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21 July 2017 12:43 (South Africa)
South Africa

The Cannabis Chronicles: Dagga Couple go global

  • Kevin Bloom
    KevinBloomBW
    Kevin Bloom

    Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

  • South Africa
Photo: The Dagga Couple, Jules Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, at home in Lanseria, Johannesburg. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

From the end of July to the middle of August, South Africa will be on the front lines of international drug policy reform. World experts are descending on the country to fight out the merits of cannabis legalisation in the first truly scientific constitutional hearing — and the Dagga Couple, after seven years in the trenches, will finally get their day in court. Will we show the world what freedom is, or will we sell our heritage to the Canadians? By KEVIN BLOOM.

I. Looking Back

And then it hit me,” said Ethan Nadelmann, about four minutes into a 2014 TED talk that put together the pieces like a planet-sized Rubik’s Cube. “Everybody in drug policy thought the answer lay in that area about which they knew the least.”

It all seems obvious now that he’s unpacked it for us, but here is what Nadelmann taught us that day about the international fulcrum of the multitrillion-dollar, four decade-long, “unwinnable” War on Drugs: the Latin American law enforcement agents were blaming demand in the United States, the DEA brotherhood was blaming supply in Latin America, and the customs agents on both sides were blaming supply and demand.

That’s when I started reading everything I could about psychoactive drugs,” continued Nadelmann, “the history, the science, the politics, all of it, and the more one read, the more it hit you how a thoughtful, enlightened, intelligent approach took you over here, whereas the politics and laws [of the United States government] were taking you over there. And that disparity struck me as this incredible intellectual and moral puzzle.”

So why should South Africans, with all we have to keep us awake nights in 2017, care about a bookish American’s moral puzzle?

Two reasons.

First, this George Soros-funded, Harvard-educated son of a New York rabbi – the guy who Rolling Stone magazine once called “the point man” for drug policy reform – tends to turn his attention to wherever the global drug debate is hottest. Second, he will be landing in South Africa within the next two weeks.

Nadelmann is flying in for the first clinical cannabis convention ever to take place in our country, an all-day event on Saturday 5 August that aims, as per the website, to “consolidate our understanding of the plant and its reintegration back into society, while reconstructing ways to maximise the benefits and minimise the harms from uninformed use”.

What the reader will note from this explanation is an implicit assumption – the choice of the word “reintegration” suggests that the convention’s organisers accept it as given that by 5 August 2017 the dagga plant will have begun its return journey, after an exile of some 150 years, back into the mainstream of South African society. Which is entirely unsurprising, given that the organisers are Jules Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, a.k.a. the Dagga Couple, and that 5 August will be the end of the first week of the real and legitimate “Trial of the Plant”.

Sure, there have been other trials and semi-Rubicon events, like the trial in the Western Cape concerning which Judge Dennis Davis handed down a festive judgment on 31 March 2017 (“festive” because that was also the day that Malusi Gigaba replaced Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, and South Africans were in sore need of a tomorrow-we-die party), or the plant’s rescheduling late last year by the Medicines Control Council (a ruling that deemed cannabis fit for medicinal use). But neither the Cape Town judgment nor the MCC ruling was ever going to count as the final word. That’s because neither of them engaged with the cutting edge in global cannabis research – the Cape Town judgment did not rely on the expert testimony of internationally acclaimed scientists, and the MCC, for some inexplicable reason, declined to mention the science behind its ruling at all.

On 31 July 2017, the Dagga Couple’s hearing in the North Gauteng High Court will remedy all of that. The first witness for the plaintiffs will be Professor Donald Abrams, chief of the Hematology-Oncology division at San Francisco General Hospital and professor of clinical medicine at the University of California San Francisco. As the Dagga Couple never tire of telling Daily Maverick, Dr Abrams is one of the few clinicians ever to have been granted permission by the US government to conduct extensive research into the healing properties of the plant. Also, he’s a strong proponent of whole-plant therapy, encourages his patients to grow their own medicine, owns a CV that’s 30 pages long, and has published no fewer than 183 peer-reviewed studies in accredited scientific journals.

But that’s just for starters. Two full days of Abrams explaining to the judge how cannabis is effective in treating everything from Alzheimers, arthritis and epilepsy to PTSD, spasticity and Tourette’s will be followed by two full days of Professor David Nutt, the man who was fired as chief drugs adviser to the UK government in 2009 for drawing attention to the fact that taking ecstasy is safer than riding a horse.

If scientists are not allowed to engage in the debate then you devalue their contribution to policy-making,” said Nutt after his sacking.

Almost a decade on, it turns out that Nutt’s scientific point is the kicker when it comes to the constitutionality of the law – the current head of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, will be the “scale of harms” expert in the Dagga Couple’s hearing, meaning his evidence will be pivotal in establishing whether cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, both legal substances in South Africa.

II. Looking Forward

It came from the horse’s mouth at the pre-trial conference that the state is ready,” said Stobbs on a warm July morning out on his farm in Lanseria, which in the last few years has become dagga legalisation ground zero. “And we’re happy about that, we want the definitive argument. Bring your best people!”

The state’s best people, it so happens, are Bertha Madras, professor of psychobiology and chair of neurochemistry at Harvard Medical School, and David Evans, executive director of the US’s “Drug Free Schools Coalition”. Both of these expert witnesses will be arguing that cannabis causes nothing but harm – Madras was the deputy director for demand reduction in President George W Bush’s national drug policy unit and was appointed, in March this year, to President Donald Trump’s drug addiction task force; Evans has been arguing for decades that the War on Drugs is a good social policy that has improved America’s health.

In terms of the pedigree of the star players, then, it’s a major international match. Although it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that the arguments are evenly weighted. Not only has global policy lately been following the science towards some form of legalisation in dozens of countries around the world, but since 2011 the United Nations has been screaming that the War on Drugs has failed. And then there is the smoking hole where the South African state has shot itself in the foot – how can seven government departments be arguing that cannabis is a devastatingly harmful substance that must be kept illegal when the MCC, which has just authorised the plant for medicinal use, reports through its registrar into the Department of Health?

Again, Jules Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke are supremely confident of the win. The clinical cannabis convention is testament to the fact that they’ve got a chunk of the local medical establishment behind them: the convention, which falls under the banner of their activist movement “Fields of Green for All”, has been endorsed by the Health Practitioners Council of South Africa, meaning that members will be accredited with three clinical points and six ethics points for attending. “We’re not called Fields of Green for All for nothing,” said Clarke. “The convention is an opportunity to speak to all South Africans, from the doctors to the traditional healers to the caregivers to the patients.”

The big reveal at the convention, a political move that the Dagga Couple hope will have the punch of the address by Nadelmann, will be their proposal for a post-legal world. In this, they intend (once more) to break new ground.

In countries like Canada they have taken the plant away from the people who grow it,” explained Clarke. “What we are advocating is no licences. All you should need is a tax number. And you do not sell to under 18s.”

The model, which Daily Maverick outlined in detail in February this year, would work like the tobacco market in Zimbabwe, where the growers bring their crop to a central warehouse to get auctioned – the quality control and taxation would happen there, ensuring that the best crop would fetch the best price. So it’s kind of strange that on Sunday 9 July, two days before Daily Maverick went out to visit the Dagga Couple in Lanseria, an item appeared in Bulawayo24 under the header, “Zimbabwe to legalise cannabis”.

Our northern neighbour’s plan, it seems, is the polar opposite of its tobacco model. Apparently, the Zimbabwean government is considering an application by a Canadian company to produce cannabis for medical purposes. “It’s the same Canadian company that’s sniffing around here,” said Stobbs.

The implication of a partnership between an African government and a Canadian (or Israeli) medical marijuana outfit is obvious. The small-scale grower, like the BP matchbox salesman, gets sidelined; black market prices go through the roof; the law enforcement machine remains in place.

It’s not a good ending.

So this is what I’ve dedicated my life to,” said Nadelmann, at the close of his paradigm shifting 2014 TED Talk – which also happens to be the most sublime articulation of a happy ending that Daily Maverick has yet encountered. “To building an organisation and a movement of people who believe we need to turn our backs on the failed prohibitions of the past and embrace new drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, where people who come from across the political spectrum and every other spectrum as well, where people who love drugs, people who hate drugs, and people who don’t give a damn about drugs… [where] every one of us believes that this War on Drugs, this backward, heartless, disastrous War on Drugs, has got to end.”

What say all freedom-loving South Africans give a collective, emotive, anti-Big Pharma, anti-State Capture AMEN to that? DM

Photo: The Dagga Couple, Jules Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, at home in Lanseria, Johannesburg. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

  • Kevin Bloom
    KevinBloomBW
    Kevin Bloom

    Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

  • South Africa

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