Heroin on our playgrounds

Carte Blanche discussed the disturbing topic of drugs in schools on Sunday. You can watch the video here.  According to the programme, there is an increased onset of drug taking amongst children between the ages of nine and 11. By 11, many have already become addicted.

Alcohol, dagga, mandrax and dagga-mandrax used to be the drugs of choice. The picture is different nowadays with a much higher incidence of heroin abuse or -dependence.

Surely, children’s main concerns should have been dating, pimples and iPods? How does it happen that children barely out of primary school overdose on mainline drugs? Health24 investigated.

Not my child
"You cannot protect your child from coming into contact with drugs," says Grant Jardine, manager of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre. "By the time a child leaves high school, every single one would have come into contact with drugs – whether they chose to use them or not. Between half and a third of all males in Cape Town will have experimented with illegal substances by the time they hit Grade 11."

Drugs on the playground
"Most selling of and experimentation with drugs happen on the schoolgrounds. It is not unusual for children as young as 10 or 11 to be experimenting with hard drugs," according to the Narcotics Bureau of the South African Police Services.

"There is a tremendous amount of peer pressure among schoolchildren. Children who have money to spend often use it to buy social acceptance, which in many cases means drugs. In years gone by, the class rebel smoked behind the bicycle shed and the class nerd bought friends by giving them chocolates from the canteen. Not any more".

Heroin on the increase
Experts have commented on the tremendous increase of heroin-related cases they have dealt with over the past few months.
"In 1999, 6,8% of the clients at the Drug Counselling Centre named heroin as their current drug of abuse. By 2000 this percentage had almost doubled to 11%. Previously the use of heroin was fairly rare amongst our clients – now we deal with a much higher incidence per year," says Jardine.

Creating the demand
How has this hard-line drug found a foothold in our society? "Initially dealers sold heroin at very low prices (one-tenth of a gram for between R10 and R30), and waited until there was a demand for the drug, then pushed prices up dramatically, in some cases as high as tenfold. Heroin is also sold at relatively low prices – much lower than the going rate in the USA, for instance.

Drug abuse in Cape Town is definitely much higher than elsewhere in the country. The reasons for this are hotly debated – it is a port city, it has a one of the biggest dance circuits, it is a wine-producing region, there are large numbers of foreign tourists. The fact is that heroin has found a foothold in the mother city and its users are becoming younger and younger.

Affording heroin on pocket money
Where do children find the money to support expensive drug habits? Some parents give their children exorbitant amounts of pocket money – sometimes more than R2 000 per month.  This is often money given in lieu of love, time and attention, so parents do not ask too many questions about where it goes.
When the pocket money runs out, children resort to crime to support their habit, often starting off with selling their parents’ possessions.

What makes heroin different?
"Heroin impacts more severely on users than other drugs. Not only is it more addictive than dagga, ecstasy or alcohol, it also impacts more quickly on users’ daily lives, rendering them incapable of continuing their normal routine. Hence the tendency for heroin addicts to seek help a lot more quickly than other drug users," adds Jardine.

Heroin is also cut (mixed) – sometimes as much as 10 times and mixed with all sorts of substances, which in South Africa have included arsenic, rat poison and chalk. Because it is injected, the user cannot detect an unusual taste or smell.

Overdosing sometimes happens out of ignorance of the potency of the drug. But usually children don’t try something like this on their own for the first time, and therefore Jardine thinks it is unlikely that when someone overdoses by themselves, that it would have been the first time they tried heroin.

Why are our children apparently such easy targets for drug dealers?
Jardine explains: "We live in a drug-taking society, where there is the general perception that drugs, including prescription drugs and alcohol, can help you to solve your problems. Adolescents are also going through a particularly stressful time in their lives, where they are also more likely to succumb to peer pressure. Drugs are seen as a way of coping with stress, not only by teenagers, but often by their parents as well. Teenagers watch their parents drinking, smoking or take tranquillisers and they follow suit".

Is there anything parents can do?

Jardine made the following suggestions:

  • Parents should confront the issue and not assume that their children won’t do drugs Talk to children about the dangers of drug abuse
  • If parents suspect something they should act immediately rather than worry about their social standing and what other people will think of their family
  • Parents should check the example they set for their children
  • Parents should be on the lookout especially if there is a predisposition to alcoholism or other drug use in some other family members
  • Parents should try to develop a relationship of openness and trust with their children
  • Take an interest in what you children are doing in their spare time
  • Get counselling if there is a problem 

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated July 2010)

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