Heroin use is booming rapidly in SA and rogue cops are partly to blame - report

2019-04-11 22:11
While heroin’s high holds a strong appeal for its users, chronic heroin abuse is almost certain to have several physical or mental health repercussions in those who become addicted to it. (iStock)

While heroin’s high holds a strong appeal for its users, chronic heroin abuse is almost certain to have several physical or mental health repercussions in those who become addicted to it. (iStock)

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A widespread and lucrative local heroin market has expanded across South Africa, facilitated by gangs, organised crime and incompetent or corrupt police, according to a report by ENACT. 

ENACT, which is funded by the European Union, builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime. 

According to its statement, the rapid emergence of the thriving industry has gone largely undetected by police and government, despite more than 100 000 users. It's estimated that annual turnover may be worth billions of rands. The problem is made worse by poor drug policy and neglect of marginalised communities.

READ: The changing face of heroin use in SA

"South Africa's heroin crisis is extremely serious and is taking a heavy toll on communities," says Simone Haysom, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, which is part of the Enhancing Africa's response to transnational organised crime (ENACT) project.

Haysom is the author of a new report on South Africa’s heroin problem, released at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on Thursday.

ENACT researchers found widespread and problematic heroin use in South Africa’s small towns, big cities and rural areas. The impact is felt by local authorities who are underprepared to provide effective responses.

This is what happens to your body during a heroin overdose

Heroin has been available for more than a century. The appeal of this drug is the intensely pleasurable sensation it creates as a result of dopamine flooding the brain.

The deputy head of the European Union delegation to South Africa, Raul de Luzenberger, commended ENACT for its field research on the threat to the social, economic and political fabric of South African society.

"In particular, I am pleased to note the collaboration with people working on drug policy, harm reduction, healthcare and criminal justice. The report Hiding in plain sight: Heroin’s stealthy takeover of South Africa highlights the weaknesses and gaps in policy, with a number of important recommendations."

Corrupt effect on police

The cash-based and criminalised heroin economy has had a severe corrupting effect on police, who have interdependent relationships with gangs, drug dealers and users. In Cape Town, dealers in gang-controlled neighbourhoods say patrol vans visit their selling points for small cash bribes. Interviewees in Tshwane spoke of corrupt junior police officers confiscating drugs and selling them to other dealers.

South Africa is at risk of contributing significantly to the surge in drug use in sub-Saharan Africa, which is expected to have 20 million users of hard drugs by 2040, says ENACT programme head at the ISS, Eric Pelser. "It’s a potential crisis, but there is insufficient policy attention being paid to it."

The problem is exacerbated by poor policing, absence of crime intelligence, and the failure of the state to provide adequate social care or education and health services.

South Africa's heroin economy is a spinoff from the growing international drug smuggling route down the east coast of Africa for shipment to international markets. Tanzanian criminal networks have been developing the South African heroin market and supplying gangs who sell the drug to users. "Heroin is today a key commodity underpinning the criminal economy in South Africa," Haysom says.

The country's poor drug policy has severe social, economic and political implications. Drug users are criminalised and have limited access to services, so become socially marginalised. Many end up living on the street, where they face assault and extortion by police.

Despite commitments to harm reduction in government’s drugs master plan, government strategy is not based on evidence or international best practice. Opiate substitution therapy, provision of less harmful heroin substitutes like methadone, and needle and syringe exchange programmes, are successful internationally, but only Tshwane currently has both these programmes.

ENACT says a regional political response is needed to address corruption that facilitates the heroin transit route through neighbouring countries. Police and other government agencies should develop an evidence-based analysis of the heroin economy and its impact on users, communities and crime. Police investigations should focus on facilitators of the trade, and traffickers that reap the profits.

Government's response to South Africa's heroin crisis should include public health initiatives, and address the causes of community vulnerability to drugs and gangs.

"Heroin use is increasing and we are not prepared for it," says Shaun Shelly, founder of SA Drug Policy Week.

Get help: The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), together with the Department of Social Development, launched a toll-free helpline for substance abuse. The number is 0800 12 13 14 and a 24-hour helpline is available from Monday to Sunday.

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Read more on:    european union  |  drugs  |  heroin

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