By DAVID MACGREGOR
After more than 40 years on the fringe of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, dagga finally stepped out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
Usually whispered about in hushed tones and smoked in dark corners, pot took centre stage as red-eyed stoners, blue rinse pensioners and academics scrambled to find out more about weed at talks on decriminalisation and the medicinal benefits of the plant.
Even South Africa’s high profile “Dagga Couple”, Jules Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, made the long haul to festival city where they smoked high quality cannabis oil from an odourless vapouriser at a busy High Street coffee shop.
“This is the best thing ever,” Stobbs explained as he loaded an oil drop into the electronic vaporiser.
Pulling long and hard, Stobbs blew out a massive cloud on the crowded verandah without worry.
“Everybody is using them nowadays … you can light up anywhere you like and nobody has a clue,” he chuckles.
Similar to e-cigarettes, vaporisers have been selling like hot cakes at the festival as smokers clamber to get their hands on them.
Besides the exhaled smoke being completely odourless, cannabis connoisseurs say another benefit is they don’t smell or get red eyes after a smoke.
After smoking pot their entire lives, Stobbs and Clarke became the South African poster couple of legalisation after they were busted at their house in 2010 with more than 115 grams of dagga.
Instead of rolling over and pleading guilty to dealing and getting a criminal record, the couple did what thousands before had only dreamed of and mounted a legal challenge claiming the laws that banned the plant were a relic of apartheid.
Supported by dagga smokers, the couple has raised hundreds of thousands through crowd funding to fly in world experts to testify at the landmark court case that has been dubbed the “trial of the plant”.
According to the Dagga Couple, they are not just campaigning for the right for over-18s to be allowed to smoke pot “responsibly”, they are also doing it for people to use and grow the plant for cultural, religious and medical reasons.
“We are doing this for all uses of the plant,” Myrtle explained.
“We don’t want to compartmentalise it – South Africans should be able to use dagga however they like.”
Billed as the biggest trial of a generation, the couple have lined up some of the top names in the scientific world to testify on the positive uses of dagga.
They also got a stay of prosecution on their dealing charge until after the landmark case is concluded and many other South Africans have done the same thanks to their Join The Queue campaign.
At a Think!Fest talk titled Weeding Out Legislative Hypocrisy, Dagga Couple lawyer Paul-Michael Keichel, from top legal firm Schindlers, said flying out expert witnesses was vital to properly deal with the issues.
He said opinions on dagga ranged from “devil cabbage” that will cause the sky to fall on your head to others that tout it as a miracle cure-all.
According to Keichel, rational thought and consistent lawmaking was needed to properly tackle what was fundamentally a human rights issue.
He said research had revealed cannabis use was less harmful than legal fixes like tobacco and alcohol and that years of prohibition did little to stem the tide of people using it and getting busted.
Billions are wasted each year waging an unnecessary war on dagga that criminalises normally law-abiding citizens for smoking a joint in the comfort of their own home.
“Whether you are pro or against dagga, you need to ask yourself if you are comfortable putting people in prison for this usage.”
Keichel said the money could be better spent on other more pressing social issues.
“We cannot use anecdotes as the basis for our ideas and laws, we need to find out whether our longstanding beliefs are legitimate in this context.”
According to Keichel, the Dagga Couple were a “very respectable couple” who were nice human beings.
Their only “crime” was that they derived great pleasure smoking dagga.
During another well- attended Think!Fest panel discussion entitled Decriminalising Dagga, medical experts and dagga users discussed the pros and cons of using the weed.
Fort England psychiatric hospital senior clinical psychologist Dr Scott Wood said although dagga was the first illegal drug most youth experimented with, it was usually preceded by trying cigarettes first.
He said 80% of people in rehab for substance abuse had started out smoking dagga.
Although research did raise concerns over how early use impacted brain development in younger smokers, Wood conceded that little research had been done on the health benefits of dagga.
He said unlike other substances, dagga stayed in a person’s system for a month or more and regular users developed a tolerance that required using more to get high.
“The problem with research is that it can be manipulated by the people doing it to come up with the outcomes they want.”
Another panellist, Dr Celia Jameson, said the use of dagga in palliative care of terminally ill people had helped improve their quality of life during their final days.
“It can be highly successful, but there is a downside – it is a very controversial field.”
She said certain people were affected more by using dagga and some even experienced negative correlation in pre-frontal activity of the brain.
During a talk at the popular 37 on New nightclub, the Dagga Couple laid out their struggles to light up without getting busted.
Emboldened by the Dagga Couple’s struggle, many in the audience – from all walks of life – lit up ganja spliffs or passed around vaporisers as they listened intently.
Although there did not appear to be any police in the audience, Stobbs said they often packed into venues across the country where the couple gave their pro dagga presentations to hear what they had to say.
According to Stobbs, millions of South Africans used dagga or oil – including police.
“The cops come to most of our presentations, a lot of them smoke dagga … if you were a cop you would too.
“They take your weed and then smoke it themselves.” — firstname.lastname@example.org