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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 n.10 Cape Town Oct. 2011




Time to decriminalise drugs?



To the Editor: The editorial on the decriminalisation of drugs,1 and the debate that it sparked off,2 refer. The potential medically beneficial effects of cannabis were alluded to in the editorial. My personal dealings with a family with a child with Friedreich's ataxia, who has skeletal deformities causing constant severe pain, have convinced me that there is a place for the medicinal use of cannabis. In this case, albeit anecdotal, the only treatment that helps is cannabis. Opioids are virtually useless and are complicated by nausea and severe constipation. After personal communications some years ago with the late Professor Frances Ames, then a senior neuropsychiatrist at Groote Schuur Hospital, cannabis was tried. It was obtained illegally, as my letters and appeals to the police chief concerned were all left unanswered. In this case, cannabis provides significant pain relief and some degree of euphoria, which helps the patient through his otherwise cheerless days. He is highly intelligent, and fully aware of his hopeless prognosis.

Unfortunately, however, the use of cannabis is, and remains, a criminal offence, even for medicinal purposes. Therefore, in this case it is technically a crime to relieve this young man's pain. Cannabis is the only drug that helps him.

Maybe the torchbearers of a lily-white, idealistic, drug-free society must look a little deeper. This particular patient, by his own admission, would much prefer a little immune supression, a little 'harming of the brain', and even death to living with unbearable and unrelenting severe skeletal pain.

Surely we need to give decriminalisation (of at least cannabis, for medicinal use) another think. It may indeed be medically criminal not to.

Alcoholism is a disease (it is surely not a crime) that will never be cured by the criminalisation of alcohol use. Drug addiction is a disease (surely it is also not a crime) that likewise cannot be cured by labelling the addict a criminal.


J du T Zaaijman
Middelburg, E Cape


1. Van Niekerk JPdeV. Time to decriminalise drugs? S Afr Med J 2011;101:79-80.         [ Links ]

2. Van Eeden A. Harm reduction - more than just side-effects. S Afr Med J 2011;101:358-359.         [ Links ]

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