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of a Paris Hilton over the weekend for alleged possession of dagga, has focused world attention on South Africa’s outdated and petty anti-marijuana laws.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.
THERE is a growing recognition that South Africa’s substance abuse control programme, in particular the war against new drugs like Tik, has been fruitless and ineffectual. Not because this country’s moral watchdogs are not eagerly and bountifully committed to eradicating drug dependency, but rather because their senseless policies such as zero tolerance gloss over the moral dilemma of drug abuse – the very rationale for taking illegal substances in the first place.
In fact it must be said there is something insidious and morally pejorative about a policy that relies solely upon policing in order to fulfil its objectives, with the implied threat of physical incarceration and systematic-wide sociological disapproval. In this vein the needle is given to so many community outreach programmes that rush to provide therapy without tackling the logical inconsistency, without at least providing a sensible and coherent reason why one should not take drugs in the first place.
Why not give drug addicts their drug of choice, on demand and be done with the public ruse that anything constructive is being done about the problem? Not only have we been struck dumb by our inability to tackle the moral issue, let alone the psychological drama involving poverty, of disgruntled and bored youth, but still we want medical opinion that sees drug abuse as a disease in need of a cure, and drug pushers as some kind of new age victim in need of empathy, love, and a good home .
Which all gloss over the fact that a lot of drug addicts come from stable backgrounds anyway and have some of the best prospects in life. Without open debate on this subject it becomes impossible to discuss drug abuse without “twitching away the good drapery” as both De Quincey and Will Self (himself an admitted drug user) would have had it be said. Admit to partaking of an illicit cocktail of pharmaceuticals and whatever ones predilection for sane use of narcotics, the only support you are likely to get is from the very same charlatans and hawkers of human kindness one is so desperately trying to avoid.
Take SABC 3’s sycophantic take on the matter and it is unclear whether it is better to hang out with hardened criminals – the kind who smoke buttons, mainline crack-cocaine or shoot heroin on a daily basis or to watch Oprah Winfrey. Have we come so far as to create yet another gordian knot between the left-wing fixation with marijuana, the rightwing fixation with tobacco and alcoholism and the strange new pleasures of opiates and amphetamines, the wired, frenzied engorging of speed and languished rumination of heroin, without pausing to count how many times this debate has reared its ugly head only to die down after being quashed by the selfsame moral watchdogs who lack a moral reason for not taking drugs.
To whit, Dr Irving Gofman in his notable book on intoxication sees experimentation with drugs as a basic human drive. We all experiment with getting high at some stage of our lives and the only real question is to what degree, (how much and how little and to whether we want to make it past forty or to survive our very first encounter with inebriation, not braindead but alive). For those unfortunates, who buy into all this drug-talking and moral solipsising and for whom the experimentation never stops, who instead of settling down into the odd tipple of cognac, take one drink and turn it into a life-time of dependency on alcohol, or a single toke of a cigarette and extrapolate that into crack or cocaine addiction, or for whom even heroin mixed with methamphetamine and bug powder would not do enough damage to the human condition, there can be only one reason for advocating closure in this debate, and that is Harm Reduction.
Harm Reduction, as the Dutch would have it, is state intervention that provides an alternative to the real horror of self-prescribed drug-taking hypocrisy, a motive beyond organised crime, and the mob who sell the product while promoting prostitution and human slavery. If not enslaved to the evils of capitalism, then all the better perhaps to addict oneself to the state tropium which should be tasked with dispensing along with all manner of hallucinogenres your drug of choice. In fact the British have maintained drug-users for years on their national health, dispensing methadone to heroin addicts, and all types of substances to the new world of crack without so much as a hiccough at the inherent contradictions of morality.
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