The South African Couple Lighting Up the Fight for Legal Weed
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what happens in South Africa could set a global precedent.
Seven police officers crashed their way into Myrtle Clarke and Julian Stobbs’ Lanseria home at 2 a.m. on a bitter winter night. The couple thought they were being robbed. Over the next five hours, Clarke was strip-searched three times and Stobbs spent two hours with a gun barrel shoved into his cheek. The couple’s offense, according to the official criminal docket? “Dealing in superweed.”
What started in the middle of that night in 2010 catalyzed one of the most controversial high-court cases in South African history: The Trial of the Plant. The Dagga Couple, as they are both affectionately and derisively known (dagga is a colloquial South African term for cannabis), sued seven national government agencies for infringing on their constitutional right to responsibly grow and consume a plant they say has been used for eons for various purposes throughout the world. If they win their case — the trial finally started this past July but has been bogged down by a series of delays — they hope it will be the first thread in a global unraveling of prohibition laws.
The war on drugs isn’t a war on drugs, it’s a war on people.
Paul-Michael Keichel, attorney
Now 50 and 57, respectively, Clarke and Stobbs said they faced three choices after their arrest: admit guilt, pay a bribe or challenge the law. “The more we thought about it, the more we realized this was a gross invasion of our privacy,” Clarke said in their joint 2015 TEDx talk. “This is about sovereignty, it’s about cognitive liberty, it’s about the very freedom of our minds.” On May 16, 2011, they filed a 44-page affidavit with the Pretoria high court claiming their rights to use cannabis in the privacy of their home, and by October, all but one of the seven defendants had responded that they would defend themselves against charges of enacting unlawful laws. A government spokesperson declined to comment, saying “the matter is sub judice.”
Acting on the advice of their first legal adviser, Ferdi Hartzenburg, the couple set up Fields of Green for ALL, a nonprofit organization, to manage their case. Then they built a social media following. Today they have nearly 50,000 Facebook followers on the Dagga Couple page and close to 8,000 on Fields of Green for ALL. Knowing they would have to work within the law to win their case, Clarke and Stobbs studied existing cannabis laws around the world, assembled a crack team of progressive young lawyers to fight for them and convinced some of the most respected experts on the health effects of cannabis and cannabis policy to testify at their trial.
Over Skype, Paul-Michael Keichel, from Schindlers Attorneys, explained why he agreed to take the case: “I find that the laws prohibiting cannabis in South Africa, and all around the world for that matter, are generally quite irrational and they treat people unequally — especially when compared to how users of tobacco and alcohol are treated. Also, they don’t do what they purport to do.” According to crime statistics from the South African Police Service, 259,162 people were arrested between 2015 and 2016 on drug-related charges, with cannabis accounting for roughly 65 percent of those arrests.
That’s a lot of lives going up in smoke for a substance that David Nutt, the Edmond J. Safra professor of neuropsychopharmacology in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London (and a witness in the Dagga case), places eighth, after tobacco, on a scale of harm from 1 (alcohol) to 20 (mushrooms). Meanwhile, in his report At What Cost 2.0 — All Rands and No Sense, Quintin van Kerken, CEO of Anti Drug Alliance South Africa and a fellow witness in the case, estimates that South African taxpayers fork over 3.5 billion rands ($300 million) annually on this fight, with no meaningful impact. “The war on drugs isn’t a war on drugs,” says Keichel, “it’s a war on people.” He wants that to change and is confident the Dagga Couple will succeed in court — a catastrophic outcome in the opinion of Doctors for Life International (DFL).
In October 2012, DFL joined the case on the government’s side. They did not respond to OZY’s request for comment, but they have been vocally opposed to legalizing all forms of cannabis. “Given the role of dagga, women and child abuse and the future of our youth, this trial is one of the most important to ever reach our courts,” DFL wrote in a press release. OZY contacted one of DFL’s expert witnesses, Dr. Bertha Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, to clarify her work linking early cannabis use and schizophrenia, but she declined to comment.
Stobbs and Clarke aren’t as free as they once believed, and their objective is to reform the law for cannabis users, starting in South Africa.
Where DFL sees only harm, Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California San Francisco, sees potential benefits. Abrams was supposed to testify when the trial began on July 31 — after years of pretrial motions and delays — but said the State and DFL used stalling tactics that kept him from taking the stand (he had to return to the U.S. by a prearranged date to manage his clinics).
“It was a little frustrating and disappointing to sit in that court for three days waiting to take the stand and not being able to,” he tells OZY. If he had, he would have shared his conclusions from working on a January 2017 report for the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana. “I believe cannabis has therapeutic benefits,” he says, “particularly in pain, nausea and vomiting, spasticity from multiple sclerosis and probably other conditions as well.” Clarke and Stobbs were exasperated to lose a key witness, not least because it cost them R180,000 ($14,000) to bring him from the U.S. to South Africa, but, says Clarke, “we have to be incredibly lenient and let them do whatever they want,” referring to the State and DFL.
Fields of Greens for ALL has raised R77,000 ($6,000) to ensure a written record of the proceedings — something DFL objected to, according to Stobbs. “This is going to go on for years, and they’re going to say we didn’t say that,” he insists. “And we are going to say, ‘Yes, you did.’” Clarke adds, “Everything bounces back on us, so we’ve just got to put our heels in and carry on.” Their tenacity has already served them well. In the seven years since their arrest, the Dagga Couple has raised R823,000 ($64,000) through fundraising parties and donations from South African supporters. The money is used to pay for expert witnesses and other expenses, such as organizing the country’s first Clinical Cannabis Convention, a meeting held August 5 to keep the public informed of the latest developments in cannabis research and policy. Keichel said Schindlers is working pro bono, for now. The couple’s ability to keep their spirits up and push forward under the threat of 10 years in a South African jail speaks volumes about their character.
Over homemade quiche in their colorful kitchen, Clarke describes growing up the daughter of a Methodist minister and a homemaker mother. She was born in the town of Oudtshoorn but moved around a lot with her parents and brother. Eventually she realized her dream of moving to Johannesburg, where she got an art degree and a teaching diploma from Wits University, and taught for four years at Parktown Boys’ High School. She loved the work but hated the system. In 1994, after selling everything she owned, she moved to New York for a job as household manager for the son of Harry H. Wachtel, a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. Her next move brought her to the U.K., where she worked as a chef, and in 1997 she returned to South Africa. There, she helped build a restaurant at Rustlers Valley Farm, a property in the Eastern Free State then owned by a friend of hers. It was like a “hippie commune,” she says, which appealed to adventurers, freethinkers and anyone seeking an alternative lifestyle. But conservative locals, scandalized by the residents’ wild parties, called the settlement “satanic.” This is where Clarke and Stobbs, a regular visitor, met 14 years ago.
Stobbs was born in the north of England, where his father, a career hotelier, managed the Scafell Hotel. He says his mother wasn’t allowed to work because “she was just the wife.” His father ended up taking a job in South Africa, and Stobbs joined the British navy without finishing high school. For nearly a decade, he says he traveled around the world and “ended up in the Falklands fighting a war for Margaret Thatcher.” After leaving the military, he traveled across Asia, saving up money to buy land in South Africa by playing guitar outside Tokyo nightclubs. At 32, he bought the Jazzfarm, the 6-acre property where he and Clarke still live, and eventually landed a job as a “greensman” in film and television — designing landscapes for sets — before graduating to building props. In 2005, Clarke joined him in the industry as an art director. They were leading productive, fruitful lives, Stobbs recalls, working on hit shows like Fear Factor and Big Brother and making good money — and then they got arrested.
Neither Clarke nor Stobbs could possibly imagine finding themselves embroiled in a protracted legal battle against the State (the trial should have ended in August, but delays caused by the State and DFL, confirmed by local news reports, have pushed it off until next year). Both are “allergic to the general public,” says Clarke, and they’ve designed their lives to be free of the system. But as they said in their TEDx talk, they aren’t as free as they once believed, and their objective is to reform the law for cannabis users, starting in South Africa.
Stobbs would like to see drugs decriminalized, period, but can’t think about that right now. When asked how their lives will change should they win, Clarke says not by much. “The most we would do is the Jazzfarm will become a cannabis social club,” she adds. “We’ve been growing weed for such a long time because it’s such a beautiful plant and we love [it].” “It’s our right to change our consciousness,” Stobbs says, before turning to his partner. “That’s enough,” she agrees.