When did cannabis become a criminal?
Where does the plant come from?
What are the origins of medical marijuana?
What is the annual cost of convicting a low-level stoner?
Hazel Crampton’s new book, Dagga: A Short History, is a counter-cultural narrative that rolls the traditional practices, medicinal uses and international prohibition of cannabis into 83 pages of tidy print.
The book, which was launched last week at the Eastern Star Press Museum, is a witty conversation piece crammed with smoking puns and fascinating facts about the history of cannabis, specifically in South Africa. This includes the ancient origins of its name; its many cultural uses; the possible reasons behind its “demonisation” and its (seemingly) unfounded prohibition.
It’s an interesting read about the story of weed from Sanskrit texts and Bushmen clans, to the high courts and an international ban. Much like the Dagga Couple’s video, the book points to a history of the felonious herb in terms of its original place in cultural practices, its long-recorded medicinal properties and it’s later tangle with the law.
In the beginning, there was cannabis
According to an early Hindu religious text written in Sanskrit, cannabis sprung from a drop of celestial nectar that fell from heavenly oceans stirred by gods.
Cannabis Sativa is a member of the hemp family. Hemp is a fibrous, botanically versatile plant, and one of the most widely distributed plants in the world.
The phenol compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active ingredient (it’s especially concentrated in the female flowers)
Dr Pot and Medical Marijuana
In the 7th century BC, the Vernidad, an ancient Persian religious text, listed dagga as the most important of 10 000 medicinal plants. It’s medical properties were still listed in countless texts centuries later, and it was included in dispensatories throughout Europe by the second half of 18th century.
The Weed in the Wind
Cannabis arrived in southern Africa around a thousand years ago and featured as one of the earliest trade items in the trade network. The plant was introduced to southern Africa in Mozambique by Asian traders, who were carried across the Indian ocean by the monsoons.
Dagga was still considered a trade item during the first centuries of colonialism in South Africa. Crampton cites the example of Klaarwater, now Griquatown, where cannabis was embedded in the community: missionaries grew cannabis to trade with the neighbouring San or Bushmen, “plattelandse tannies” used it in Afrikaner home-remedies, it was ‘a way of life’ among old trekboers, and a favourite for sundowners.
Crampton’s research suggests that colonial fears may have affected cannabis’s reputation at around this point. “Criminalising dagga was all part of digging a deeper ditch between South Africans of different backgrounds and cultures” (26).
Lighting Up the Law
1903: Orange River Colony passed the Dagga Prohibition Ordinance Act, making it an offence to sell dagga.
1911: The second International Opium Commission was held in the Netherlands and the South African delegation proposed that dagga be treated as addictive as opiates.
1922: The Customs and Excise Duties Amendment Act 35 prohibited in general the importation, conveyance, sale and supply; and the use and possession of habit-forming drugs, including dagga.
1925: The International Convention on Narcotic Control was held in Geneva: prohibited the non-medical use of opiates internationally, and dagga was included in the prohibition.
1928: Dagga’s cultivation was made illegal and the Medical, Dental and Pharmacy Act 12 of 1928 made the criminalisation of dagga complete. Suddenly, the magistrates’ courts had very extensive powers of punishment for any offences under said act.
1971: ‘The Drugs Act’ The Abuse of Dependence-producing Substances and Rehabilitation Centers Act 41: increased punitive jurisdiction of these courts and carried extremely harsh minimum sentences. Dagga was now ‘a prohibited dependence-producing drug’.
1992: The Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act 140 of 1992 repealed the 1971 Act, but the changes were minor.
2014: The cost of arresting and convicting a single low-level dagga user had ballooned to R 240 000, adding to the demands on our overstrained legal system and overburdened taxpayers.
June 2014: The current government has publicly stated their willingness to re-open the debate about the legalisation of medical dagga.
2015: But the Medical Research Council did not support the Medical Innovation Bill, which proposed the legalisation of medical dagga.
At present, medical use of dagga is legal in: Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. But in South Africa, lack of funding and support translates into a lack of human trials and subsequently, insufficient research into the safety of legalising dagga for medicinal use.
Until such a time as cannabis is legalised and regulated, it seems that crime syndicates will continue to profit from its covert distribution; the legal system and tax payers will continue to carry the burden of minor convictions; and neither the economically underprivileged nor those requiring medicinal marijuana are going to benefit from the powerful potential of the plant.
It leaves us wondering, as Bill Hicks so eloquently phrased it: “Why is marijuana against the law? It grows naturally upon our planet. Doesn’t the idea of making nature against the law seem to you a bit… unnatural?”