Print version ISSN 0256-9574
SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 no.5 Cape Town May 2011
Cannabis legal debacle
To the Editor: The editorial in the SAMJ1 questioning whether it is time to decriminalise drugs refers.
The Central Drug Authority (CDA) produced the South African Position Paper on Cannabis in 2004; however, the document was never made public or released.2 The Position Paper builds a case for prohibition on a 'public health' basis and ostensibly represents the government's position regarding cannabis.
The Position Paper is fatally flawed, particularly considering that it does not contain a discussion regarding the numbers of deaths from the drug. The 2002 Canadian Senate investigation into cannabis reported that 'Cannabis presents almost no toxicity and cannot lead to an overdose.'3 The authors of the Position Paper found it possible to ignore this finding, incredibly excluding any discussion of mortality from the entire paper. If the Canadians are correct, and if smoking cannabis is essentially harmless - since there are no bodies to point to - why does the state constantly arrest and lock people up for it? South Africa has 3 195 000 cannabis users4 yet the CDA failed to produce one body as evidence of its danger.
The Position Paper furthermore does not examine the costs or the consequences of the prohibition it perpetuates. It makes no mention of the number of arrests for cannabis and the consequences of subsequent prosecutions and incarceration. In 2008/9, the SA Police Services (SAPS) arrested 111 548 people for drug-related matters. Cannabis accounts for over 80% of drug investigations by SAPS,5 which means that around 90 000 people were arrested for cannabis possession, cultivation and sale. The SAPS use helicopters to spray large cannabis plantations with glyphosate. The areas sprayed for the years 2006 -2009 were 170 hectares, 260 hectares, 1 745 hectares and 1 275 hectares respectively. The Position Paper is silent on spraying and its potential health effects. The Canadian Senate investigation found that the cost of policing the prohibition constitutes the predominant cost of the prohibition.6
The history of the prohibition of cannabis in South Africa reveals an inherently racist foundation for prohibition. This consideration is not mentioned in the Position Paper - and neither is South Africa's leading role in having cannabis prohibited internationally in 1923.
Notwithstanding the call made in the 1999 National Drug Master Plan for research into decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis, there is no discussion of a possible change in the legal position in the Position Paper.
The prohibition has failed. The Position Paper is government propaganda filled with half-truths and misrepresentations. The time has come to question the efficacy of treating drug addiction through legal wranglings and incarceration - rather than treating it as the medical problem it is.
Marius de Kock
1. Van Niekerk JPdeV. Time to decriminalise drugs? S Afr Med J 2011;101(2): 84-85. [ Links ]
2. http://www.wikileaks.ch/wiki/South_Africa_Central_Drug_Authority_Position_Paper_on_Cannabis,_2004 (accessed 15 March 2011). [ Links ]
3. Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, September 2002. Ottowa: Parliament of Canada, 2002:6. http://www.parl.gc.ca/37/1/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/ille-e/rep-e/summary-e.htm (accessed 15 March 2011). [ Links ]
4. Central Drug Authority Annual Report 2008/9. Pretoria: Central Drug Authority, 2009:137. [ Links ]
5. Central Drug Authority Annual Report 2008/9. Pretoria: Central Drug Authority, 2009:80. [ Links ]
6. Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, September 2002. Ottowa: Parliament of Canada, 2002:28. http://www.parl.gc.ca/37/1/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/ille-e/rep-e/summary-e.htm (accessed 15 March 2011). [ Links ]