By Guy Oliver
Hawkers facing attempted murder charges for selling school kids alleged ‘dagga muffins’ and proposed laws penalising adults for a child ‘seeing’ Cannabis are adding to the bewildering array of chapters sourced from a long-running fake news’ yarn
Applying criminal sanctions to “decriminalise” Cannabis is for the rational an excursion into the absurd authored by gibbering and drooling straight-jacketed asylum inmates. Except it mirrors the logic underpinning a parliamentary committee massaging the Plant’s legal return from prohibition’s wilderness.
Five years after the Constitutional Court instructed the ANC government to scrap laws criminalising Cannabis – and three years past the pinnacle court’s deadline – the justice committee’s apathy for reconciling dagga gevaar’s learnt ignorance is costing the economy billions of rands in lost and unrecoverable revenue annually.
Etienne Van Zyl, a social anthropologist investigating recreational drug policies, take-away from the committee’s Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill’s three public consultations to date was “the continued (Cannabis) ignorance from the rule makers, that have not really taken the time to engage with the evidence.”
Like previous incarnations, the Bill’s fifth iteration flounders, embracing demons contrived by prohibition’s fabrications sculpting alternate realities that melt under mild scrutiny.
The Portfolio Committee’s recent invitation to the public to comment on clauses “protecting the child” wrapped up on Friday 13 October. This ran parallel to the public and legal hysteria elicited by three hawkers allegedly attempting to “murder” dozens of Soshanguve school kids with “dagga-laced muffins.”
Denied bail, the dagga muffin three’s release awaits the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) pulling a rabbit from their hat proving Cannabis kills – an outcome dismissed by medical science yet entertained by political classes and other recidivists dining-on discredited propaganda over peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
The court of public opinion has lured the NPA into the conspiracy’s cul-de-sac traipsed by prohibitionists in a century-long quest to find the holy grail giving credence to “The Big Lie” – a fatal Cannabis overdose.
Simon Delaney, a Johannesburg-based attorney specialising in Cannabis offences, doubts the attempted murder charges against Amukelani Nyulunga, 19, Ofentse Maluleka, 21, and Katlego Matlala, 29, will stick to the crime’s template defined as “the intentional but unsuccessful attempt to kill another person. The State would not succeed in proving intention.”
Space cakes and The Fear
Hypothetical calculations for a killer Cannabis dose is eating or smoking 45kg of high grade Cannabis within 15 minutes. The jury is still mulling whether the stomach would split or a smoker would succumb to asphyxiation before a deadly cannabinoid overdose registers on the toxicology report.
Children munching “dagga cookies” is a routine and regular occurrence. Yet this never results in any known infant’s death – unlike pharmacy medicines and alcohol’s unrelenting child killing sprees. A 2016 US study published by the science journal Clinical Toxicology explored 430 emergency calls to the National Poison Data System during the preceding two years assessing Cannabis edibles and beverage consumption among minors.
It found a quarter, or more than 100 panicked calls, involved children under five- years-old tempted by parents “space cakes” and cool drinks after mistaking them for sugary treats.
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) immovable stance is there are no known Cannabis overdose deaths “attributed” to the recreational substance, despite some plant strains tripling in psychotropic strengths since the 1990s.
The hawkers’ attempted murder trial and the justice committee’s dagga distaste are pages torn from the 1930s Culture War’s script devised by the US’ deigning the bush a global “whipping boy” for precipitating “teenage hysteria”, “encouraging sex” across race lines, as well as endangering capitalism and national security, among other high crimes.
America’s 1937 Marihuana (sic) Tax Act globally pedalled The Big Lie by comprehensively outlawing Cannabis. The plant’s persecution was endorsed wholesale by South Africa’s white-minority governments that pioneered Cannabis prohibition when the Natal colonial administration banned its use in 1870 among indentured sugar cane cutters “imported” from India.
The Cape Colony criminalised Cannabis in 1891 and the Free State climbed on the bandwagon in 1903 after the second Boer War. The 1928 Medical, Dental and Pharmacy Act then effectively banned Cannabis nationally for immorality. The 1937 Weeds Act laid another legal layer echoing sentiments evoked by the US’s recent damnation of the plant.
The apartheid government – that equated dagga users to satanists and communist filth columnists – gazetted the 1971 Abuse of Dependence-producing Substances Act added to Cannabis’ already bloated criminal catalogue. The last legislative act of the last white parliament was ensuring Cannabis possession above 115 grams was a “dealing offence”. A puzzling priority in 1992 when a burning country hung in the balance between race war and a non-racial democracy.
Cannabis’ demonisation is amplified from pulpits to corporates and the rabid rants by apartheid demagogues have sashayed into democracy’s incurious parliamentary minds parroting prejudices that seeped into their psyche across overlapping generations reimagining an ornate non-lethal plant as polonium – a radioactive poison favoured by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assassins.
Scientific evidence refuting prohibition’s Cannabis myths are routinely ignored by governments as factual inconveniences, regardless of origin. The anti-narcotic US Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Judge Francis Young ruled in 1988 that “marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”
Cannabis remains a prohibited substance under US federal law. It is decriminalised at state level, to varying degrees, among 23 of America’s 50 states.
Delaney’s bent for Cannabis law makes him an outlier in the South African legal profession that is quick to judgement from his “anecdotal experience (where) the drug stigma and stereotypes persist” as a mortal and moral threat to both its adherents and society.
Committee by chaos
Complimenting the justice committees’ tardiness to legally map an industry promising hundreds of thousands of decent paying jobs is the administrative disarray under ANC parliamentarian Bulelani Magwanishe’s stewardship.
Last month’s invitation to comment on the draft Cannabis Bill failed to notify those wishing to comment on which version of the document to comment on, initially disseminating a redundant version Bill, seeding confusion and deja-vu.
Strict limitations placed on households cultivating a maximum eight female plants – or risk severe and escalating criminal charges from arbitrary plant counting – were surprisingly absent from the Bill’s 11 September 2023 rendition.
What should have provoked celebration among Cannabis protagonists for scratching one of the Bill’s most contentious clauses was greeted with a shrug-of-the-shoulders.
Cannabis entrepreneur and public hearing participant Andre Du Plessis agreed female plant restrictions “seems to have been removed, however, this Bill is like water. It may pop up again in the regulations. At this point I’ll believe what is finally printed. (The portfolio committee) is a bunch of people in over their heads navel gazing.”
Cannabis activist Jeremy Acton and a registered interested party filed a formal complaint against the justice committee’s slap-dash conduct, for among other shortcomings, thwarting citizen’s democratic rights. His messages to the committee were later marked as spam, indicating a total disregard for democratic interaction.
Punishing the poor
The Eastern Cape-based Umzimvubu Farmers Support Network’s submission last month to the portfolio committee highlighted Mantlaneni Traditional Authority’s AmaMpondo Chief Dinwayo’s previous 2021 oral evidence to parliament on “customary and indigenous practices” citing a child’s role in “Cannabis cultivation and harvesting”.
The AmaMpondo Cannabis farming communities response to the Bill’s “no see” clause was disbelief. “There is no way that children cannot see the Cannabis plants because we dry and prepare the plants at home where they live,” one farmer said in written testimony.
The farmer network reminded the committee parents and guardians “brewing traditional beer in front of their children […] are certainly not prosecuted.” Alcohol is ranked as the country’s most destructive recreational drug.
The network sketched the clauses destination if swingeing criminal and financial penalties were imposed on poverty’s cultural practices. “All of those AmaMpondo households – many tens of thousands – will be rendered to be criminals, and their children may (again) be left without a parent.”
(Editor’s note – the latest version of the draft Bill indicates that Cannabis no longer needs to hidden from children, but there remains contradictions as adults are also instructed to conceal their Cannabis from minors).
Learning from alcohol
Van Zyl says maintaining Cannabis criminal penalties were disproportionally detrimental to the poor, such as the various traditional, cultural, and religious communities in rural and urban areas, among South Africa’s many other impoverished segments.
“Rastafarians interact around their kids with Cannabis and often burn Cannabis outside as part of ritual cleansing ceremonies. So their kids are exposed,” he explains by example. Those unable to pay proposed fines were “likely to have kids taken away,” or a parent jailed, and that “doesn’t serve a child’s best interests.”
“Importing” and duplicating alcohol’s legal framework – permitting parents or guardians to consent to its use for “religious or cultural purposes” – would regulate children’s Cannabis interactions and “solve diverse (Cannabis) cultural issues,” Van Zyl said. “If parents are found to be abusing children there are ways and means to solve the problem using existing legislation.”
The justice portfolio committee did not respond to enquiries.
Guy Oliver is a Johannesburg-based photo-journalist and guerrilla gardener.
*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Fields of Green for ALL.