It's time to demystify dagga

It's high time South Africa legalises cannabis for medical use. The announcement by Parliament's portfolio committee on health that medical marijuana could soon be legal is long overdue. There is a chance that pharmaceutical companies might oppose the legalisation unless they can control the production and supply. But the herb has medicinal properties that can fix many health problems, and while it might not be the cheapest method, it's probably among the healthiest.

The Medical Innovation Bill (MIB) was introduced to Parliament in 2014 by MP Mario Ambrosini. At the time he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and was terminally ill but he claimed the use of cannabis oil prolonged his life. Now, a regulatory framework for the use of medical cannabis could be available and implemented early next year.

There are several suppliers of cannabis products across South Africa and they're not all suspicious-looking characters who lurk in the shadows, asking passers-by if they're looking for a good time. There are many people who use it because it soothes their ailments and some say it is capable of curing cancer. There's a case I know of where a middle-aged  woman suffered for years with back pain (lower back degeneration, a pinched nerve and osteoarthritis). Coupled with this she also had fibromyalgia which causes chronic muscle pain, fatigue, sleep problems and painful tender/trigger points. For much of her life, all she has known is pain. She was prescribed different medicines but they didn't effectively alleviate the pain. Out of desperation the woman's daughter persuaded her to try cannabis oil, which eradicated the pain.

But anecdotes like these are what is so frustrating about cannabis and proponents' claims. When doing an internet search about whether cannabis can cure cancer and help with other ailments, there is a general sentiment on medical sites that there is not enough research to make these claims. However, there are case studies available. For some reason medical professionals and researchers are too afraid to admit that there are benefits to cannabis.

In August cannabis activist and leader of the Dagga Party in Cape Town, Jeremy Acton, emailed a professor in human biology, asking him to assess the clinical appearance of a cancer patient. Acton suggested the professor consult with other specialists if it was needed. An albino girl with skin cancer was undergoing treatment with cannabis oil and was said to be responding to it well. Acton was hoping to find a South African expert that would facilitate the necessary assessments and confirm the benefits of cannabis oil, especially on the young girl. Acton received no response. He has since had to seek assistance abroad. South Africa has many scientists and medical professionals. How is it that nobody at home is prepared to at least look into the effects and potential benefits of cannabis oil?

“This is the most researched plant in history. All the medical facts are known but not admitted to by doctors,” said Acton.

Since South Africa has indicated its interest in pushing the MIB, it leaves the Medicines Control Council (MCC) no choice but to conduct official research on cannabis and publish the findings on its medicinal benefits.

While there are already suppliers and users of cannabis products, the legalisation could face potential problems. It's unclear who government plans to licence as legal suppliers and how exactly the regulatory framework will work. It would be devastating if pharmaceutical companies were given control of cannabis products. This could mean that it would be available at exorbitant prices, making it inaccessible to the poor. It could also mean that the current suppliers would be shut down, some of which provide products to the poor for free.

There are important factors that need to be considered: will pharmaceutical companies be given complete control over the medical cannabis industry? Will South Africans be allowed to cultivate cannabis and make their own products for medicinal purposes?

“The MIB is an attempt to allow Big Pharma to control access to cannabinoids and to produce them for profit while denying people direct access to this harmless, beneficial plant in their own gardens, and denying the right to make one's own cannabis oil at home,” said Acton. He founded the Dagga Party in 2009 and has been embroiled in a lengthy court case to have cannabis decriminalised in South Africa.

South Africans should not jump for joy just yet. This is a development that needs to be watched closely to ensure that citizens reap the full benefits. We can debate the recreational use of cannabis later. For now, the focus should be on demystifying the plant and ensuring people have access to a wider range of medical treatment without risking criminal charges.

* Faatimah Hendricks is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and at selfwriteous.co.za

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