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of a Paris Hilton over the weekend for alleged possession of dagga, has focused world attention on South Africa’s outdated and petty anti-marijuana laws.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.