/ 14 August 1998

Getting high on dagga profits

Ferial Haffajee

A South African multinational has patented the potent part of dagga and is selling it locally. Elevat – a brand owned by Pharmacare – is being hailed as a wonder drug for its treatment of the symptoms of cancer, Aids, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

This exposes the contradictions in South Africa’s policy on the weed: the war against marijuana growers continues unabated while a multinational profits.

How did this happen? In 1993, South African Druggists (which trades as Pharmacare) patented dronabinol, the patent name for Delta-9-thc, the active part of dagga. The Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act was quickly amended to exclude dronabinol to enable the pharmaceutical industry to exploit cannabis.

Ironically, the hemp industry is struggling to forge much smaller changes in legislation for the legal cultivation of hemp.

Prohibition means that dronabinol benefits only Pharmacare, and its uses have been kept quiet. Because Elevat is a schedule-7 drug, it can only be prescribed by a doctor. Until recently it was marketed as a drug for depressives, but is better known in cancer and Aids treatment.

Elevat limits the side-effects of chemotherapy (like nausea) and it stimulates the appetites of those with Aids. It is prescribed with circumspection because of its abuse potential.

Elevat retails for either R45 or R135 a tablet depending on its strength – a price which makes it prohibitively expensive.

Pharmacare claims to import the drug under licence from an unspecified “overseas country”. But lawyer and drugs researcher Jenny Wild says the dronabinol is being extracted locally.

The package insert of the drug states quite clearly that it “is naturally occurring and has been extracted from Cannabis sativa”. This means that the drug manufacturers could either be growing their own legal crops or obtaining it from the police.

Pharmacare says that Elevat is the South African brand name for the American drug Marinol, which is manufactured by Banner Gelatin Products in the United States. The company could not provide trade figures for Elevat and says it sells only “a limited quantity”.

Commentators say it is ironic that South Africa – almost as rich in high-quality dagga as it is in gold – imports the drug. Local production could make Elevat cheaper and more widely available. Its foreign earnings potential is huge: reports suggest that the illegal trade in dagga is twice that of the legal liquor industry.

In her research, Wild found that illicit South African sales of dagga are said to be worth some $18-billion a year, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency. The legal pharmaceutical trade across the globe is tallied at $80-billion annually.

She argues that dagga must immediately be legalised so that farmers can benefit from the existing and potential pharmaceutical demand, and that it strips away the illicit criminal value – South Africa is the world’s leading dagga producer, ahead of countries like Mexico, the US and Colombia.

US laws on cannabis have been amended to allow medical research and development. Marinol is provided at reduced cost to Aids patients and is commonly prescribed.

Dr Helen Rees of the Medicines Control Council (MCC) says: “The scheduling of drugs is meant to control but not to stop people accessing the drug.” She says the abuse potential means that dronabinol will always be treated with care, but that if approached with a credible proposal for medical research and development, the MCC would “seriously consider” it.

The international lobby for the legalisation of cannabis is growing. Its pundits – like the human rights commission’s Helen Suzman – say that poor governments (like South Africa’s) are spending valuable resources on an impotent fight against drugs while they could be earning revenue from cannabis.

But the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association disagrees: “Our position will be to oppose the legalisation of dagga. We will be very concerned about the blatant legalisation of habit- forming drugs. Sure, we make money from it [drugs like Elevat]. But it is only organised crime that makes big money out of its sale.”

n Ann Eveleth reports that South Africa has a wide range of options to consider in the debate about the future legal status of dagga. This is according to Ethan Nadelmann, director of The Lindesmith Centre in New York.

The centre organised a public letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in June which advocated a re-think of global drug policy. The letter gained the support of more than 500 signatories, including Suzman.

“Between total prohibition and total legalisation there is a whole spectrum of options, similar to those which different countries have pursued at different times in relation to tobacco and alcohol,” said Nadelmann.

“At one stage the US had a total prohibition on alcohol, Sweden had a rationing system and other countries had state monopolies on distribution or production. Now with tobacco controls, governments are experimenting with different ways to control access.”

Pressure is building in many countries for governments to re-assess their restrictive policies toward dagga. The most liberal policy currently is that in the Netherlands, where consumption and retail are legal, as is minimal restricted production for personal use. Wholesale production is, however, illegal.

In Spain and Sweden debate is currently raging about whether groups of personal users can pool their production allowance into a co- operative. A Spanish lower court permitted this, but was overruled by a higher court.

In 1996, Californians voted in a referendum to legalise dagga for medical purposes, but the federal government has so far blocked the supply or purchase. “If I were advising the South African government, I would say de facto decriminalise dagga. Regulate it and attempt to tax it. But don’t suppress it.

“The history of suppression of dagga is often associated with pushing producers into other black markets that are more destructive to society,” said Nadelmann.

The Lindesmith Centre and United Kingdom-based organisation Release are organising an international conference on the regulation of dagga on September 5 in London.

Additional reporting by Tangeni Amuphadi