On a sweltering summer evening in downtown Johannesburg, Larry lit up a joint. The previous day, he had experienced an attempted smash-and-grab and his nerves were still frayed.
Larry, who isn’t using his given name, was passing around a joint in his friend’s car when he saw two men approach. Their determined stride made him fear another smash-and-grab was about to happen and he froze. But the men were undercover police officers who had noticed the fragrant wafts of smoke escaping from the car windows.
It all happened quickly. The police officers dragged the two friends out of the car and told them they were under arrest. They were taken to the police station, where they were fingerprinted and locked up in a communal cell. The cell was filthy, the toilet broken, the floor covered in sewage. Police officers, one of whom seemed drunk, threw smelly, damp blankets at them and the doors banged shut.
The next day, the attorney Larry’s friends had hastily hired appeared on the other side of a grimy glass partition in a cramped interview room. The sister of Larry’s friend had tried earlier to bail them out, but she was told that they were dangerous drug addicts in possession of many drugs. The lawyer got bail set at R500 and at lunchtime on a Sunday the friends exited their cells and walked into the sun.
Several days later, they appeared at the magistrate’s court. Larry and his friend stepped into the box. The magistrate read out the charge sheet: possession of dagga to the value of one joint. The prosecutor decided to divert the charges, which meant that the friends had to follow a drug awareness course. They were instructed to report back to the magistrate after completion of the course.
The drug awareness officer took one look at the charge sheet and said: “This is kak.” He signed off without ever discussing the dangers of drugs with the friends.
When they returned to the court a week later, the charges were dropped. Larry and his friend narrowly escaped a criminal record, which could have ruined their lives.
Last month Judge Dennis Davis handed down a judgment in the Western Cape High Court that held that the criminalisation of dagga use, possession and cultivation in the privacy of the home was unconstitutional. It declared sections of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act to be invalid.
Jeremy Acton, of the Dagga Party, and Gareth Prince, a Rastafarian by religion, were the main applicants in this case. Last week, the state applied to appeal the judgment with the Constitutional Court.
If that court upholds the order and amendments are made by Parliament to the Drug and Drug Trafficking Act, it could mean one step closer towards decriminalisation of the plant.
In February this year, the medicinal use of cannabis was legalised.
Decriminalisation would free up R3.5-billion in criminal justice resources, the Anti-Drugs Alliance has estimated.
That money could, for example, be invested in investigating and prosecuting violence against women. The deaths of several women, including Karabo Mokoena, over the past few days, have yet again highlighted the criminal justice sector’s lackadaisical approach towards tackling violence against women.
About 40% to 50% of women in South Africa have experienced intimate partner violence, according to the South African Medical Research Council (MRC). Three women die at the hands of their partners every day. AfricaCheck noted in its fact sheet on assault and sexual crimes statistics that “only 1.4% of police stations inspected (two out of 145) were fully compliant with the Domestic Violence Act”.
Yet substantial criminal justice resources continue to be invested in combating the use of the herb. Larry’s arrest is a case in point. Several police officers were involved in the arrest; Larry and his friend hired two lawyers; they appeared twice before the magistrate; the prosecutor spent time on the case, as did other court staff and a drug awareness officer. All of this for possession of one joint, with a street value of about R10.
The Anti-Drug Alliance calculated in their 2016 report, At What Cost – All Rands and No Sense, that it costs about R89 to arrest someone, R365 to keep someone overnight in a cell, R671 to investigate someone arrested for possession and R398 for court proceedings.
In the year 2014-2015, a whopping R3.5-billion was spent on dagga criminalisation, but the annual street value of the herb is an estimated R1.5-billion.
Larry was one of 259 165 people arrested for drug-related crimes in 2015-2016, according to the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) crime statistics. The police do not release the breakdown of their arrests according to drug type. The police did reveal in their 2015-2016 annual crime report that, nationally, possession of cannabis made up for a staggering 65% of all drug-related crimes recorded by police. This statistic has not changed much since 2006-2007.
That report provides another interesting statistic. The police confiscated 362 099kg of dagga. All other drugs – cocaine, heroin and crystal meth – amounted to 1 370kg.
“This means that, excluding Mandrax [which is not measured in kilograms] 99.6% of all drugs confiscated in 2015-2016 in terms of kilograms was marijuana,” said Gareth Newham, head of the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies.
“The decriminalisation of marijuana would be substantially beneficial for the criminal justice system as it would free up resources to focus on more serious, violent and organised crimes,” Newham added.
Criminal justice resources are not only used in the confiscation of these drugs, but also in the process after the drugs are taken.
“One can be sure that considerable resources are being used by the SAPS forensic services to process these drugs to ensure that they are actually drugs,” said Newham.
Myrtle Clarke, who is one half of the “Dagga Couple” (the other is Julian Stobbs), is advocating for the complete “re-legalisation” of cannabis. “The harms of prohibition far exceed the harms of the plant,” she says. The couple are also taking their campaign to court; on July 31 the High Court in Pretoria will hear what has been dubbed “the trial of the plant”.
If dagga is decriminalised, R3.5-billion could be invested annually in serious crimes. It may take some of the pressure off the clogged-up court system, an overburdened police force, severely overcrowded prisons and see more successful prosecutions for murders such as that of Karabo Mokoena. – Additional research by Azarrah Karrim
Ruth Hopkins is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project