SA Drug Policy Initiative: Cannabis legalisation lockdown lessons

Organisation: Position: Deadline Date: Location:

On the 31st of March, a few days after the start of the COVID-19 related lockdown, the South African Drug Policy Initiative (SADPI) sent out a press release stating, with good reason, that the authorities had erred by prohibiting the sale of alcohol and tobacco during this period.

Towards the end of the first month under lockdown, media outlets, economists, business leaders, politicians, medical and legal professionals and others joined SADPI in calling for a repeal of those poorly thought out regulations.

And, as the number of articles, interviews, comments, videos and news reports increased it became obvious that the harms caused by the government’s policies far outweighed their purported advantages.

However, this outcry came as no surprise to those who are familiar with the harmful health, social, economic, and criminal effects of the prohibition of these and other drugs such as cannabis; let alone the inevitable undermining of human rights that accompanies the criminalisation of any drug.

Moreover, it is considered best practice that, before any proposed public health policy is implemented, the authorities are obliged to carefully consider, not only its possible benefits, but also its known and potential harms; as well as its impact on the economy. But, it appears that the government ignored best practice by failing to do comprehensive harms versus benefit and cost versus benefit analyses before it promulgated the alcohol and tobacco lockdown regulations.

Inevitably this led to reports from the media, social networks and organisations of significant adverse effects of the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco – such as:
Serious physical and psychological harms to those with mental illnesses and psychosocial problems who depend on alcohol or tobacco to help mitigate the effects of their illnesses; the criminalisation of previously law-abiding citizens with drug dependency problems who were arrested for non-violent, victimless offences; human rights violations by police and the military; a lack of trust in a government that appears to have an indifferent, callous attitude to those who use, or are dependent on, alcohol and tobacco; the introduction to the market of contaminated, potentially dangerous contraband alcohol and tobacco products; the creation of informal, untaxed wholesale and retail networks; runaway price inflation and critical financial adversity for many and; disproportionate harms to the vulnerable and indigent.

The parallels between the harmful effects of these lockdown prohibitions, and those of the decades long banning of other drugs such as cannabis, has now become obvious to many who, previously, may not have given such a comparison much thought.

However, what is widely known is that, in 2018, The Constitutional Court of South Africa directed Parliament to amend the country’s cannabis laws. Although the draft regulations are yet to be circulated for public participation the members of SADPI trust that the public and policymakers are now fully aware of the lessons that should have been learnt during this difficult time.

Moreover, we hope that as many concerned citizens as possible will support SADPI and others in our efforts to persuade Parliament to fully decriminalise cannabis and include it in the same regulatory frameworks that, under normal circumstances, are used to control alcohol and tobacco.

So, let us all advocate for the legalisation and regulation of drugs with humane, economically beneficial policies rather than destructive prohibitory laws that play into the hands of corrupt politicians, gangs and organised crime structures.

For further comment, contact: Dr Keith Scott • +27 84 682 1813 •

Issued by Phumlani Malinga


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