Simon Williamson

Dealing with drugs

2015-01-23 08:55

Simon Williamson
Combatting a widespread drug problem is no easy task. Many governments have tried, and most have failed, and made the problem worse (in fact that’s not an uncommon government phenomenon), and the City of Cape Town is beginning to dabble in some methodology that has resolutely failed in other parts of the world. There are, however, other methods, with empirical proof of success which the city would do well to examine.
On Tuesday, according to the Mail and Guardian , Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, announced that eight members of the city’s drug and gang task team will be attending training in Gaborone with the USA's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA's own website admits it was set up "in order to establish a single unified command to combat 'an all-out global war on the drug menace'". 

With that mandate, the organisation, which has grown from 1 470 agents and a $75m budget to 5 000 agents and a $2bn budget, has reduced drug use, and effects thereof, in the US by approximately bugger all.
Mayor de Lille and the Democratic Alliance have decided to deal with Cape Town’s problem head on, and respectably, in a more local sense (I find the DA’s focus on provincial and local policing quite welcome).
However, on top of all the counter-drug proposals the city has set up, including a rhyming awareness campaign ("don't start, be smart"), the mayor included in her statement about the DEA involvement the hawkish talk that has not worked elsewhere: "targeting the people who are selling these drugs to our children".
Cape Town mayoral council committee member for safety and security, JP Smith (he of "work camps for the homeless fame") added the new training would assist anti-drug officers to focus on "clandestine laboratories, managing undercover operations".
Prioritising this aspect of the fight – essentially going the American way, inspired by the DEA – is a terrible way to go. While law enforcement is a very justifiable wing of an anti-drug strategy, in terms of effectiveness and improving the society in which Mayor de Lille’s constituents live, it is arse-backwards.

Most countries in the world attempt this and fail miserably. In the US, into whose wisdom Cape Town is attempting to tap, deaths related to drugs overtook traffic fatalities in 2009, and are increasing, while other ways people tend to die are declining. The effects of the drugs, as well as consumption, are on the rise.
According to the US government’s own numbers (as of 2012), nearly 7 900 people use drugs for the first time every day, half of whom are under the age of 18. And these people, if caught by the US government, are all thrown behind bars.
Half of the prisoners in America are locked up on drug offences, due to the arrest-and-outrageously-sentence tactics of public officials, continuing to promote policies that have repeatedly achieved nothing, and are not benefiting society in any measurable way.
Implicitly, this makes following the US approach a fairly ridiculous idea, particularly when there are solid examples of what to do correctly. And the answer to this conundrum is decriminalisation. (To be clear, this is not the same thing as legalisation.) On top of this decision, debates must be had about where to focus resources.
There is a successful template to follow.
Portugal has prioritised its efforts and money on drug users, instead of trying to kick the hell out of them and suppliers. Portugal gives us a good solid look at what happens when you decriminalise drugs. In 2001 the country removed penalties for drug use and possession of small amounts.

The Mothers Grundy all went bananas, forecasting the dire consequences of treating drug users like people instead of dangerous criminals, predicting drug tourism, how screwed the youth would become, and so on.
The ire of the middle classes is a powerful thing, but was thankfully overruled, and from the 1990s to the late 2000s, Portugal’s percentage of regular and problematic drug users plummeted to less than half, largely as a result of having users and addicts deal with the health service rather than criminal courts.

This had the knock on effect of reduced drug-related diseases and overdoses: basically, a massive reduction in the harmful effects of drugs. Consumption itself has not really dropped, but the ill effects of drugs, and the money spent policing them, have dropped like they were hit to Herschelle Gibbs in a World Cup. In a nutshell: drugs in Portugal have nowhere near the detrimental effects they once did.
The Portuguese still go after drug pushers and suppliers, but their emphasis is dealing with people who are suffering through drug use. This has saved both lives and money, and what could make a taxpaying citizen happier than that? Mayor de Lille would do well to take note.

- Simon Williamson
is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He previously worked on the campaign of Michelle Nunn, a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s US Senate seat in 2014. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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