I have been a cannabis user — both recreationally and to manage chronic pain — for more than 40 years.
When the Constitutional Court announced its decision to legalise the use and cultivation of cannabis in private, I actually cried with relief. For the first time in 40-plus years, I would no longer be regarded as a criminal for using something that harmed nobody else.
The court gave government two years to bring legislation in line with the decision and the proposed Cannabis for Personal Use Bill has just been made public.
I had hoped that government would use the decision by the court to revise the laws surrounding cannabis in a way that would embrace and capitalise, not just on the ruling but also on the worldwide shift in attitude towards the plant. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the proposed law comes close to doing this.
In an attempt to understand the various convoluted provisions within the Bill, it soon became clear that in many ways, itl is a step backwards.
My issues with the Bill relate to how it will affect me, as a cannabis user, and our country.
Personal and the public
From a purely personal viewpoint, the Bill still restricts my freedom, in that it limits the amount of cannabis that I am allowed to possess and grow.
The government wants to restrict the amount of cannabis you possess in your home to 600g for a single person and 1.2kg for a couple. Growers are only allowed four mature plants for a single person and eight for a couple on a property and no allowance is made for extra adults who could be living there.
Because I have been using cannabis for such a long time, my tolerance is very high and I have to use a larger dose for it to be effective.
I am only able to grow outdoors. This means that I have one season to grow and harvest my entire year’s supply. My yearly use is greater than the limit proposed for a couple.
There are other factors that make these restrictions problematic and impractical for someone like me.
I started growing cannabis as soon as the Constitutional Court made its decision. The first year, my total harvest was just over two kilos and that just lasted me till my next harvest. Last year I decided to increase the number of plants I grew because I had problems with theft and disease. I also wanted to experiment with making more effective medication, which requires a really large quantity of mature cannabis flowers. Unfortunately, more than half of my plants were stolen and I had quite a few male plants that needed to be removed. On top of this, I had a problem with mould so my final harvest was even smaller than the previous year!
If the proposed limits were in place at that time, I would not have had a harvest at all.
These issues clearly indicate that there was a lack of consultation and or understanding of the people that this law will most affect.
A broader perspective
Recent years have seen a global shift in the attitude towards cannabis. Many countries have legalised its use for medicinal and recreational purposes. The United Nations is also reviewing its drug policies and a new report from the UN System Coordination Task Team describes punitive drug policies as “ineffective in reducing drug trafficking or in addressing non-medical drug use and supply”. It goes on to say that such approaches “undermine the human rights and well-being of persons who use drugs, as well as of their families and communities”.
The prohibition of cannabis has always been controversial. Though most research suggests it is far less harmful than alcohol, for decades, the plant has been outlawed and demonised in countries where alcohol is freely available. Though many of the claims about the effects of cannabis are often ridiculous, mainstream society generally accepted that cannabis was too dangerous to be legal. Even research into the effects and possible medical uses was banned. Despite growing evidence that prohibition is far more damaging to society and individuals than legalisation, there still exists a great deal of prejudice towards the plant.
Failures of the proposed Bill
If you examine the proposed Bill, it is quite clear that our decision makers are still prejudiced. When comparing the draft legislation on cannabis to the current laws governing alcohol, several discrepancies appear. As mentioned before, the proposed law restricts the amount of cannabis you are allowed to have and to grow. No such restrictions are applied to the home production of alcohol. The penalties for infringing the laws are also much harsher. Simply possessing more than the stipulated quantity could result in a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. This means that someone who is growing a lot of cannabis in order to make medicine, could face the same sentence as someone convicted of rape or murder. Surely it would have been simpler and more just to apply the same laws to cannabis as those applied to alcohol?
Cannabis and the economy
Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on the global economy and has literally changed our world within the space of a few months. The South African economy was floundering before the virus struck and the added effects of the lockdown have resulted in immense hardship for a great number of our people. The virus has highlighted the inequalities within society and also its fragility, particularly around food and job security. It is likely that we will feel its repercussions for many years to come.
The crisis we are facing is unprecedented in modern times and unless drastic action is taken soon, the consequences for our country will be catastrophic. Adopting a radical, inclusive approach to the legalisation of cannabis could be the solution to many of the problems we will face.
In 2019 the value of global, legal sales of cannabis was about $14.8-billion. That represents a growth of 46.1% over a period of six years. The estimated size of the global illegal market is $340-billion. As more countries relax their laws, it is likely that the sale of legal cannabis will soon become one of the biggest businesses worldwide.
South Africa now has the chance to become a world leader in one of the most important industries of the future. Legalisation of medicinal and recreational cannabis will boost GDP, tax revenue and quite possibly tourism as well. Having legal outlets for cannabis will also reduce the use among minors and cut off a valuable stream of income from organised crime.
Full legalisation will also benefit small, struggling farmers, strengthen food security and reduce urbanisation.
If we are to realise the full benefits of the industry, it is vital that the ordinary, struggling members of our society be given the opportunity to grow and sell both medicinal and recreational cannabis.
Government should be investing in research into all aspects of the industry, they should be lobbying the UN to revise their policy on the import and export of recreational cannabis and the department of agriculture should start a breeding and training programme as soon as possible.
It is inevitable that full legalisation will eventually become the norm in most countries and those that are first to adopt the policy will see the greatest rewards in the future.
I have often heard our government say that they are the representatives of the underprivileged in our society and that our country needs to adopt policies that will work for us. The ANC now has the opportunity to prove this and I hope that prejudice and outdated thinking will not get in the way of the promise being fulfilled.
I believe the proposed Bill should be scrapped in its entirety and replaced with one that will offer our people and our country the best chance at recovering from the Covid-19 crisis. In the interim, I believe there should be a moratorium on all cannabis arrests and prosecutions until a fair, just and sensible alternative is drafted.