“At the end of Matric in 2004 I took a trip to Europe and during that trip I visited Amsterdam,” says attorney Paul-Michael Keichel. “Not only did I smoke some very high-grade cannabis and enjoy it, I found myself in a very functional society in which people go about their business [and] the sky doesn’t fall.”
Keichel and the “Dagga Couple” are challenging the laws that prohibit the use of cannabis. But a new tie and shiny shoes worn by Keichel are not enough to convince the Constitutional Court to change a law criminalising a potentially harmful substance. The first step in challenging prohibition is to prove that the risks associated with cannabis are not actually true, and the second step involves proving that the prohibition of cannabis does not succeed in minimising these alleged risks. Keichel does this by debunking the myths around the following areas.
Like cases need to be treated alike. “Look at alcohol,” says Keichel. “We allow it; we don’t put people into jail. Yes, if they’ve caused an accident, yes, if they’re come to work drunk. But we don’t criminalise it.”
Keichel further says, “intoxication is a state of mind.” But that is beside the point. “At the end of the day, it’s your body, it’s your mind, it’s your consciousness. And we have start asking questions to our policy makers. Whose right it is to step into your mind and tell you no that you aren’t allowed to do this?”
The Constitution itself states that one should be free to make decisions regarding one’s mind and body. “Bodily and psychological integrity are guaranteed in the Constitution. So are freedom of conscious thought and freedom to explore consciousness,” Keichel adds.
Intoxication is not necessarily harmful. Many remarkable accomplishments in sport, science and literature among others have been made by cannabis users. “The use of psychedelics … fires up parts of the brain and creates relationships between the brain that often inspires creativity,” Keichel remarks.
It has been proven by studies that cannabis is only mildly psychologically addictive. “I know a lot of my friends who are extremely grumpy after 12 o’clock if they have not had their coffee. That is as addicted as you can get,” jokes Keichel. Cannabis is addictive “in the same way you’re going to get addicted to chocolate because of the kick that it gives you”
- Criminality, poverty, and sociability
“The cause and effect is completely backwards… It is not drug use causing antisocialism, criminality etc., it is the fact that you have been pushed onto the fringe of society that you are down and out, that you don’t have a blanket at night, that you don’t have a roof over your head, that you have no option but to steal, that then finds you becoming reliant on drugs,” says Keichel.
- Insanity and/or cognitive impairment
Studies that suggest that marijuana use causes mental disorders are not conclusive.
“If you are predisposed to things like schizophrenia, yes, there is the potential that if you overuse or abuse cannabis you’re going to find yourselves in a mental institution but I suppose the same thing can be said if you have a prawn allergy and go and eat seafood, you’re going to find yourself in hospital.
- Poor health and death
Law-makers do not criminalise everything that is bad for us. “We know that fast food can cause diabetes and cholesterol, but we don’t have undercover cops staking out MacDonald’s,” says Keichel.
A study comparing instances of lung cancer among cigarette smokers, cannabis smokers and non-smokers yielded interesting results. According to Keichel “Not only did the regular smokers of cannabis have less instances of lung cancer than their tobacco smoking counterparts, they had less incidents of lung cancer than the control study; those people who smoked absolutely nothing at all”
- Cannabis as a gateway drug
Keichel questions where the act of getting intoxicated is first taught to us in society, and often, it is alcohol.
“The statistics do not show that you stand any significant risk of proceeding on to harder drugs, and yet it gets repeated again and again and this is something that’s going to be challenged through expert evidence”
Keichel questions whether or not prohibition serves the purpose of reducing the harms of cannabis.
In countries where cannabis is legal, it is no longer as appealing to the youth and therefore, usage can be reduced. “It becomes an everyday thing, it’s no longer the cool factor that influences our teenage users.”
Furthermore, the war on drugs is a complete failure. This is because “drug prohibition fuels the criminal underworld,” says Keichel. “The unintended consequence of this is that you commoditise it to a ridiculous degree”.
The cost of this war is a further consideration. Keichel asserts that the Anti-Drug Alliance of South Africa spend “R245 million a year attempting to prosecute the people that they arrest for cannabis possession in the province [Gauteng].” Despite this, “you’re looking at a conviction rate of about 9 percent.”
“Why are we not spending the money spent on prosecuting on the rehabilitation centres, on going to schools and saying to them, look you’re not going to get put in jail, but if you are sick or if you are addicted come speak to us, you won’t get in trouble for this,” he says.
Keichel explains that “this is what prohibition deprives us of; actually helping the people who are to suffer from drug use”.
Quality control also needs to be assessed in making a decision. “All these people that are smoking it anyway can carry on smoking safe in the knowledge that their local grower didn’t spray some kind of crazy pesticide on it,” he explains.
Ironically, the greatest risk to dagga smokers is the risk of being caught. “Although it is a victimless crime, assuming that you’re prosecuted and you’re put into jail, you’re exposed to much worse drugs of an inferior quality.”
“A lot of these people are perfectly functioning adults and don’t belong in jail,” says Keichel, attempting to change the perspective of those who use cannabis.
Keichel will be speaking on the panel Decriminalising Dagga along with Celia Jameson and Hazel Crampton on 7 July at 4pm.