The benefits of legalisation experienced by these two states have led to many people around the world reconsidering the idea of legalisation. With similar potential possibilities, the question many South Africans have been asking is: should marijuana be legalised?
Many supporters of legalisation suggest that prohibiting people from using marijuana is a human rights violation. Werner Weber of Fields of Green for All, a South African non-profit organisation focused on the legalisation of marijuana, says that the greatest reason for legalisation is that it is our own self-determined right, as tax-paying citizens, to decide whether or not we use marijuana. Weber says, “It should be my right to choose what I may and may not put into my body. It’s my body, it’s my choice, and I’ll live with the consequences. Therefore it is a human rights issue for us at Fields of Green for All.”
Supporters of legalisation also suggest that there is much to be gained on an economic standpoint by legalising the drug, such as increases in employment opportunities and state revenue.
Weber says that the part of the marijuana plant known as hemp is a commodity that could be used to make a lot of money for the state and farmers if industrialised. “The hemp plant is a variety of marijuana that can be grown on industrial scale for industrial use. Many of the luxury European sedans like Mercedes, Volvo and others make use of door panels and glove compartments, all made from hemp resin. It is also a great food source as the hemp seed is one of the very few complete proteins, meaning it has all the amino acids the human body needs to rebuild itself. Currently in South Africa all our hemp is imported, making it expensive to use in any way or form,” Weber says. He further says that growing marijuana will allow us to not only save money, but to create many employment opportunities in the industries involved in production and sale of the product.
The second economic gain may be that of gaining revenue through taxes. The Central Drug Authority (CDA), South Africa’s drug advisory board, estimates that R3.5 billion is spent on the illicit purchase of marijuana each year. It is therefore true that if parliament legalised the drug and placed a tax on it, a new stream of revenue would be created.
Economic gain is not the only advantage of legalising marijuana. There have been many recorded instances in which marijuana has been used effectively for medicinal purposes. The reason for this, as suggested by marijuana research expert Raphael Mechoulam, is the composition of the plant. A marijuana plant is made up of 480 components that all work together to create therapeutic effects that other medications may fail to replicate.
CNN medical correspondent and former anti-legalisation advocate Dr Sanjay Gupta in an article titled “Why I changed my mind on weed”, wrote that marijuana is not just a drug that can be used to get high, but that it also has legitimate medicinal uses and that it is sometimes the only substance that may have the ability to suppress symptoms and side effects of certain medical conditions.
Dr Gupta uses the example of Charlotte Figi, an eight-year-old girl who has suffered from seizures since birth. Before receiving medicinal marijuana treatment, Figi reportedly suffered from an estimated 300 seizures a week and had tried seven different medications which had all failed to reduce attacks. After receiving medicinal marijuana treatment, the number of seizures she experienced reduced to two to three a week.
On the topic of medical marijuana, Weber says that marijuana has proved to be an appropriate treatment for over 5 000 ailments, many of them severe or life threatening such as cancer, and was used for medicinal purposes throughout history until it was banned in the 1930s.
If there are so many gains to be made by legalising marijuana, why has it not been legalised already? Most arguments against the legalisation of marijuana around the world focus on the idea that legalisation will lead to an increase in addiction to both marijuana and even harder drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
In studies performed by Australia’s Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research and the USA’s Drug Enforcement Administration, it was indicated that the prohibition of marijuana and other substances has worked in deterring an estimated 30% of potential users due to the threat of legal action.
Drug abuse is already a problem in South Africa, with the CDA reporting that an estimated 15% of South Africans have a drug problem. The idea that legalisation could lead to greater drug abuse is something that many governments around the world fear.
Weber, however, disagrees with this argument and uses Portugal as an example, where hard drugs were decriminalised over a decade ago. The decriminalisation of hard drugs has led to a significant decrease in the amount of people abusing drugs and the amount of people receiving treatment for drug abuse.
Another popular argument suggests that the legalisation of marijuana will lead to an increase in crime due to the fact that it may have an impact on mental health. British psychiatrist Dr Andrew Johns in an academic article titled “Psychiatric effects of cannabis”, suggests that the use of marijuana can lead to periods of psychosis in which feelings of depersonalisation and derealisation are experienced. This loss of reality may lead users to commit a crime they may not have under normal circumstances.
According to the SAPS, 60% of the crimes committed in South Africa can be attributed to substance abuse, in which criminal acts were performed either under the influence or in an effort to obtain some sort of narcotic.
According to the CDA, marijuana is the second most addictive substance in South Africa, and it is feared that allowing marijuana to be more freely available may increase the risk of crime and may deter parliament from legalising the substance. This argument has been challenged, however. Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute of Security Studies, has suggested that legalising drugs may actually have the opposite effect and may help to prevent crime as it disempowers gangs by reducing their available funds.
The CDA admits that the current attempts to reduce substance abuse through prohibition are not working and that it may have to approach the problem in a different manner. As part of their National Drug Master Plan, they have promised to look at the feasibility of legalising marijuana in South Africa, but no legal action by the CDA has been taken as of yet.
The first major bill attempting to legalise the sale of marijuana was presented to parliament in February. MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini approached parliament earlier this year proposing a bill that allowed the sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Oriani-Ambrosini, who suffers from stage four cancer, told media that it was an outrage that government could withhold a substance that could provide pain relief to those suffering from life-threatening diseases. He went on to state that marijuana is a market that can be developed to benefit South Africa economically.
Whether parliament decides to pass a bill legalising marijuana for medicinal purposes or for free use remains to be seen as debates rage on as to whether it will be good for the country or not. Until then, the question to legalise or not to legalise remains.
Image: Eddie Mafa and Hendro van der Merwe