Understanding Last Weeks Turn of Events: Legalisation of Cannabis in SA

The Medicines Control Council declared a desire to reschedule cannabis to schedule 6 drug this week.
Nov 26, 2016

It was with a measure of surprise I received word that the Medicines Control Council (MCC) declared a desire to reschedule cannabis from a schedule 7 to schedule 6 drug this week during portfolio hearings in Parliament on the Medical Innovation Bill (MIB).

Looking at the big picture of the last apartheid laws still left in place (the 1992 Drugs & Drug Trafficking Act and the 1965 Medicines Control Act), the rescheduling of anything is a seismic step from a policy that has been enthusiastically and heavily policed for a hundred years.

By reducing dagga from a schedule 7 to a schedule 6 drug, a couple of words were taken out of the equation. Schedule 7 describes dagga as having no medical use with an “extremely high potential for abuse or dependence”. Schedule 6 claims only a “high potential for abuse or dependence”.

Getting rid of the “extreme” bit opens the law up to include dagga as medicine.

As simple as that. Great.

But wait – who did the rigorous studies to come to this conclusion? Surely they would be of interest to medical, scientific and smoking communities the length and breadth of the country?

Yet, there was no mention of any studies on what, with what, or by whom. Maybe the MCC simply googled the most researched plant in history and came to the same conclusion as an ever increasing number of countries worldwide.

The department of health was also quick to point out that it will take a scientist to produce this medicine, as is the case for the other international dagga based medicines already available in South Africa. There is little mention of ‘cannabis’ in the Bill. The plant is described as ‘cannabinoid medication’.

It has to be pointed out at this juncture that the MIB isn’t actually a cannabis legalisation bill. It was introduced to Parliament as a package of alternative therapies that should be allowed for the terminally ill to assist them in dying with dignity, specifically when dealing with the slow demise of a cancer sufferer. The scope of the Bill has always been extremely narrow and exclusive in this regard.

What the MCC has thankfully done is to accept cannabis as having medicinal properties which means a whole world of research on humans can now take place. Yes, it’s the most studied plant in history, but because of its worldwide draconian scheduling, precious little scientific research has been done with humans and the human endocannabinoid system.

Maybe this is an opportunity for South Africa to once again position itself at the top of the world medical research stage. Let’s face it, we’re the world’s third largest weed growing nation, so there must be some half decent plant matter lying around somewhere to keep scientists occupied for endless months and years.

Where will we get our supply?

Another thing that struck us about yesterday’s press release by die IFP, who has been lobbying for the legalisation of dagga, was the timescale involved for the rollout of these medicines: as early as April 2017. (The 20th would be a good day for us.)

Doing some rough mathematics, it would mean the medicine they intend rolling out could well be growing in the ground already somewhere. And given the fact that only scientists would be capable of growing this medicine it must therefore be a given that these plants will be standardised and the only way to do that would be to grow in a clinical environment – i.e. indoors under lights. We can imagine the floor space of such a building supplying much needed cannabinoids to up to a hundred patients in the initial roll out. It’s a big building with a lot of Eskom and it must already exist if April 2017 is the roll out date.

Furthermore, we always have our noses in the dagga interwebs and online conversation threads, but we didn’t hear or see of any tenders being advertised anywhere. All the tenders we have been party to being submitted over the years to the MCC monopoly have come to nothing at either the MCC or the department of health. In fact, we’ve been told in the past that there are no protocols in place for permissions to grow any cannabis for any reason. Hopefully this will change because of the new rescheduling and we can all apply to grow with the confidence that the application won’t fall on stony ground as it were.

The political paradox

Another paradox as paradoxical as the plant itself was the way the DA also embraced the vision of medical cannabis in South Africa. That fact that they’ve embraced the plant’s medicinal qualities is in direct conflict with the fact that they are banging their chests about the creation of dog squads, and elite drug busting police units being trained in Gauteng to round up all the dagga-kops.

They are actively throwing more taxpayers money into naively trying to arrest SA out of the ‘drug’ situation. Studies abound this year from the world over, citing the war on drug as being a complete failure and there go South Africa’s supposed libertarians stepping up the offensive against what they describe as ‘druglords’. Once again we see a blatant offensive towards people who use drugs, not the drugs themselves. There is no mention of any budget being allocated to harm reduction or diversion strategies to assist problem users of course.

Medicine for the terminally ill – but a police holding cell for the rest of us.

Let’s face it though, rescheduling cannabis to describe it as a medicine is a huge day for South African cannabis activism. It means all the hard work the South African cannabis community has done to make more people aware of this plant’s qualities from a 21st century point of view over the last few years obviously paid off.

There is now a crack in the prohibition wall that we all need to take a sledgehammer to.

The fact that the MCC now recognises the plant as medicine (however which way they came to the conclusion) gives us hope that one day they’ll treat all South African’s human rights the same, and give everyone the right to use the plant, not just the terminally ill.

One day they might realise we’re all terminal and their research will show it to be an extremely effective preventative medicine and all round tonic.

He who controls the market

It’ll also be interesting to see which scientists the department of health deem to be qualified to grow cannabinoids. We can’t think of a single South African scientist qualified to grow weed who would admit it. There are literally thousands and thousands of ordinary South Africans growing the world’s most amazing weed for generations. They achieved these results from within a prohibition paradigm, a black market, and the daily spectre of losing their liberty at any point. Imagine what those illegitimate dagga boers could achieve with a lab and a budget? Sadly, if your CV has ‘been growing for 30 years’ on it, and you don’t own a white coat, you’ll probably find yourself in the aforementioned police cells with the rest of us unqualified long time ‘recreational’ users.

It seems to us that this rescheduling is the first move in an attempt to control the South African cannabis market and what we are seeing is the first stages of putting those control systems into place. We named our non profit company ‘Fields Of Green For All’ to remind ourselves daily that we are challenging these ancient prohibition laws for ALL South Africans.

This move by the MCC is a reminder that we have an awful lot of work to do to make sure the legalisation of cannabis, for whatever reason in South Africa, benefits ALL citizens, not just the government and a select few seriously ill patients who can afford scientifically grown cannabinoid medication. We’re now taking bets on how much a successful license to grow will cost.

Aluta continua.

* Julian Stobbs is director of social activism for Fields of Green for All, a non-profit organisation.

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