Dagga ruling lacking

Sipho Yagha smokes a dagga pipe in a private home.

People in the impoverished Hout Bay area say selling small quantities of what they call the “tree of life” is the only way they can put food on the table, and they fear they will continue to be targeted by police and end up in prison.

There are an estimated 350 Rastafarians in Hangberg.

Last week, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo upheld the Western Cape High Court’s ruling that dagga could be used at home and ruled that Parliament must change its Drug Trafficking and Medicines Control acts.

However, as the dust has settled on the ruling, questions have emerged over what constitutes an amount for personal use.

Judge Zondo has effectively left the decision up to police officers, who should ask “the person such questions as may be necessary to satisfy himself or herself whether the cannabis he or she is in possession of is for personal consumption”.

Local Rastafarians believe the ruling is not good enough.

“Say I sell R10 worth of ganja to someone, but the police catch me with that R10’s worth. Then I must pay a R100 fine to the courts, or else I go to prison. The government is making a lot of money,” said Ingrid Petersen, a mother of two who grew up in a Rastafarian family.

“In my community, we’ve been growing ganja, and our people support us. We are not criminals here. I live a very social life and put food on the table for my children. But even with the judgment, I’m still scared because in the government’s eyes I’m a criminal. I want ganja decriminalised across the board.”

Ms Petersen said as a Rastafarian, it was her constitutional right not to bow down to another person’s authority.

“I don’t see why God’s people have to be oppressed. When I smoke ganja, I do it for God. I don’t need to vote for people; I vote for Jah. Why must I be a slave in my own country? Ganja is not a drug, it is a plant that grows out of the ground. Why are we being persecuted?”

Sipho Yagha became a Rastafarian in 2007, believing it was a spiritual calling.

“You see many educated people saying why ganja shouldn’t be legalised, but they don’t know ganja because they don’t know God. Government must legalise it completely. We aren’t looking for benefits – this is our culture,” he said.

He was also concerned that at some point the government would realise that profits could be generated from dagga.

“If this happens, we don’t want the government growing it, because then how are we, as ordinary residents, going to be able to put food on our tables?”

Brent Thomas, a local tour guide, has long campaigned for total decriminalisation of dagga.

“The fight has only just begun. You can still be arrested and taken to jail where you are murdered, raped or abused. All that this ruling has done is confuse the situation,” Mr Thomas said.

Total decriminalisation, he said, could go a long way towards eradicating poverty, as marijuana could be used to make bricks and clothing.

“As it stands, none of the current laws are there for the benefit for the small man. They (government) don’t want to completely legalise weed, because the biggest auctioneer in this country is the courts, which issue fines.”

He likened the situation to the government’s handling of the fishing rights allocation process in Hangberg, where small-scale fishers had fallen by the wayside as large fishing companies moved in.

He added true Rastafarians smoked dagga as a means by which to “burn a sacrifice to God”, not simply to get high.

Mr Thomas’s wife, Donita Pockpas, said she had experienced abuse at the hands of police due to dagga being illegal.

“I’ve been brutalised by police. They even scratched in my private parts and dreadlocks while I was naked as they looked for herb, which I didn’t even have. I had to go for counselling. I hope the police stop brutalising our people,” Ms Pockpas said. Experiences such as this one is part of the reason she campaigned for total decriminalisation.

Ben James welcomed the ruling, and hoped it would pave the way for economic opportunities.

“If I can grow ganja legally, I can sell it to other people to make clothing. Government must sit with us so we can work out how to use it to benefit the economy,” he said.

“There are people who say ganja makes us lazy, but it makes us conscious of the world around us. It gives us strength and power,” he said.

The national legislature is expected to rectify the constitutional “defects” in the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act of 1992 and the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act of 1965. It has been given 24 months to do so. “This could entail Parliament introducing a new bill. Alternatively, the executive, who were party to the litigation, could introduce a new bill to give effect to the order of the court,” parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said.

“Parliament is in possession of the judgment and the relevant structures in Parliament will take a decision on the manner to give effect to the judgment. As required by the constitution, the public will have an opportunity to make submissions during the processes in Parliament.”