Cannabis has been used by humans for millennia for its medicinal and psychoactive properties. The cannabis plant also has various industrial uses, and is a more environmentally friendly substitute for various materials such as plastic. Recently, increased resistance against prohibitionist legislation has resulted in a slow movement towards legislative reform. As cannabis is becoming more legitimised, various types of research on cannabis have become essential in ensuring that cannabis’ potential can be maximised, and used to benefit the people of South Africa.

The prohibition of cannabis is a relatively recent and short period in cannabis’ long history. And, in the past few years, there has been increased pushback against these prohibitionist laws. In addition, there is growing support and acknowledgement for the potential the plant holds, that moves far beyond its well-known psychoactive properties. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the laws around cannabis in the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, as well as the Medicines and Related Substances Act, were in violation of South Africans’ constitutional right to privacy. Parliament was given two years to amend legislation, and in August 2020 the draft bill, the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act of 2020, was released.

The prohibitionist legislation has prevented researchers and academics from conducting research on cannabis. The latest draft bill also does not accommodate for serious research on cannabis from a medical, agricultural, economic or social perspective. Doctor Marc Wegerif, a lecturer in UP’s Development Studies department, says that it is concerning that “while South Africa does have a system in place for the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes, there is no such system for the use of cannabis for scientific research and academic purposes”.

The prohibition of cannabis is a relatively recent and short period in cannabis’ long history.

The lack of a foundation to conduct research is, to an extent, contradictory, since there is growing acknowledgement of and support for the various uses that cannabis has. Professor Vanessa Steenkamp, Deputy Dean of Teaching and Learning for the Faculty of Health Sciences, explains that “cannabis has a variety of therapeutic uses, which include analgesic effects in the treatment of chronic pain (in certain conditions), anti-emesis for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and cancer patients”.

Research is an integral part in developing legislation and policies that are effective and meaningfully contribute to the UP, South African, and global community. Through researching the various aspects of cannabis, impactful policies and legislation can be developed in order to maximise all of cannabis’ potential. Dr Wegerif elaborates that “such legislation needs to take-into-account the opportunities and risks associated with this sector and, where possible, build on existing cannabis production, distribution, and use to maximise the benefits for South Africa and the majority of its people”. Hence, it is important that academic institutions become involved in cannabis and related research in order to develop effective legislation and policies. Dr Wegerif continues to stress that “in order for such institutions to be involved, they need to be able to grow, process, and hold reasonable amounts of cannabis and cannabis plants for non-profit, research and academic purposes”. At UP, certain academics and researchers have already started investigating various aspects of cannabis, despite the lack of a formal legal framework to conduct such research. Prof. Steenkamp is in the process of conducting research by analysing various cannabis products available for sale in order to “improve the current legislation concerned with cannabis and cannabis-containing products”. In addition, Prof. Steenkamp is also collaborating with Doctor Gerhard Grobler, Head of the Clinical Unit in the Department of Psychiatry at UP, to research the psychological effects of cannabis. Nikita Meyer, a research assistant working with Professor Anton Kok from the Department of Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Law at UP, is in the process of ethically approving a modest study. The research study is focused on gathering “some insights on the relationship between knowledge of the law and people’s behaviour. South Africa’s Constitution promises a kinder, more equal South Africa”. Prof. Steenkamp and Dr Grobler, who are a part of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit (ATODRU) of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), recently published an Editorial about the priority areas in cannabis research that they identified. The three priorities include conducting a national, multisite clinical trial of cannabinoids supporting exploratory research to determine how much, and for what people use cannabis extracts for; and conducting evaluations of possible barriers and facilitators to medical practitioners prescribing cannabis or cannabinoids for medicinal purposes. As the position of cannabis is shifting legally, socially and economically, doing research on the plant is essential in order to ensure that effective and meaningful legislation and policies can be developed. Research and researchers are integral to this process, and a legal foundation needs to be provided in order for effective research to take place. Regardless of these barriers, many academics have started conducting research in recognition of the fact that cannabis is in a critical position within contemporary South Africa.

Image: Cletus Mulaudi

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