South Africa at dagga crossroads

For one South African mother, dagga was an illegal drug to warn her son about when he became a teenager: today, she uses it to treat his rare medical condition.

Now the ban on using the drug is being challenged in the High Court, raising the possibility that it could effectively be decriminalised.

“When I first heard of medical marijuana, I thought they were smoking it because they wanted to get high,” said Susanne, who asked for her real name to be withheld.

“Then I had a kid who could actually benefit from it.”

She remembers the impact that cannabis oil appeared to have on her seven-year-old son, who suffers from Costello syndrome which causes delayed physical and mental development.

“A month after he first started taking it we had a family function and they were gobsmacked,” she told AFP.

“For the first time he played on his own and didn’t need his mummy,” she said, explaining he was prone to restlessness and joint pain as a result of the condition.

Susanne was persuaded to try the oil by Gerd Bader, a South African marijuana advocate, who manufactures concentrated cannabis oil to treat his own multiple sclerosis.

Bader and Susanne are among a growing number of South Africans calling for dagga to be legalised for medical purposes.

At the moment, possessing, growing or using marijuana — even in small quantities — can lead to jail time, a fine and a criminal record.


READ MORE: Why the state needs to lose its fight against marijuana policy reform

However a court in the Western Cape ruled in March that a ban on dagga use by adults at home was unconstitutional, effectively decriminalising it in the province.

Globally, the legal status of cannabis varies widely. In Portugal, for example, possession and use is largely decriminalised, while users in Saudi Arabia face the death penalty.

‘Branded a criminal’ 

Bader, 49, uses a homemade blasting tube to extract the high-strength oil from cannabis buds.

“People who are dying now cannot wait until parliament makes a decision in two years — nobody has two years to wait,” he said.

“I’m branded a criminal (by society) for illegally helping people when doctors have given up on them.

“I wish we could come together and show them our expertise.”

Bader, who sells a bottle with 5.5 grams (0.2 ounces) of cannabis oil for R1 600 ($120, €100), is also bullish about the economic benefits of legalising marijuana.

“It could be a major revenue source for the taxman. Free the weed, give it to the people.

“We’ll have an industry like we’ve never had before. It’s like the oil in Arabia — an industry with no overheads, imagine,” he said.

Bader, who uses a wheelchair, claims to have benefited enormously from medical marijuana, chiefly as pain relief.

“I was dying with my condition but it’s brought my life back,” he said.

Not universally beneficial 

The Medical Research Council of South Africa has already launched trials to help guarantee quality, consistency and standards, according to local media.

But Shaun Shelly, a drug policy researcher at the University of Pretoria, warned that medicinal marijuana would not benefit everyone.

“We’ve kind of swung the pendulum (so) everybody thinks that cannabis use for everybody is perfectly safe and is going to have no problems — and that’s not true,” he told AFP.

“For some people who have got propensity to psychotic disorders, using high-THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana) dagga is not good.

“We need to realise that marijuana can be useful to some people and poison to others.”

Mayo Clinic doctor J. Michael Bostwick argued in a 2012 paper that “marijuana use lacks the scientific legitimacy” of thorough trials.

READ MORE: Drug authority: SA doesn’t have the necessary discipline to allow dagga judgment

“It has become an option of last resort for those for whom available pharmaceuticals have proven ineffective,” added the psychiatrist at the US-based world-renowned hospital.

Breakthrough court case? 

Susanne’s son is one of those for whom mainstream medicines have fallen short.

As well as helping to calm him, the cannabis oil eases the pain that he experiences in his unusually flexible joints, a typical symptom of Costello.

She said that, though she had not encountered any legal problems, attention from the authorities remains “a concern”.

Susanne, from Johannesburg, spoke to AFP as the High Court case got under way that users hope will change the legal status of dagga.

Myrtle Clarke and Julian Stobbs — dubbed “the dagga couple” —were arrested in August 2010 for possession and launched the challenge to the constitutionality of the ban in the High Court in Pretoria.

Susanne hopes the case will be a step towards full legalisation and medical testing.

“I’m suggesting that with this trial happening that we’ll make some headway,” she said, as her son played with a video camera and talked excitedly about a planned trip abroad.

“It is important medical marijuana is made mainstream so that tests can be conducted — and for that it needs to be legalised.

“Because of the marijuana oil, I’ve got a new child.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday