Cannabis policy benefits criminal networks – Business Day, 4 May 2016

Cannabis, along with tik, the local version of crystal methamphetamine, is one of the two drugs produced in large quantities in SA, and also the most widely used illicit drug in the country.

By Tiaan Meiring

CANNABIS, along with tik, the local version of crystal methamphetamine, is one of the two drugs produced in large quantities in SA, and also the most widely used illicit drug in the country.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC’s) 2009 World Drug Report, 22% of the world’s cannabis harvest comes from Africa, where it is produced in almost every country.

The largest producer is SA, with about 2,500 tonnes of the total of 8,900 tonnes produced — that is 28% of the African production and 7% of the world’s output.

The UNODC, Interpol and the US Department of State continuously rank SA as one of the top producers in the world. Cultivation and trade of the plant in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region takes place on a massive scale —– to such an extent that it is in the three top sources of hard currency for the people of Lesotho. SA is also one of, if not the largest, exporter of the herb to the UK and Ireland, with large quantities also exported to continental Europe and the East.

There is most likely no illicit market that benefits SA’s poor more than growing dagga, despite them raking in only moderate returns compared with the eventual street price of the product. Its cultivation brings in much higher returns than other cash crops for the predominantly poor and remote rural farmers growing it in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Growing dagga requires little to no input costs and the local climate is ideal. However, the farmers run the risk of losing their entire crop to police helicopters spraying Kilo Max, a weed killer in all senses of the word. It contains glyphosate, declared a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in March 2015, and which has come under increasing international and local scrutiny.

These farmers not only often lose out on their main source of income, but they have also reported a loss of their other crops (often growing amid the cannabis), as well as damage to the health of the people and animals in the area.

Who benefits the most from the flourishing illicit market, though?

First, those like many middle-class, urban individuals who grow the more potent and profitable, indoor hydroponic cannabis strains that require much higher input costs and intensive cultivation.

Second, those who trade and distribute the drug through criminal networks. So trade in cannabis serves as a major resource to SA’s gangs and crime syndicates. This is apart from the fact that cannabis is then often blended with anything from heroin, mandrax, anti-retrovirals, milk powder, rat poison, or pool cleaner, and sold as nyaope or whoonga. Selling these blended and more harmful substances helps sellers to get clients dependent on more addictive — and more profitable — substances, continuing the unfortunate cycle of addiction, harm and profitability.

Most people would agree the cannabis trade’s greater threat to society lies with the criminal networks distributing and selling it.

The government’s policy to date has focused predominantly on supply-side measures (in line with international narratives of zero tolerance and the so-called war on drugs). But, just as has been the case with similar strategies globally, the forces of supply and demand have overcome these prohibitionist policies.

Cannabis is as widely and affordably available as it has ever been. Criminal networks are increasingly benefiting from the profitability of this illicit trade largely because of the high risks caused by prohibitionist policies.

On the regulatory costs of policing SA’s illicit cannabis trade, there are little data available. A report, titled At what cost? The futility of the war on drugs in South Africa, the Anti-Drug Alliance (ADA) quantified all drug arrests in Gauteng over two months in 2013. A total of 23,000 arrests were made and drugs worth about R13m were confiscated (99% of which was cannabis). But the cost of policing equated to R38m (a R25m loss to the state); at a conviction rate of only 9%. Extrapolate these numbers to include the whole country for a year, including the cost of housing those convicted, and it is clear SA’s prohibitionist approach is a significant drain on the fiscus.

However, these are probably not even the greatest costs related to this regulatory equation. What about the lost time and resources that could have been used by an already overstretched police force to address more serious and violent crimes?

Should we not be reconsidering our approach? If we keep on doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep on getting what we’re getting.

There are many global examples of harm-reduction approaches that are far more effective than our current supply-centric approach (and which are more in line with our stance on alcohol and tobacco — both drugs that are generally more harmful to both the user and those around them).

For example, consider the Netherland’s coffee-shop model. There, you split the market for cannabis and more addictive drugs; in doing so you separate the client from the dealers who have a motive to sell laced cannabis and more addictive and profitable drugs. Cannabis is then no more a gateway drug than the alcohol or cigarettes that we buy at licensed outlets.

If policy is so designed that it completely separates the market for cannabis from criminal networks, it would greatly cut their revenues — cash that tends to fund other criminal activities. Formal, legal production and retailing would also add to employment and revenues in the licit market, contribute to government tax revenues and drastically decrease the costs related to policing the illicit markets. Medical research into the effects and uses of cannabis would also be granted competitive advantage within a more liberal legal model.

• Meiring is an intern at the South African Institute for Race Relations

Read the article in Business Day here