/ 19 June 2020

Prohibition is back in vogue, and it never ends well

VIDEO: Rhodes students Jonathan Jones and Bjorn Krietsch follow the stories of two Grahamstown families trying to come to grips with the ruinous effects of tik.
The global drug war is reaching for parity with Europe’s medieval Hundred Years’ War.


There is a stoners’ parlour game that imagines a parallel society where marijuana is the dominant legal drug of choice and alcohol the sideshow. The tangential discussions are framed within the two drugs’ rough medical classifications: alcohol a depressant; marijuana a stimulant. 

In the land of Mary Jane, the Old Testament detour through a white-supremacist Christian sect sanitising a United States president as the allegedly flawed prophet King David, is astutely navigated. 

The fantasy flirted with reality during South Africa’s stringent two-month coronavirus lockdown with the ANC government, and its apartheid predecessor’s hair-trigger for banning addictions to subsidise organised crime. 

Lockdown’s sales prohibition window afforded a reality-check for the intimacy between violence and alcohol; registering 40% of hospital emergencies on any given legal day. The lockdown abstinence passed the ammunition to a Christian-rooted “ban-it-all” temperance movement and a cause for the ANC Women’s League beyond the defence of a previous president. 

As karma would have it, South Africa’s annual outdoor marijuana home-growers’ harvest coincided with the lockdown to temper the disruption to Cape Town’s Eastern Cape and Garden Route’s dagga supply chains. At level-four lockdown, door-to-door dagga home delivery was back to speed without prohibition’s alcohol and cigarette bootlegger prices. 

Dagga, among other mind-altering drugs not pushed by corporates, is commonly caught in the crossfire of alcohol’s carnage and its banning, often cited as a valid reason to prevent over- crowding a market dosed on Christianity’s sacrament. 

The Constitutional Court’s sober and secular decision for dagga’s legal use — against the grain of Parliament’s religious fundamentalist elements inside and outside the ruling party — sidestepped the apocalypse religions’ immature binary view of the world as “good versus evil”. 

José “Pepe” Mujica, former Uruguay president, left-wing guerrilla and cast as Latin America’s Nelson Mandela, pressed for marijuana’s decriminalisation against a hostile public dunked in Catholicism’s guilt. Promulgating the 2013 law on Christmas Eve was a deft touch, although probably elicited fewer Hail Marys among the Midnight Mass’s dog-collared than Pepe’s legalisation of abortion on demand and same-sex marriage. 

Mujica shattered Christianity’s sharia law, forged on the altar of white supremacy by avowed racist and the US’s first drug czar Harry Anslinger’s desire to racially profile Mexicans through their recreational marijuana use. 

Fostered from the US 1930’s hearings about marijuana’s ability “to cause men of colour to become violent and solicit sex from white women. This imagery became the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which effectively banned its use and sales,” says Dr Amanda Reiman, of the University of California-Berkeley and policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance

As South Africa’s torchbearer for the racist-inspired prohibition playbook, police minister Bheki Cele is pitch perfect as an enthusiastic lieutenant chasing shape-shifting dragons for the Bible Baptist Brigade’s moral virtues for all things white. 

America’s endless drug wars, cloaked in the desert religions’ marketing strategy of sin and salvation, found its logic in America’s 1920s Calvinist-inspired “Great Experiment” of booze prohibition. 

The 13-year experiment produced Al Capone as a “public enemy”, with various incarnations from Pablo Escobar, El Chapo, Rashied Staggie and Howard Marks (aka Mr Nice) since, as well as a storyboard for a popular Hollywood movie genre

Anslinger was scouting for work along with a few thousand other Christian morality police facing redundancy — after the bars and clubs once again ushered custom through the front door  — and found it in weed. 

Banning marijuana, a widely used substance with no record of a fatal overdose through its thousands of years of use, reconstituted a thick state security layer lost through alcohol’s legalisation to conjure a phantom menace through the random criminalising of recreational drugs. 

The annual Global Drug Survey conducted across 50 countries with more than 100 000 participants routinely ranks alcohol as third among society’s nine most dangerous recreational substances. It shares the podium with first-placed methamphetamine, or Tik, and second-placed synthetic cannabis, street name Spice, a chemical concoction not derived from the marijuana plant. 

The counterculture recreational substances of marijuana, magic mushrooms, MDMA, amphetamines, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and the financial elite’s predilection for cocaine are all cited as less harmful than alcohol. The survey’s pleasure rating places alcohol and tobacco on the ladder’s bottom rungs. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2016 had a brief mea culpa moment: “Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions. Organised crime is a threat to security. Criminal organisations have the power to destabilise society and governments. The illicit drug business is worth billions of dollars a year, part of which is used to corrupt government officials and to poison economies.” 

In February 2020 the UN’s narcotics board, ahead of next year’s 60th anniversary of its Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs’ crusade that ordained a plant “evil” and any other mind-altering drug in marijuana’s wake, suggested “maybe” the “taboos” should be reviewed. 

Suffice to say going to war against an illness with scripts of contradictions and helicopter gunships, spills from the mindset of nuking hurricanes as a defence against extreme weather events. 

The most revolutionary act against the drug wars was undertaken when Portugal walked away from the conflict in search of a solution to a heroin epidemic. Portugal found the answer in 2001 through decriminalising all drug use and suspending society’s judgment — a mainstay of monotheism’s business plan — of substance use as deviant. 

Portugal ignored society’s “good and bad drug” narrative and reasoned there were only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs. It has not led to the promised land of milk, honey and abstinence, but the cultural shift to treat addiction as a medical problem rather than a moral weakness reduced heroin addiction by 75%. 

The addict and possession was decriminalised, but not the dealer. The crime of addiction no longer risks criminal records and jail time. At the height of the epidemic, half of those incarcerated were for drug-related offences. 

The frontline of drug abuse was shifted from the legal system to healthcare professionals. The police are limited to fines and delivering dysfunctional addicts to a three-person panel drawn from addiction specialists, doctors, psychologists, lawyers and social workers who treat the disease. 

Portugal’s counter-intuitive declaration of neutrality changed the rules of engagement to cure a heroin plague and other addictions, against the eternal drug war’s ideology of junkies as collateral damage for the shifting goalposts of the “greater good”. 

A 2018 article published by American Psychological Association said: “Portugal now has the lowest drug-related death rate in Western Europe, with a mortality rate a tenth of Britain’s and a 

fiftieth of the United States. The number of HIV diagnoses caused by injection drug use has plummeted by more than 90 per cent.” 

“You cannot work with people when they’re afraid of being caught and going to prison,” psychologist Francisco Miranda Rodrigues, president of the Ordem dos Psicólogos Portugueses, told the New York Times: “It’s not possible to have an effective health program if people are hiding the problem.” 

 Guy Oliver is a Cape Town-based photojournalist