Pubdate: Wed, 05 May 2004
Source: Pretoria News, The (South Africa)
Copyright: 2004 The Pretoria News
Bookmark: (Hemp - Outside U.S.)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Popular)


Despite the rain, May Day saw about 120 people make their way to the
closed gates of Parliament in Cape Town. This was South Africa's
attempt at joining 160 other cities in the Global Marijuana March.

The numbers were telling of the obscurity of the dagga debate but did
not nearly represent South Africa's estimated 1-million smokers.

The turn-up was nevertheless colourful: barefooted youth with little
hope in their eyes rolled joints while soft-skinned beauties with
dirty hair brandished "legalise it" posters. Rasta brothers with
bling-bling outfits zealously shared their views with a journalist
from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Numerous self-styled gurus
clutched research documents on dagga as an alternative energy
resource, dagga as medicine, and dagga for building houses. Joints,
bottled water and ganja muffins were passed around while the police
kept their pose.

Rightly so, says organiser of the march, Andre du Plessis, because
there is more to dagga than dope.

The emphasis on the narcotic qualities of a herb that for centuries
has been a matter-of-fact feature of life in southern Africa, has
obscured its economic potential as a source of oil, paper, fabrics,
the ingredient for soaps and wax and - mixed with lime - as a cheap,
strong brick.

This potential, Du Plessis and others argue, highlights the need to
think differently about a substance that is the subject chiefly of
criminal investigation, while taking too much blame for social ills.
At the end of last year 4,269 people found themselves in South African
jails for the use or possession of cannabis, and 1,207 for the trade
or cultivation of cannabis.

Yet the focus is on waging what is arguably an apparently wasteful war
on an "enemy" that just won't go away. The sums involved are immense.
Just last year, the SA Police Service's organised crime unit seized
about 5,038kg of dagga from individuals, 99 939kg from traders and
754,913kg from plantations. This excluded cannabis confiscated by
uniformed police.

Cannabis, for the police, has the lure of a siren: Parliament was told
last year how Philippi residents, having failed to get attention from
the Nyanga police to report a rape case, fabricated a "tip-off" about
a stash of dagga. The police sent five cars. But for all their
bravado, police seem to be fighting a losing battle. An estimated
1-million South Africans regularly break the law with impunity. And
raids fail to reduce the demand. A decline in supply merely means
consumers have to pay a bit more.

And that bit more doesn't go to the rural growers, whose livelihood
often depends on their crop, but to drug lords. Some argue that more
vigorous policing of the dagga trade, far from curbing its use, hikes
profits and indirectly stimulates syndicate crime.

Prohibition has created a black market. Why, then, was dagga made
illegal in the first place?

Was it because it posed a health risk?

Was it because it threatened the textile industry?

Or because international conventions compelled South Africa to outlaw

The answer is complex, and in many ways obscure. Assumption-buster Du
Plessis, a systems engineer in the IT industry, has been pursuing the
answer since 1998. He found that the initial reason for outlawing
dagga had nothing to do with the plant's narcotic qualities, but with
the threat it posed to cotton and other industries.

Numerous laws on dagga in the 20th century were possibly racially
discriminatory, and thus - or so Du Plessis thinks - unconstitutional.
When Minister of Information Connie Mulder introduced the Dagga Act in
1971, he described dagga as a national emergency, arguing that white
army conscripts would be demotivated, and social interaction between
black and white youth would occur, if dagga was not

Du Plessis also found out that, if legalised, cannabis could take its
place as a competitive product in the petrochemical, construction,
paper, pulp and textile industries. Believing that dagga could
significantly contribute to reducing the housing backlog, and generate
jobs, he set out to share his findings, to spread, as he puts it,
"propaganja". He was not well received.

In 2001, Du Plessis approached the Innovation Fund with a proposal as
thick as a Bible. In light of the housing shortfall, estimated to be
400 000 units per year, he pointed out that houses could be built
using bricks made of shredded cannabis stalks - or hurd - and lime.
The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, which then
managed the fund, thought he was crazy.

According to Du Plessis, it would be possible to build a hurd-brick
house three times the size of a typical RDP house, for the same price.
Besides being cheaper, bricks made from cannabis are, he argued,
stronger, more sound-proof and a better thermal insulator than clay
bricks. Du Plessis says his vision of a socially-uplifting cannabis
industry was seen as nothing more than the pipedream of a dopehead.
Hoping to inspire dialogue around cannabis, Du Plessis led a similar
march last year and handed over a petition of 800 signatures to
Western Cape Public Protector Gary Pienaar urging the government to
rethink their "fundamentalist" approach to dagga. He has yet not heard
from the authorities. This year's march, he says, was to remind
government that the sharing of information with the people was an
essential part of democracy.

Ten helium balloons filled with hundreds of dagga seeds were released
into the air. They were supposed to pop at altitude. But with the help
of the wind, they ended up unspectacularly in Parliament's gardens. Du
Plessis was not concerned. For him it was a sign that, one way or
another, dagga would get government's attention.

Eastern Cape administration spokesman Manelisi Wolela says approval
has been given for cultivating 2 000ha of hemp. The Department of
Trade and Industry has promised R55-million for a hemp-processing plant.

The province's hemp specialist, Monde Fotana, hopes the research
permit for the project will in time be extended to a commercial
permit. The department is also working with Mercedes-Benz in the hope
of supplying the car manufacturer with hemp fibre for door panels and
biodegradable dashboards. Ultimately the department hopes to persuade
the Department of Health to de-schedule "hemp" from the cannabis
schedule of drugs and to introduce "industrial hemp

Key laws are the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act of 1992 and the
Medicines and Related Substances Control Act of 1965 which state that
cannabis is illegal: the whole plant or any portion or product
thereof, except dronabinol. Dronabinol is the pharmaceutical name for
the active compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which has been
patented and sold as Elevat and Marinol to combat nausea following
chemotherapy and to boost appetite in anorexics and HIV-positive patients.

Given that THC is the only legal part of the plant, it is odd that it
is the level of THC that is decisive in seeds being permitted for
research. THC is indeed responsible for producing the "high" when
cannabis is smoked, but the level of THC as a means of differentiating
between cannabis grown for smoking (dagga) and cannabis grown for
industrial purposes (hemp) is arbitrary and artificial.

The seeds approved by the Medicines Control Council for the Eastern
Cape research project have a THC content of less than 1% and are of
European origin. At 4 euro per kilogram and 50kg per ha, this will
cost the government over R3-million a year, a price they say they will
pay until farmers become established in the market, or until the
Agriculture Research Council (ARC) develops a South African hybrid
with a European level of THC.

Because of the commercial considerations, and the patent and
intellectual property rights involved, the development of new
varieties is a secretive business. Despite pressure from certain
interest groups, including Du Plessis, the research council has not
published any evidence of progress. Fotana says such information is
only shared with "responsible" farmers. After applying for a research
permit, the council supplied "responsible" farmer Russel de Beer with
750kg of European seeds which were planted in 2002 and 2003 on his
farm in Northwest Province.

It was a failure.

De Beer says that "the ARC throws stars in your eyes". He simulated
rural farming and did everything by hand but found that, because the
European cannabis needed to be fertilised and irrigated, it would not
be commercially viable for rural farmers. As the European seeds were
acclimatised to 18 hours of sunlight in summer and the South African
sun provided only 13, De Beer found they delivered poor-quality hemp.

Local varieties, producing more THC because of the shorter exposure to
daylight, are more resistant to boll-worms and stink-bugs, and can be
harvested twice a year. De Beer believes the best seed for cultivating
hemp should have a South African origin.

In the hope of "helping the rural farmer to have real power in the
market", he began researching the creation of a native hybrid, which
could meet industrial demands. But he ran into trouble: unexpectedly,
his permit failed to come through, and he was arrested, appearing in
court on April 19.

Samples of De Beer's "suspicious" crop are being analysed at a
forensic sciences laboratory to determine the level of THC.

The ARC is to give evidence in the case at the Brits Magistrate's
Court on June 10. Meanwhile the exploitation of this valuable and
prevalent shrub remains the monopoly of druglords. Many argue that
more effective monitoring of any negative effects of dagga abuse will
be possible if it is legalised, partly by destroying the allure of
doing something forbidden.

It will also free cannabis to take its place in the economy as a
versatile commodity. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake