Legalising dagga means new freedoms, but Ts & Cs apply

There will be a lot of bureaucracy, vested interests and money to be made when dagga is eventually legalised in South Africa

15 April 2018 - 00:02 By Ufreida Ho
Legalising dagga may herald the coming of craft weed - precious with artisanal marketing hype, and price tags to match.
Legalising dagga may herald the coming of craft weed - precious with artisanal marketing hype, and price tags to match.
Image: 123RF\cendeced

Call it a movement, a tipping of the scales or the winds of change blowing - the time of legalised weed, even in South Africa, is coming to pass and could bring with it unexpected consequences.

It was a Noisey article in January that pointed to a weird inversion in a time of legalised weed. The article told how Reed Breummer, former frontman of metal band Speedwolf, was quitting Denver, Colorado, to move to New York.

There were several reasons for Breummer's departure the article cited, but key among them was how legalised weed in Colorado, since 2013, had transformed the colour and spirit of the city he called home.

Author of the piece Chris Krovatin pointed out that the mainstream sanitisation of weed made "sketchy neighbourhoods rebrand themselves as trendy art districts".

Hipsters and young entrepreneurs moved in and opened cocktail bars, art galleries and sidewalk restaurants. It pushed up rental prices and muscled out the likes of Breummer, who had voted yes for legalising marijuana.

The edginess and vibe of Denver was being replaced with what Breummer called the "goofy spectacle" of people smoking cannabis coffee shop specialities on the pavement. Ultimately he saw it as driving a wedge through the community and forcing old locals like himself to slink off to find new shadows.

South Africa is still feeling its way through the legalisation battle. The pro-legalisation push seems obvious for people who believe in social progression, more freedoms, less government interference and freeing up police resources to fight "real crime".

The likes of R800 a gram for 'top grade' strains is already a reality

The Denver story though throws up the possibility of unintended consequences. Legalised weed may cause more exclusive gentrified bubbles. Think the coming of craft weed - precious with artisanal marketing hype, and price tags to match. The likes of R800 a gram for "top grade" strains is already a reality, because it's not doobie scored from the petrol station.

Imagine the nightmare of curios like T-shirts and key chains emblazoned with slogans like "Jozi Haze" or "I got high in the City of Gold". Or imagine pro-legalisation activists turned suited consultants talking recommendations for legislation frameworks.

Legalisation may come down to swapping out one set of rules for another. Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise cannabis usage, but has experienced bulging bureaucracies around personal grow limits, licensing and penalties for weed law infringements.

Another consequence is that as once-underground dagga supply pipelines are disrupted there will inevitably be new turf wars. Thug tendencies may be less Sopranos-style gangsterism but South Africa's competing actors in the legalisation battle are already paying for protest campaigns or using targeted social media vitriol against each other.

Simon Howell is a criminologist and research director of Apcof (Africa Policing Civilian Oversight Forum). He says behind-the-scenes developments from various quarters may blindside people in seeing the unexpected consequences of dagga legalisation.

He flags the hushed establishment in June last year of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority to "regulate new medical device and pharmaceutical regulatory systems being developed in the country". It spells looming control of licensing and permitting for dagga.

Howell adds: "There's always rhetoric around rights, freedoms and health benefits but it's not as clear or benign. People have a lot of money invested in their causes because there will be money to be made. There's also a lot of in-fighting among the groups."

One positive, he says of regulation, is that it decreases harm for those found to be in transgression of dagga laws. Being slapped with a fine beats police harassment or being imprisoned for a small-time bust.

Red tape, regulation and some surprise outcomes look set to shape weed economies and lifestyles. It means new freedoms may be coming, but Ts & Cs apply.