Who smokes weed? Why do these people use it? What effect does weed have on society? What do we do about this drug “problem”? These are some of the questions that are often answered with stereotypes and misconceptions, either by ourselves or the people around us based on a lack of knowledge or being misinformed. The process of challenging these perceptions around cannabis began with an introduction to the legal aspects of usage and decriminalisation. A follow-up panel at Think!Fest explored the social and medical aspects of decriminalising cannabis.
Celia Jameson, a medical physician with a MPhil in palliative care, spoke about the health benefits of cannabis. These include pain treatment, anxiety treatment, use as a sleeping aid and a role in cancer treatment. For terminally ill patients in palliative care, Jameson feels that the potential negative side effects of cannabis can be ignored in favour of the benefits. She notes, however, that for young people beginning to use the drug, much more care needs to be taken. “So many people are keen to use dagga without knowing much about it,” she says. Legalisation, she said, will open doors for research and studies that would enable safer use of the drug.
A Senior Clinical Psychologist at Fort England Psychiatric Hospital discussed various psychiatric aspects of cannabis use such as its long term effects on the brain, particularly for adolescents. He noted that research on cannabis is often skewed and manipulated. He discussed the notion of cannabis as a gateway drug and said that most people begin with cigarettes as a gateway into drug use. He adds that alcohol is equally or more damaging than cannabis, and that no evidence provides a strong connection to depression and anxiety.
Paul-Michael Keichel, the attorney representing the “Dagga Couple”, argued human rights and legal aspects of the legalisation of cannabis. He notes that millions are spent in South Africa on arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning people on cannabis related cases. He notes the injustice of this when it is yet to be proved whether risks associated with cannabis use are actually true. The criminalisation of cannabis therefore exposes inconsistencies in the legal system and protection of human rights. “If this is a medical problem, find a medical solution, not a legal solution,” he says.
A Grahamstown local who practices the Rastafarian faith added an interesting and often overlooked perspective to the conversation. He spoke about the history of Rastafarian culture, saying that cannabis has been used medicinally, spiritually and traditionally, and is deeply ingrained in Rastafarian culture. There’s also a strong history of cannabis use in Indian cultures, with Lord Shiva said to have been a fan of the herb. The criminalisation of it therefore profoundly interferes with a way of life and leads to discrimination, harassment by law enforcement officers, regular arrests and inability to find formal work based on stereotyping.
Panellists stressed the need for further research and the need to create awareness about cannabis. Suggestions were that studies should focus not only on cases of the minority cannabis users who are susceptible to negative side effects such as psychosis and depression. Instead they should include cases of the majority of cannabis users who experience positive benefits of the drug. It was also noted that cultural aspects should be considered in education and public information about cannabis.
Many of the audience members noted that their personal biases against cannabis stemmed from what they were taught from a young age, either by their parents or by school educators. Perhaps we need to question what and how we teach young children, as giving the right information can help them be far more responsible than misinformation or no information at all ever can.