Right back at the beginning of all of this, a few weeks after the Dagga Couple story broke in the newspapers in August 2011, we received an email. It convinced us to meet a stranger at the quiet end of a completely deserted local restaurant with the lure of important documents we’d find beneficial to our court case.
The man with the hoodie across the dimly lit booth from us recounted his attempt at challenging the same dagga laws in the mid 1990’s. During the CODESA era. The pre internet era.
He gave us some newspaper articles claiming the South African government had been exporting Dagga to the USA since the late 1980’s as a component in what was to become the world’s biggest selling HIV/AIDS medication – Marinol.
When these articles were submitted as evidence for the plaintiff (aforementioned man in hoodie) circa 1995, his lawyers dropped him like a stone, went to ground, and his constitutional challenge fizzed out. The case went away. Quickly.
Warnings from close friends rang in our ears as we drove home. Did we actually know what we were getting ourselves into? The 1992 Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act (D&DTA), was sure have its share of apartheid skeletons in the deep and murky closet of South African drug prohibition history. We were just two ordinary cannabis users trying to assert our rights by challenging these draconian, outdated laws. We didn’t sign up for this level of subterfuge – if that is what it was.
At the time it was quite nerve wracking. It was early days in our challenge and we still hadn’t transcended our fear. And anyway, what did weed have to do with HIV/AIDS?
Marinol’s primary constituent is dronabinol. Dronabinol is ‘synthetic’ Δ9THC. It is also the International Name Nomenclature (INN) for Δ9THC; the illegal bit in weed – the bit that get us ‘high’. The articles claimed that in 1993, as the National Party were handing over the country to the incumbent ANC government, the D&DT Act was amended to say ‘all parts of the plant are illegal except trace Δ9THC – (dronabinol).
So, by making THC into trace THC, it would appear it became legal to export. But it’s still THC – the stuff that’s illegal and gets us ‘high’. The ‘trace’ isomers can be extracted at a molecular level from a batch of THC in a lab.
Well, the chemicals that make up cannabis (like THC) have slight anomalies in their molecular compositions – an atom sticking out of the wrong part of the chain for instance.
It happens in nature, and in the lab. In simplified terms there’s either a ‘trans’ or a ‘cis’ shape under a microscope. So, if you suck out all the ‘trans’ Δ9THC molecules it becomes trans Δ9 THC – the stuff that’s legal (to export). It’s still the stuff that gets us high but of course it can now be classified ‘synthetic’ because someone in a white coat has intervened and manipulated something.
That which we call a rose, by any other name etc etc
(if there’s a molecular chemist out there who could explain the process more succinctly than we just did, please leave your comments below)
It’s worth mentioning at this point the D&DTA is a cut and paste from the 1971 ‘Weed Act’ and 40 years ago was beholden to the UN drug prohibition treaties of the 60’s and 70’s. These treaties have become more and more moot as countries adopt their own quasi legalisation/decriminalisation policies and states in the USA legislate for medical and recreational use.
It was the USA that manufactured Marinol; it was also the USA who used the INN ‘Dronabinol’ to refer to Δ9THC and the USA was the destination for THC shipments in the articles we now had in our hands.
The DEA in the US at about this time began to muddy the legislative waters more and more with their THC smoke and mirrors. According to the FDA in 1995, “dronabinol is the adopted name for trans Δ9THC – a synthetic version of THC. Marinol (or its competition Elevat) is encapsulated with sesame oil. So, this semantic exercise makes THC into medicine if it’s mixed with sesame, but is a ‘dangerous, dependence producing substance with no medical value’ if it’s not.
This means dronabinol, without the sesame oil capsule is illegal and you’ll be arrested and charged with the possession of an illegal drug.
We’re not making this up.
To recap: trace Δ9THC, if mixed with sesame oil in a capsule, is HIV/AIDS medication and one of the world’s most successful drugs. Δ9THC (with trace isomers and all other chemical components intact) is not. That one’s bad and you’re going to jail….
Elevat, curiously enough, actually described their product as ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘extracted from the cannabis sativa plant’. In the late 1990’s the product manufacturers had offices in Sandton…..
Fast forward to 2016 and a 78 page WHO briefing document just published by a group of academics in the UK , including Trail of the Plant expert witness, Prof David Nutt. It’s a really important, brilliantly compiled report and will undoubtedly come in very handy during our constitutional hearing next year.
What caught our attention was the following:
So, in 2016, Δ9THC, THC, and dronabinol are all interchangable, implying they are all the same. Identical in fact.
What this implies is the smoke and mirrors the DEA constructed around dronabinol (for whatever subterfuge) in the 1990’s no longer holds true. THC is dronabinol and vice versa.
This of course doesn’t confirm the South African government has been exporting THC to the ‘first world’ for nearly 40 years, but it certainly raises suspicions as to the motives for the amendment of the 1992 D&DTA in 1993 to include dronabinol.
It took us a number of years to find the author of the newspaper reports we still have in our possession. She is now elderly and only gave us one piece of advice. Walk away. Don’t get involved. For years after the publication of the articles she was in fear of her life and suggested the closer we got to the truth, the more we might fear for our lives.
It would seem there are still a lot of skeletons banging on the door of the South African cannabis closet. The truth always has a habit of coming out in the end, and this story will be do different.