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Alexander Dowding
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Is SA hopelessly addicted to its War on Drugs?

29 June 2014, 12:16

It has been about a year since the last time I addressed the issue of South Africa's War on Drugs.

It is with some sadness and a large dose of frustration, but certainly not much surprise, that I can report that the situation has only got worse during that time.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its 2014 World Drug Report, which has some valuable bits of information to offer for assessing the successes and failures of global efforts to stem the tide of substance abuse and drug addiction.

There is ever growing international consensus that the heavy handed approach towards drug use and abuse favoured by many countries across the globe has achieved precious few of the aims that it was designed to. This is especially evident when you understand that the international trade in illicit substances is currently estimated to be valued at $320 billion while less than one third of this figure is committed towards fighting the War on Drugs. Law enforcement is clearly out financed and outgunned. Even the staunchly prohibitionist founder of SA's Crime Line, Mr Yusuf Abramjee admitted that our country is failing in the War On Drugs in an article he penned for the Eyewitness News website. In spite of this realisation he appears to maintain his view that the best way forward is to double down on law enforcement initiatives aimed at disrupting the illicit manufacture and intercepting supply of these substances.

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega commenting on the record heroin bust near Durban a few days ago said "This success may be the largest this country has ever seen, but it is not the first of its kind and I do not think it will be the last." She was of course stating the obvious. I think that many within the South African public are suffering from an illusion that the police and government are on top of the drug situation. We read, on an almost daily basis, about busts being made in every corner of the country, but no one ever makes a mention of all of the drugs that are in circulation that the authorities do not intercept. This then has the effect that it gives us a false impression where it actually looks like we are winning, but we are not winning. The drugs are winning, every single day!

A senior drug rehabilitation official from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates recently explained that only around 10% of all drugs smuggled into any country are seized by law enforcement officials.

Does the answer to this problem really lie in throwing thousands more people in jail? If recent reports in the media are to be believed our penal system is already nearing breaking point. With stories of contraband including cell phones, weapons and drugs being commonplace in these supposedly secure institutions it does leave one with the impression that the inmates have the upper hand over those who are supposed to be in charge of them. What too of the phenomenal costs to the taxpayer of convicting, housing and feeding all of these people? When do we reach a point when we say "enough is enough, what we are doing clearly isn't working, what can we try that we haven't already?" 

So who or what exactly is to blame for the yearly increases in people choosing to use illicit substances in our country?

Is it perhaps the message that our government is sending out to our youth with regards drug education? Could it be the sustained focus on punitive measures and criminal sanctions over education and harm reduction strategies? Are parents fulfilling their duty adequately in helping to inform the new generation about the world of drugs?

I have noticed a tendency among many South Africans to lay the blame for the increased occurrence and flow of drugs in the country on foreigners like Nigerians and the Chinese. Perhaps these foreign lawbreakers are drawn to South Africa by the ever-growing local demand for these substances? There can be no doubting of this country's reputation as a major regional hub for the trafficking of narcotics both on a local and international level. Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini recently cited reports showing that our country is one of the world's top four sources of cannabis (dagga). Major General Jeremy Vearey, Mitchell’s Plain cluster commander, has made mention of the fact that he refuses to permit police to conduct searches of pupils at schools, because he believes that they fail to address the underlying socio-economic problems rooted in many households of which drug possession and use are but a symptom. These are all aspects that need to be scrutinised carefully and if need be changed and modernised if we ever want to see a meaningful decline in both substance abuse and drug addiction.

Then there is the potential for corruption. When it comes to drugs everyone knows there are plenty of bucks to be made. Dr David Bayever, the deputy chairperson of the Central Drug Authority has said that we still have to root out all those people within the system that are unfortunately being bribed by the communities. He believes that many of our politicians prefer to ignore an illegal industry that lines many pockets, including their own.

One thing appears, to me at least, to be without doubt and that is that whether designated legal or illegal, people will continue to take drugs. Surely being cognizant of this and accommodating it, while ensuring harm is kept to a minimum through both the provision of scientifically sound, open and honest information about these substances and coupled with adequate state regulation, is the best possible long term and humane policy that we could hope for? Doctors NOT criminals should be in charge of dispensing hard drugs like heroin to addicts. There are many sensible policies like this that we would be able to introduce IF our government took responsibility for its role in providing oversight for the use of these substances instead of forcing users into the black market.

While we can all agree that the use of these illicit substances does carry risks it must also be made clear that keeping drugs illegal instead of choosing to regulate them exacerbates these risks.

I live in hope that one day sooner rather than later South Africa's politicians will decide to change tack and treat drug use/abuse as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.

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