High time to de­crim­i­nalise dagga trade

Pon­doland’s thriv­ing mar­i­juana crops, serv­ing as a means of sur­vival for many, strengthen the case cur­rently be­fore Par­lia­ment for the le­gal­i­sa­tion of weed

CityPress - - Front Page - PADDY HARPER paddy.harper@city­press.co.za

Loy­iso Maqela* doesn’t see him­self as a drug dealer or a crim­i­nal. The 31-year-old dagga grower from a vil­lage near Mpande, south of Port St Johns on the Wild Coast, sees him­self as more of a cross be­tween a farmer and a herbal­ist. Maqela, one of thou­sands of small-scale grow­ers in his area, has never had a for­mal job, apart from work­ing as a gil­lie for fish­er­men at nearby Mpande Beach since he was forced to leave school at the end of Grade 4. He reck­ons that join­ing the re­gion’s mul­ti­mil­lion-rand mar­i­juana trade was his only op­tion.

Maqela, a full-time dagga grower for the past two years, says the sev­eral hun­dred plants he has cul­ti­vated in two plan­ta­tions are all that stand be­tween him and his preg­nant girl­friend (she told him the big news on New Year’s Day) and star­va­tion.

“I grow ganja be­cause it is the only way I can get the money to buy food for my­self and my fam­ily. I don’t have a job. My par­ents moved to Mvelelo vil­lage in 2000, but I had to stay here. They are too poor to sup­port me, so I had to find a way,” he says.

Maqela started sell­ing dagga to tourists and fish­er­men for other grow­ers while hus­tling at Mpande Beach and in Port St Johns, the hub of the Pon­doland dagga in­dus­try and South Africa’s undis­puted cannabis cap­i­tal.

When one of the grow­ers moved to East Lon­don, Maqela started grow­ing the crop him­self and al­ready has a cou­ple of suc­cess­ful har­vests un­der his belt.

He and just about ev­ery other res­i­dent of his vil­lage, which City Press has agreed not to name, grow dagga along­side the maize out­side their homes.

The 45-minute haul up the moun­tain on foot­paths from where the road runs out to Maqela’s house, and the small­est of his plan­ta­tions, takes us past care­fully tended dagga patch af­ter dagga patch. The taller maize plants are not only for the pot; they also pro­vide cover from SA Po­lice Ser­vice (SAPS) he­li­copters which, since 1996, have sprayed the area and plan­ta­tions with chem­i­cal de­fo­liants as far in­land as Lusik­isiki.

Oth­ers, bolder, have ganja hedges sur­round­ing their gar­dens. The plants are two and a half months away from har­vest­ing; some are waist high and start­ing to de­velop the fruit – known as heads – that pro­vide the in­tox­i­cat­ing high sought by those who smoke it.

Stats SA’s un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures for the whole of the East­ern Cape stand at 29%, but the sit­u­a­tion in Pon­doland’s vil­lages and towns is far worse. Some 66% of Lusik­isiki’s adults are un­em­ployed, ac­cord­ing to its Ingquza Hill Lo­cal Mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

Port St Johns is slightly bet­ter off, at 50.3%. At Mpande, which falls un­der the OR Tambo District Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the fig­ures – a stag­ger­ing 77% un­em­ployed – re­veal why so many are in­volved in the dagga trade for sur­vival.

Maqela’s vil­lage is no ex­cep­tion. The rut­ted and pot­holed road looks as if it has never been sur­faced. The thor­ough­fare runs out and morphs into a path up the hill­side, wind­ing past a se­ries of home­steads made up of mud and grass ron­dav­els. There’s no run­ning wa­ter. No elec­tric­ity. No flush­ing toi­lets. Very few live­stock. The near­est spaza shop with a fridge is down the hill­side in the di­rec­tion we came from.

A long, skinny bean­pole of a man, Maqela looks al­most like a car­toon stoner in his shorts, knee-length socks and flip-flops. In the blaz­ing heat, he is wear­ing a black, long- sleeved T-shirt un­der a long-sleeved cam­ou­flaged shirt, em­bla­zoned with Rasta­far­ian em­blems. His un­der­nour­ished dread­locks are topped with a red, gold and green woollen hat. A pair of black wrap­around shades fin­ishes his look.

Maqela, in­tro­duced by a stoner friend from Port St Johns, may have hammed it up for the cam­era ahead of our meet­ing. He is un­will­ing to talk with­out com­pen­sa­tion. He is broke, has no stock left and is wait­ing for his crops to ma­ture. He plays along in the hope of ei­ther some cash, com­mis­sion from a sale on be­half of some­body else who has stock left to see them through the year-end dry sea­son, or lunch.

A healthy knee-high dagga bush grows out of a crack in the red earth com­pacted around his front doorstep. He crushes all hope of a pic­ture of him waist-deep in his weed. The man is deeply para­noid: dagga farm­ing is il­le­gal and can land him in jail for a long time, let alone cause the loss of his liveli­hood.

“I can talk to you, but no pic­tures,” he says. “Some­body came here and took pic­tures and put them on Face­book be­cause he wanted the cops to lock me up. Peo­ple know me. Peo­ple are jeal­ous. There’s an­other boy who is a grower here. His ganja is kick­ing. His father’s father called the cops to burn his plants be­cause he was jeal­ous. The old man grows ganja. I can’t take a chance.”

Maqela has two strains in the ground that will be har­vested be­tween March and April. The lo­cal im­pondo, of­ten in­cor­rectly re­ferred to as Dur­ban poi­son, takes four months to ma­ture and pro­vides a lower price per kilo­gram than the skunk, grown from im­ported seed sourced via “a guy in Cape Town”, which has a seed-to-spliff cy­cle that’s a month shorter; it is also far more po­tent.

The im­pondo gets him about R2 000 per kilo­gram from an Mthatha mer­chant. The skunk earns him twice that and is way more pop­u­lar with re­tail­ers from East Lon­don, who buy most of his har­vest.

“I like to sup­ply one or two peo­ple. It’s bet­ter than sell­ing one, one, but I also do that,” he adds.

“That’s more dan­ger­ous, but sell­ing to the tourists like that is right. They pay a lot of money for small ganja. Even the guys in East Lon­don pay big money for one gram. Even R100. But it is dan­ger­ous.” Maqela has never been ar­rested. “A lot of peo­ple know me, but they don’t know I am grow­ing. No po­lice have ever found me. I am scared of go­ing to jail.”

Maqela’s area was spared last Fe­bru­ary when the SAPS Air Wing con­ducted spray­ing op­er­a­tions.

“They never spray here. We were lucky. They sprayed the peo­ple over there,” he says, point­ing to the vil­lage across the val­ley.

Maqela has the seed of a third strain, known as cheese, that he will plant af­ter his April har­vest.

“The cheese will be kick­ing,” he says. “It’s the very good strain. Strong. They also call it high grade. It grows nicely here. It doesn’t need too much rain. The soil is right. It can be ready in less than three months.”

Maqela tends his plants daily with home-made compost. He feeds them mo­lasses mixed with wa­ter, which makes the heads denser and im­proves the drug’s strength. He watches for worms – and goats. Cat­tle are no prob­lem be­cause they do not eat ganja. He does not know if the herb makes the goats high, but says they are ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing a plan­ta­tion in hours.

“This is work. If you look af­ter your fields, you will grow kick­ing ganja,” he says. “If you leave them, you grow s**t.”

If Maqela, who smokes dagga once a day be­fore bed­time, is mak­ing big money, it is hid­den in a hole in the ground. His two-roomed house is built from wat­tle and daub. Only the bed­room is fur­nished. His name­less dog is as un­der­nour­ished as his dreads.

Maqela says he would willingly pay tax to the state if the in­dus­try were le­galised.

“I am a farmer. This is not a drug; this is a herb,” he says. “If I can go and pay for a li­cence, I will be very happy to pay. If the govern­ment wants me to pay tax, I can pay. No prob­lem.”

East­ern Cape agri­cul­ture MEC Mlibo Qo­boshiyane says he wel­comes the move to le­galise medic­i­nal mar­i­juana through the so-called Am­brosini bill ( see side­bar), which is cur­rently be­fore Par­lia­ment.

“Mar­i­juana has been known to have a lot of medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. Any re­search that seeks to cre­ate an aware­ness of its medic­i­nal value, con­trol and pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures to stop il­le­gal use stands sup­ported,” he says.

“The chal­lenge South Africa has been faced with is the long­time ex­is­tence of an il­le­gal mar­i­juana trade, which by now may have an es­tab­lished sys­tem of il­licit prac­tices that will be dif­fi­cult to tame.

“We need to un­mask fear and re­ori­ent so­ci­ety to un­der­stand the plant pos­i­tively. It must never be the open­ing of a flood­gate for abuse.”

*Not his real name

PHOTO: TEBOGO LET­SIE

HOLY HERB

A dagga plant in Port St Johns in the East­ern Cape, where the mar­i­juana plant has con­trib­uted to a valu­able in­dus­try, but the po­lice de­stroy the plants, also dam­ag­ing the poor­est of the poor’s food crops

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