Police can smoke out dagga farmers

Agriculture minister Senzeni Zokwana has told Eastern Cape cannabis farmers not to expect protection from his department against the spraying of herbicides by police to destroy their crops.

The minister says he will wait two years until Parliament amends the legislation decriminalising cannabis before meeting the farmers.

The changes to the law were ordered by the Constitutional Court when it found that the criminalisation of the private use, possession and cultivation of the plant infringed the right to privacy.

“Eastern Cape growers should not to be emboldened to press ahead with planting until the parliamentary process is finalised,” Zokwana told the Mail & Guardian.

This week the police warned that flyover operations in Pondoland and Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape would resume if necessary, as the judgment did not protect large-scale cultivation.

“Even if we were planning it, we wouldn’t be able to tell you,” police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said.

He added: “You can’t grow a whole field of cannabis and say that’s in your personal space for your private use. You can have a few trees but I think the reasonable- man test will come in. Until the legislation is made much clear[er], every case will have to be tested in court,” he said. 

Zokwana said there were some aspects that Parliament needed to clarify “such as [the] amounts accepted by law”.

“People must be patient as [I] can’t issue orders to the police minister,” he added.

But Zokwana has flagged the economic potential of commercial cannabis farming after Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s judgment last month and he leads the inter-ministerial committee to develop the regulation of hemp.

The committee includes the departments of health, trade and industry, justice and environmental affairs, the Agricultural Research Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Zokwana’s spokesperson, Khaye Nkwanyane, said the agriculture department had already formally requested the health and justice departments to consider also amending the law “to allow for the commercialisation of hemp in South Africa”.

In 2015 the police were accused of destroying 500 hectares of cannabis crops and rural farmland by spraying glyphosate, a herbicide usually used to clear perennial weeds. Villagers in Pondoland reported developing skin irritations and respiratory problems after the operation, triggering a civil society campaign to prevent it from happening again.

Meanwhile, cannabis activists have been traversing the country since the judgment to prepare a combined submission on behalf of South Africa’s “underground” market. So far they’ve held meetings with farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, said activist Myrtle Clarke.

“Farmers are concerned about how to organise themselves into co-operatives to prepare for legalisation. And there is vehement opposition to any sort of licensing because that will set up a guard [a gatekeeping system protecting big companies],”said Clarke.

“The underground market has to be integrated into the formal market. The danger of corporates coming in and taking over is their biggest concern.

“When you think of cannabis travelling from Eastern Cape or Swaziland and being sold in Johannesburg, that’s a supply chain that works. That needs to become more efficient and there needs to be a quality-control mechanism.”

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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