On 5 August, registered nonprofit organisation Fields of Green for All held South Africa’s first Clinical Cannabis Convention. The hope was to de-stigmatise the use of cannabis and educate medical professionals whose patients may already be using the plant. This conference built on the momentum gained by the ongoing case, dubbed the ‘Trial of the Plant’, that is fighting to re-legalise cannabis in South Africa. Many of the speakers at the event are also expert witnesses in the trial.

In 1993 The South African Drugs and Drugs Trafficking Act No.140 listed cannabis under “Undesirable Dependence- Producing Substances” and made any part of the plant illegal. Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, known as ‘The Dagga Couple’ have taken seven government ministers to the Pretoria High Court in an effort to disprove that cannabis is an ‘undesirable’ substance. They have divided their arguments into four platforms: responsible adult use of cannabis; use of cannabis for health; use of cannabis in industry; and traditional, religious and cultural uses of cannabis.

Dr Keith Scott listed seven universally applicable, fundamental and underlying realities of cannabis use. Firstly, archaeology and history show that cannabis has always been used, citing the 1993 finding of a 2500 year old ‘Siberian Ice Princess’ found to have died of metastatic breast cancer and buried with a pouch of cannabis which is thought to have been used to relieve some of her pain. Scott’s second point claimed that “over 80% of people who use the drug for the first time, never use it again” which he believes disproved the idea that cannabis is a “gateway drug”. Thirdly Scott says that of the people who use the drug regularly, less than 10% develop an addiction. Fourthly, Scott claims that some of these addictions are due to mental illnesses, and are used as a coping mechanism for victims of abuse or people in dire situations. For his fifth fundamental underlying reality, Scott uses a quote by Darrel Gates who was Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1978 to 1992 and believed that casual drug users form the majority of drug markets. Scott said that “wine farmers and beer brewers no more drive alcohol sales than drug dealers drive drug markets.” The sixth fundamental underlying reality Scott used was that drug use in itself is a victimless crime, and is no more harmful than a beer after a game of tennis. Finally, Scott believes that legal regulation of cannabis is the only workable, holistic, and humanistic solution because banning a substance that was already on the market only increases its price and those with substance-use disorders are shunned by society and turn to crime, bearing the brunt of the drug laws.

One of the main driving forces behind the call to legalise cannabis is the industrial uses of the plant. Hemp, a species of cannabis which is used for its raw materials, is differentiated from dagga the shorter, bushier species used for medicine and mind alteration. Arné Verhoef, a gardener with a keen interest in what he describes as future crops, believes that “all cannabis use is therapeutic”, Tony Budden, founding partner at Hemporium, a South African company that sells hemp products from clothes to nutrition supplements explains that although the international niche market for cannabis products is ‘eco green’, in South Africa it is people who are malnourished. Budden helped open the Yiza Ekhaya soup kitchen, a feeding scheme in Cape Town, where the building is made from Hempcrete, a mixture of hemp and lime, and the 250 people fed there daily are often given hemp oil which is high in omega oils. Budden says that the face of cannabis in South Africa is changing from an attitude of “keep this away from your child’ to ‘this can actually save kids.”

Cannabis can also be used as a medicine. Prof Donald Abrams, chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division at San Francisco General Hospital and a Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, explained that cannabis shows significant results as a pain killer and in mediating the symptoms of nausea. Prof David Nutt, British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist, explained that the benefit of using cannabis as opposed to opioids is that the dose it will take to harm you is 100 fold the dose it will take to help you. Prof Nutt also emphasised the comparison between cannabis and alcohol, saying that cannabis is at least three times less harmful than alcohol, and significantly less harmful than almost all other illicit drugs on all parameters measured. Dr Marlon Germon explains the medical arguments against the use of cannabis saying that “often people hear claims that cannabis can cure cancer and delay seeing an oncologist and that causes more harm for them.” Dr Germon went on to say that because government is not properly involved yet in the quality control of cannabis people can make all sorts of claims which are not backed up by the medical community. “Regulation is control and harm reduction, and harm reduction is important. If you class cannabis as a medicine and you are treating medical conditions you need regulations, if there is no regulation the quality of the substance can be harmful, so for medicine and for recreation, regulations are needed.” In terms of possible regulations, Dr Abrams told Perdeby that cannabis “Should be looked at as a botanical medicine like echinacea or garlic, but it should be restricted to people over 21 years of age.”

Shaun Shelly is from the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pretoria, and also serves on the board of advisers to the Harm reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support network (HAMS) and Families for Sensible Drug Policy in the United States. He is also a member of the International Drug Policy Consortium strategy sub-committee. Shelly explained the concept of Dr Norman E. Zinberg’s book Drug, Set, and Setting. The mind-set and setting when a drug is used is important. He explained that policy creates the mind-set and setting, saying that if a drug is viewed as wrong, then a drug that isn’t necessarily lethal and dangerous becomes lethal and dangerous. Shelly says that policy is not having an effect on drug availability but is increasing its concentration (so that more substance can be transported in a smaller space), decreasing the safety surrounding a substance, allowing most drug use to happen in unsafe areas, increasing the criminality surrounding the substance, and allowing self-fulfilling prophecies to take place due to the stigma surrounding drugs. Shelly believes that police arrest quotas are the problem and demonstrated that as the quotas increase, so do the amount of convictions relating to drug use, but the drug use itself does not increase. He also explained that although drug related arrests increased, general crime did not increase, indicating there is not a large correlation between cannabis use and crime. Shelly also said that “low level drug dealers are essential to township economies”, and not all drug dealers are gang affiliated.

‘The Trial of the Plant’ will be heard in the Pretoria High Court from 31 July 2017 to 25 August 2017 after which it is expected to move to the Supreme Court of Appeal and then the Constitutional Court.

Image: Savannah Plaskitt

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