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Sweet Mary Jane: The plant that flummoxed and fascinate...

South Africa


Sweet Mary Jane: The plant that flummoxed and fascinated lawmakers

Hemp’s reintroduction into polite society is revealing as it it has lost none of its lustre as an industry disruptor, says the writer. (Photo:

While the world’s economic powerhouses are fuelling a hemp revolution comparable to the tech boom, South Africa’s partial dagga decriminalisation has citizens wrestling with their consciences on a moral dilemma forged by a lie.

It had to be South Africa’s Constitutional Court loosening the bonds on dagga prohibition. Our parliamentarians from across the political spectrum don’t have the balls.

I have smoked dagga for the past four decades, sometimes daily, at other times periodically and once abstained for seven years. It is not an addictive substance. Smoking 45kg of dagga in 15 minutes is thought to induce a fatal response – a possible explanation why no overdose has been attributed to dagga in the past few thousand years of its psychotropic partnership with humans.

I was a few hours old when my mother first introduced endocannabinoids, and near-identical to the cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant, into my system. I don’t recall a soporific high. Her decision was, however, actively endorsed by the UN children’s agency Unicef. Without breast milk’s natural abundance of endocannabinoids latching on to the brain’s specifically-designed cannabinoid receptors, I may have suffered from the non-organic ability to thrive. After all, breast is best.

I have smoked dagga with politicians, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, corporate CEOs, farmers, aid workers, gangsters, deputy mayoresses, architects, unassuming South African border guards and civilians under siege, among other occupations.

On the flip side, I have endured the colonised and ignorant minds of legislators, media editors and commentators, police, magistrates and monotheists. To the dagga outlaws, thank you for your enlightenment, insight, humour, good company and nonchalance. To the pious: are you not ashamed of your incurious minds and imbibing the hemp-prohibition Kool-aid without question? Your complicity, compliance and cowardice have destroyed the lives of millions of people, severely hampered economic growth, deprived effective medication for the gravely ill, and accelerated and aggravated environmental destruction.

Tony Budden has been a walking crime scene since 1996. His clothes are illegal, but not in a sartorial sense. His office’s brickwork, his array of goods and the adjacent warehouse stacked with imported Chinese bolts of hemp are illegal. He and his partner Duncan Parker’s business, Hemporium, operates from a nondescript office park at the foot of Ou Kaapse Weg and flanked by Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison.

Hemp and marijuana are both members of the Cannabis sativa species, but hemp has less than 0.03% of the psychotropic substance THC – not nearly enough to get you stoned. Hemp is bred for its strong and durable fibre and is also used by the medical and food industries. Marijuana – weed – on the other hand, can contain up to 30% THC, and that will get you stoned for sure. It’s bred for recreational and medical usage.

While the world’s economic powerhouses are fuelling a hemp revolution comparable to the tech boom, South Africa’s partial dagga decriminalisation has citizens wrestling with their consciences on a moral dilemma forged by a lie.

I wait in Budden’s office examining an artwork of the global brands’ outlier. Cannabis’s five-fingered serrated leaf emblem, as recognisable as the desert religions’ stars, crescents, crucifixes and Coca-Cola. I am grappling with a metaphor to describe our different relationships with Cannabis sativa. Budden is a leading hemp entrepreneur and industrialist. I smoke it.

I discard the imagery of parallel train tracks as simplistic, implying a defined gap where the lines can never touch. I decide on the complexity of the plant’s relationship between its recreational and industrial uses and lean towards the mathematical conundrum of the Möbius Stripa nonorientable surface with one side and one edge.

Cannabis sativa is history’s most vilified plant and a constant preoccupation and fascination of legislators. Thirty-three years before Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape, Christian colonials in America’s Virginia Assembly passed a 1619 law compelling every farmer to grow hemp as an act of patriotism. The 1937 Marihuana Act ushered in global prohibition and futile drug wars. In 1961 the United Nations determined the plant was “evil” – UN-speak for the Devil’s Harvest.

Discussing hemp with Budden is a familiar trip into the absurdities assigned to Cannabis sativa by our legal guardians. Budden’s précis of Judge Dennis Davis’s legal line of reasoning is reminiscent of many a stoner’s streams of consciousness during the dark days.

Are you saying,” Budden says in a voice mimicking the incredulity of the judge questioning the state prosecutor, “that if I go home tonight and roll a spliff instead of pouring a whisky, then you, as the state, have the right to kick down my door, drag me away in front of my family and friends and terrorise us all? Then throw me in jail and I will never be able to be a judge again? And the state prosecutor says ‘Well, that’s the law.’ And Davis says: ‘Well I know it’s the law. But is it the right law?’”

The judicial ruling deletes a paper-thin restrictive layer from a plant encrusted with the various colonial and apartheid statutes and fear-mongering of the past century. The Constitutional Court’s ruling ordering Parliament to correct legislation by September 2020 to allow for dagga use as a right to “privacy” has no benefits for the local hemp industry struggling to source the raw material. The status quo of the Constitutional Court ruling is this: I am legal and Budden remains an outlaw.

When a plant is determined “evil”, there is no redemption. The key in the all-encompassing laws designed to exterminate a plant species, is its 1961 classification as “undesirable”, Budden says.

Dependent-producing is okay. We depend on a lot of things, but undesirable? That implies there is no legitimate use for cannabis.”


As the C130 Hercules transport “corkscrewed” in a tight spiral to avoid ground-fire to land at Bosnia Herzegovina’s besieged capital, Sarajevo, my psychological checklist for arriving in a war zone did not include a box marked “cannabis”.

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s coalesced around the nationalist forces of the Christian Orthodox and Croat Catholics, each with a pope, and Muslims for a scapegoat. The city of Sarajevo became the shelter of the sane and stoned after pretty much running dry of alcohol within the first month of the more than 1,400-day siege.

Sarajevo citizens defended a way of life defined by its multiculturalism, against monolithic nationalism led by bank clerks in a conflict that gave a vocabulary to ethnic cleansing. The defenders smoked weed, the aggressors oiled their slaughter with slivovitz (plum brandy).

My fixerand translator was a 24-year-old woman. Like many women of the cosmopolitan city, she did not wear the social constraints of her Muslim faith, surviving on a coffee and cannabis diet.

Citizen soldiers on R&R from the city’s front line, gaunt and paranoid from the Angel Dust allowing them to operate for days without sleep, smoked spliffs to dissolve the hard-edged chemical hangover. On the wall of a Sarajevo “nightclub”, reached through the gauntlet of a sniper alley, a billboard torn from an advertising hoarding depicting a palm-fringed tropical beach. At each table: mounds of dope, the hum of conversation, laughter and – with apologies to Milan Kundera – a lightness of being. The coffee was billed, the weed on the house.


The genesis for cannabis’s ranking as an illegal planetary inhabitant is rooted in an obscure white, monotheist Puritanical church in the USs southern states, similar in its social views to Islam’s Salafist sect forming the bedrock of Isis thought. In the search to do more of the Christian gods work in the downtime between lynchings and stitching white sheets into hoods and cassocks, the Christians financed anauthoritativecannabis educational film, Tell Your Children. It warned of the catastrophe following a toke of a spliff.

By chance, or so the yarn has it, a former construction worker turned film producer and director, Dwain Esper, discovered the film, recut it and released it under the title of Reefer Madness. It’s a taut plotline. Cannabis turns your sons into criminals and makes your daughters promiscuous. And people scream a lot. It was to define Espers cinematic oeuvre, alongside Sex Maniac (1934), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937) and The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler (1948). Reefer Madness has become a cult classic for stoners and non-stoners alike. It was reprised in a 2005 satirical musical.

Reefer Madness gave US legislators the fictional skirmish to declare war against cannabis and, like many of its imperial conflicts from the 1846 Mexican War through to Vietnam and Iraq, its rationale was based on a lie. The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in the wake of the Reefer Madness box office flop and hemp walked the path of pariahs. The Acts chief protagonist and USs first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, spread the prohibition gospel. Trade and aid with the US in the post-Second World War era became conditional on endorsing prohibition.

In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan’s drug czar, Carlton Turner, viewed cannabis through a Cold War prism. It was the cause of “the present young-adult generation’s involvement in anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations”. Cannabis sativa had evolved from precipitating hysteria in teenagers to a national security threat.

South Africa uniquely amplified global thought control. Colonial authorities as well as the ANC’s founding president, John Dube, found common ground for prohibition. In 1922, Prime Minister Jan Smuts’ white-minority government classified dagga as a habit-forming drugand successfully lobbied the League of Nations (the UN forerunner) to box it with opium, morphine and cocaine.

Self-proclaimed doyen of decolonisation Mzwanele Manyi’s dagga tweet is a rare breed of double irony. Forty-eight hours after the Constitutional Court ruling he asked: “Where to South Africa? In a society dominated by shack dwellings, poverty and rebellious school kids. Now dagga is decriminalised.”

While working a story of a lascivious penny-stock Australian miner and his local political cronies selling strip-mining and a poisoned water table as progress to a much wiser Pondo community, I bought dagga from a local grower and a non-consumer. He favoured legalisation for a fair price not on offer from criminal syndicates and explained hemp’s virtues as a construction material. As for Manyi’s lament of “rebelliousyouth, the philosopher and founding father of rational thought, Socrates, had similar concerns a few thousand years ago.

Cannabis sativa has many pseudonyms. From the preppy 420, through to weed, ganja and dope, to a variety of local noms-de-guerre. The etymology of dagga is in the Khoisan language. The compound seized on by the book burners and devout is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It is the main psychoactive ingredient, along with a score or more of lesser-researched mind-altering chemicals.

Originating from Asia, hemp arrived on the African continent in the early 1500s. In Asia cannabis was ingested, but it was first smoked in Africa to become the plants original sin.

Budden’s lobbying to ease hemp prohibition for a plant muscling in as a vital ingredient for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is resisted by South Africa’s political class through stigma and a public schooled by apartheid’s Dagga Gevaar.

The politicians are very nervous of being associated with it for any reason. Our products were taken to Helen Zille’s advisers. It would have been easier to have a conversation about legalising prostitution than hemp.

I have had lots of meetings with politicians and they get it. They can see it will generate jobs and houses. But to get them to actually stand up and be a champion in anyway, politically or publicly, is practically impossible,” he says.

Inkatha Freedom Party parliamentarian Mario Oriani-Ambrosini’s parliamentary address during the Medical Innovations Bill in the final weeks of his terminal lung cancer was the first glimmer of a Green New Dawn. Budden says it was profound.

During his [Oriani-Ambrosini’s] speech he said to [former] President [Jacob] Zuma I am here today because I am using medical cannabis, and if not, I would be on morphine at home in a stupor’.”

A 1938 magazine hemp article in Popular Mechanics heralded the plant as the new billion-dollar crop. It was in the formative years of the clampdown and its authors were oblivious to the forces at play. The fibre and hurd (inner core of the stem) of the plant, the article said, could be responsible for 30,000 different products. That was the plants second sin, an industry disruptor, and the one that nailed it to the cross.

The US company DuPont holds a special place in dagga folklore. Hemp’s overnight prohibition, opposed by the American Medical Association (AMA), left an industrial void. Newspaper magnate and industrialist Randolph William Hearst, a purveyor of yellow journalism(fake news), routinely peddled cannabis prejudice in his tabloids. There is no conclusive evidence Hearst was the silent backer of Reefer Madness. However, prohibition left an uncluttered playing field for DuPont to exploit its nylon patent. The fledgling synthetic industry flooded hemp’s vacuum, allowing the petrochemical industries to flourish. Its consequences are the turning of our oceans into a plastic swamp.

Prohibition cannot sustain any breach of a belief system. Mary Jane was a Schedule One Agent – “a dangerous drug of no medical value”. A blanket ban on research was imposed, with exemptions granted for government-sponsored scientists seeking the essence of a plant’s evil.

Hemp’s reintroduction into polite society is revealing as it it has lost none of its lustre as an industry disruptor. The immediate consequences is the melting away of government’s easy money for the legal and security architecture, including the gateway drug for police corruption.

There are too many vested interests,” Budden says for my approach for hemp being granted the legal standing of coriander. Budden favours a licensing system issued by the Post Office for recreational use, akin to a fishing permit, with a regulated industry for hemp’s commercial uses, especially within medical and food businesses.

Canada grew the industry using participatory research, where the farmers had to give information back, if you wanted to renew your licence. What seeds were grown, what the yield was, the type of fertilisers used, all that detail. It built the industry up as a whole to give everyone best practices,” Budden says.

China has accrued 309 of 606 cannabis patents to date. Canada is exploiting the plant’s medical and brewery niches, among other uses. Wall Street expects Canada, the first Western industrialised country to legalise marijuana, to surpass $5-billion a year in sales by 2022.

The plant’s ability to span low-tech and high-tech industries makes it a unique disruptor. The medical and health industry is conceding to a range of “marijuana old wives’ tales”, from the treatment of arthritis through to opening new lines of inquiry into neurological diseases and cancers. A host of industries are vulnerable to hemp’s “coming in from the cold”. Among them construction, petrochemical plastics, Big Pharma, pulp and paper, alcohol, animal protein feed, the pesticide sector and the rolling and publicly-unquestioned government budgets for endless drugs war. Unlike cotton, hemp requires no pesticides. The less durable cotton uses 25% of the worlds pesticides and needs 10,000 litres of water for each kilogram of fabric, two- thirds more water than hemp.

Russian scientists discovered weed’s ability for cleansing heavy metals from soils after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. A century of Johannesburg’s criminal mining practices has left pockets of the metropolis more radioactive than Russia’s latest dark tourism drawcard. The odds are long for mining minister Gwede Mantashe having a Damascene conversion of rolling hemp fields across toxic mine wastelands.

I was twice busted for dagga possession but never convicted during apartheid. Picked up in the 1980s on a Cape Town Sea Point street in flagrante delicto and thrown in the yellow van, before walking away a few minutes later with the rest of the Saturday night haul after the kêrels neglected to lock the back door.

In 1993, police raided my lover’s Cape Town Gardens flat while she was out and I wasn’t. The sniffer-dog search found dagga pips and stalks in her rubbish bin. I was charged with possession. Four months later the charges were dropped.

My dagga conviction is post-1994, scoring in Johannesburg’s Brixton not to inhale, but for a woman needing dagga tea to combat chemotherapy-induced nausea. Good intentions never stopped a criminal record from being played.

An SABC colleague and cameraman discovered my prior drug conviction in 2002 and decided his “ethical duty” was to inform the bosses. I was suspended immediately. And reinstated after an extraordinary disciplinary hearing framed through a standard lens. A disgrace. Bringing shame and disrepute to the SABC etc. It was a repeat of the Brixton magistrate’s soliloquy and delivered with the same proselytiser’s zeal.

I was preparing to report on the 2002 Zimbabwe elections before being summoned to the office of the then boss of SABC news. I was aware of optics for the national broadcaster. A mlungu, with a UK accent, and a past record of reporting Zimbabwe’s land grabs as a populist measure by a hollowed-out southern African liberation movement. It was the time of former President Thabo Mbeki’s failed Quiet Diplomacy. I recognised it would be an awkward SABC assignment. A past dagga conviction proved an easy alternative to achieve the desired ends.

The news boss immediately took the Zimbabwe assignment off the table, reasoning a criminal record barred travel. I noted, that to my knowledge, only the USA and Thailand require declaration of a “drug” offence for visas, so it was not part of the equation. It was a sound argument meriting no reply. I was not out the door. But I had been handed my hat. I was assigned low-priority news stories, with negligible broadcast prospects. I resigned a few months later.

The policing of dagga is no less onerous for Budden. In the 1990s under the gaze of the Agriculture Research Council, Budden was granted a three-year research permit for hemp cultivation.

Every harvest was taken from us and we were not allowed to process it,” Budden says. “We should be a world leader. We started research before Canada, Australia and the UK. And we are still stuck in research as no one is brave enough to take it to the next level.” He continues to import hemp from China, Canada, France, Germany and the UK under licence. DM

Guy Oliver is a nomad by nurture and existentialist. He is a qualified Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration practitioner. He has reported extensively from across sub-Saharan Africa for the past three decades and has a specific interest in non-state armed actors.


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