South Africa, Life, etc

The Cannabis Chronicles: To infinity (= legalisation) and beyond

By Kevin Bloom 27 January 2017

With everything in place for the Dagga Couple to make history in the Pretoria High Court in July, the sucker’s bet for 2017 is that cannabis won’t be legalised this year. The million-dollar question for South Africa is therefore this: how do we legalise, reduce the size of the black market, and still retain the integrity of an informal economy that sustains vast swathes of our population? By KEVIN BLOOM.

I. Playing chicken

Umthunziwenkhukhu. A Zulu composite that directly translates as “shade of the chickens.” In an instance of sublime South African poetry, this is the word that the elders of the Msinga Valley use to refer to the dagga plant. Why? Because, according to GG Alcock—our very own walking and talking “Idiot’s Guide” to the wonders of the informal economy—every home in the valley has a dagga bush “and the chickens rest there in the heat of the day.”

The scene in his book Kasinomics where Alcock paints this vivid picture comes in chapter three, a few pages after another revealing scene that occurs on the banks of the Tugela River as it runs through the municipality of Nkandla. In what is perhaps the only recent account of that place not to feature our beloved president, Alcock and his kayaking buddy are surrounded by a group of men who emerge from a convoy of Toyota bakkies parked under a tree. The leader of the group stares down the white kayakers and employs the greeting Eshe, which, it transpires, is “more of a challenge than a friendly hello.”

But Alcock, having (famously) grown up as a first-language Zulu speaker in a mud hut just a little downriver, is quick to cop what’s going on.

“’Eshe,’ I reply as I realise that these are the dagga operators, and we must look terribly suspicious to them. The dagga carried for miles on women’s heads arrives here, gets loaded under inauspicious cargo like tomatoes or peaches, and heads into the darkness of night to the bright lights of Jozi and Durban. The dagga fields stretched out on either side of us all the way down the river and these guys are here to collect.”

Meaning, it wasn’t just the bakkie operators who had reason to fear the kayakers. As Alcock later tells us, police raids in this part of South Africa tend to shut down entire supply chains from the rural hillsides to the inner cities. The dagga garden ladies, the ferrymen, the bakkie distributors, the urban wholesalers and the street sellers—all of them lose their income when the police decide it’s time to burn the dagga fields. And the damage doesn’t stop there: it extends to the shop owners, the petrol pump attendants, the restauranteurs, the taxi drivers. In an industry that’s entirely informal, the knock-on effect is as predictable as it is unquantifiable.

Or, it used to be as predictable as it was unquantifiable—because 2017, if you haven’t heard, is likely to be the year that the popular police sport of dagga-field-burning meets the beginning of its long-awaited end.

II. Playing catch

You can’t formalise an informal economy,” explained Julian Stobbs, one half of the Dagga Couple, to the Daily Maverick in late January. “But the government will probably try, and they’ll fuck the whole thing up.”

The Dagga Couple, who should know about these things, given that they’ll go to chookie if they lose the precedent-setting court case set for the North Gauteng High Court on 31 July, are in the final stages of laying down plans for a world of “legalised” South African dagga. The way Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke (the other half of the couple) see it, this is going to be the year that the hidden giant of the South African economy steps out into the light. Stobbs and Clarke have had the court case looming over their heads since 2010, and as Stobbs rousingly declared when the Daily Maverick first met him in September 2015: “Cognitive liberty! Freedom of conscience! Belief! The right to feel what I want to feel! What they’re doing, by banning the plant, is clipping my consciousness!”

In other words, the Dagga Couple, instead of “negotiating” their way out of it when the police raided their farm in Lanseria on a tip-off seven years ago, chose to assert their constitutional rights. Now, after various funding campaigns to raise legal fees and a series of trial-date postponements due to what Stobbs calls the “complexities” of the case, Deputy Judge President Aubrey Ledwaba of the Pretoria High Court has marked off a whopping 19 court days to listen to expert testimony. And for the Dagga Couple (the plaintiffs), if less so for the state (the six cabinet ministers and one chief public prosecutor who comprise the seven defendants), an impressive list of experts it will be.

Top of the list for the plaintiffs is Dr Donald Abrams, chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California San Francisco. One of the few clinicians who have had the opportunity to conduct extensive research into the cannabis plant with the permission of the United States government, Abrams, a proponent of marijuana therapy for everything from HIV/Aids to various types of cancer, is the author of 183 peer-reviewed studies (which, we’re told, is a helluva lot). Then there’s the magnificently named Professor David Nutt, chair of neuro-psychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, who was once the president of the European College of Neuro-psychopharmacology and a member of the UK’s Committee on Safety of Medicines. A rock star in his field, Nutt’s book Drugs Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs won the Transmission Prize for Communicating Science in 2014.

As for the plaintiffs’ local experts, all of them have at some point been interviewed or cited in the Daily Maverick’s seven-part (and counting) Cannabis Chronicles series. Craig Paterson, for instance, whose 2009 academic study, “Prohibition & Resistance: A Socio-Political Exploration of the Changing Dynamics of the Southern African Cannabis Trade, c. 1850”, is exactly what the title says it is—a work of heavily footnoted research that arrives at the (nigh inescapable) conclusion that the criminalisation of dagga in South Africa was hitched from the start to the white man’s need to control, subdue and demonise his non-white brother. Or Vladislav Lakcevic, the only local MBA candidate to ever take seriously the proposition that a socio-economic argument could be made for the plant’s legalisation.

Lakcevic, incidentally, who was the main subject of the fourth article in this series—published in November 2015 under the subtitle “Notes toward a post-revolution economy”—would go on to graduate from his MBA class “with distinction” (the awarding institution was none other than the University of Cape Town). As Lakcevic wrote in his thesis, and as he is going to inform Judge Ledwaba when he takes the stand in August, an economic case can be made for legalisation purely off the savings that would accrue to the South African Police Service. At a conservative estimate, Lakcevic calculated a cost to the state in dagga-related arrests of R1.5 billion for 2014.

So now we have a sense of what Stobbs actually means when he talks about “complexities”. The above four individuals are less than half the experts that will appear for the plaintiffs—a list that includes the Dagga Couple themselves—and we haven’t even mentioned yet any of the state’s people. “The state must submit their expert testimony by the end of March,” Stobbs told the Daily Maverick, “otherwise they’re in contempt.”

What Stobbs was not-so-subtly conveying to the Daily Maverick with these words was his firmly-held conviction that the Dagga Couple are going to win. And although he has never really departed from this line, the line has never really looked this strong—because the state’s four experts, the people dragging their heels on submitting their testimonies, are by comparison with international trends a little short on science and a little long on dogmatism. While three of the bunch are committed members of the US anti-drug lobby (that is, supporters of the Nixon-era “war on drugs” policy that a growing number of governments view as a failure), the fourth is a South African psychiatrist by the name of Professor Tuviah Zabow, a regular anti-drug expert for the state, whose views on the plant are straight out of the Censorship Board playbook. “Cannabis is a potentially dangerous drug and as such a public health hazard,” Zabow wrote in an article for the South African Medical Journal back in 1995, an opinion he clearly hasn’t updated since.

A problem for Zabow, and thus for the seven defendants, is almost certainly going to be the fact that the Department of Health has recently announced its intention to downgrade cannabis from Schedule 7, a banned substance, to Schedule 6, a prescription drug. The contradiction is obvious enough, and it may easily render one of the state’s core arguments moot: how can a government that recognises the medicinal value of the dagga plant (among the seven defendants is the minister of health himself) also argue that the plant is a “public health hazard”?

Equally reflective of the state’s conceptual bind is the attitude of Judge Dennis Davis down in the Western Cape High Court, who has given Jeremy Acton of the Dagga Party and his colleague Ras Gareth Prince every opportunity to get their witnesses and testimony together in what is the other major challenge to the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition in South Africa. “We always thought they’d tick a few boxes for us, and they have,” said Stobbs of the Capetonians. “People are saying the state was so shambolic in its argument, it’s almost as if they wanted Davis to help the activists.”

III. Playing for keeps

Final judgment in the Acton and Prince case is expected in early March, and the Dagga Couple are confident of good tidings from Judge Davis. “Whatever doors Acton and Prince manage to kick down, we’re going to storm through and take off their hinges,” Stobbs promised the Daily Maverick.

Which is why, as mentioned above, they are busy preparing for what comes after legalisation. Again, like GG Alcock, their view is that you can’t formalise an informal economy—but they nonetheless believe that an “outside force”, in the shape of a Big Pharma company, is going to be handed the bulk of the market.

The way I see all my friends fitting into this, it’s like the craft beer industry,” said Stobbs. “SAB serves up the shite, and you get the good stuff from the micro-brewery.”

So who, we asked, would play the role of SAB?

I hope I’m not right, but I think it’ll be an American, Canadian or Israeli pharmaceutical company. Myrtle is getting calls every day saying, ‘Can you give us an intro to the health minister?’ We say no, because they’re only in it for themselves. All they see is the world’s third largest producer. Can you spell ka-ching?”

Sure, but Stobbs knows that the success of a country’s cannabis policy is measured by the size of its black market. In other words, the smaller the black market, the more progressive the policy. The million-dollar question for South Africa is therefore this: how do we legalise, reduce the size of the black market, and still retain the integrity of the informal economy?

If by some miracle the government left the market alone, it would regulate itself,” said Stobbs. “As a grower or seller in a legalised environment, the only thing you should need is a tax number. It should be like the tobacco market in Zimbabwe, where everybody brings their crop to a central warehouse to get auctioned. Quality control and taxation happens at the warehouse. It’s the African way.”

Yup—and it would probably also leave some shade for the chickens. DM

Read more:

  • The Cannabis Chronicles: Dramatis personae, part I; in Daily Maverick
  • The Cannabis Chronicles: Dramatis personae, part II; in Daily Maverick
  • The Cannabis Chronicles: A truthful account of the most evil plant ever; in Daily Maverick
  • The Cannabis Chronicles: Notes towards a post revolution economy; in Daily Maverick
  • The Cannabis Chronicles: What the state really thinks; in Daily Maverick
  • The Cannabis Chronicles: Marijuana activism scores, Big Pharma equalises; in Daily Maverick

Photo: The file picture dated 29 February 2016 shows medical cannabis in the Tikun Olam nursery in Birya, outside Safed, northern Israel. EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

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