirements to financial loans and market guarantees..The public debate on ending prohibition, such as instituting harm reduction strategies and taxation ended with securocrats at the United Nations.
Yet South Africa stands alongside the Czech Republic, Mexico, Portugal and Spain as a place where the law tends to favour tolerance of small amounts of what is essentially a natural substance, a plant if you will. Surely now is the time to gain clarity on whether our nations policies are one of decriminalization or legalisation? Should dagga be decriminalised for medical purposes? What about the vast body of evidence which suggests the plant assists in the relief of pain and can even cure cancer?
A proposal to put the legalization of marijuana in California to a vote this November for instance is causing some growers of the plant in the state to worry about a sharp drop in the value of their crop if the measure succeeds..
If it is okay for Paris Hilton to toke on a joint, but not okay for Rovera to flash a cannabis cigarette around in Port Elizabeth, where is the justice system and our shared values? Surely Rovera was merely sampling the local brew and partaking in a South African tradition which is at least 20 000 years old. The Khoisan word for marijuana, “dagga” and our idiosyncratic use of the term, is not just another example of linguistic differences down South, but a word which reveals something special and innate about ourselves.