Moving the needle
A war on drugs does not stop crime
● No amount of drug seizures or arrests of people who use drugs will reduce the use of drugs or the harm they may cause.
This week the Hawks received all-round praise after 706kg of cocaine was found on a ship in transit from Brazil to India. Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya, national head of the Hawks, said: “By confiscating this cargo, we have severed the supply chain. But the war on drugs has neither been lost nor won. We are still going to put more effort in targeting the supply of these dangerous dependence-producing substances.”
But he is wrong, the supply chain has not been severed, and the war on drugs has, by its own measure, been lost. The seizure was big by any standards, but 700kg of seized cocaine will not make an iota of difference to the price or availability of drugs in the local or global market.
Tom Wainright, in Narconomics, his excellent book describing the way drug cartels operate, explains that demand is so high that attempts to increase the cost of drugs to the end user, through supply reduction, do not work. The total production of cocaine in 2016 (the latest figures available in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report) was up 25% from 2015 figures, and hectares under coca cultivation increased from 156,900 to 213,000 between 2006 and 2017.
Despite international law enforcement spending billions on countering the cultivation of crops of opium poppy, coca and cannabis, there has been no reduction in supply or increase in price, and purity has risen. About 18,2-million people between 16 and 64 used cocaine and a quarter of a billion people used unregulated drugs. That is a lot of demand, a lot of supply, and a lot of money to fund political campaigns, buy protection and influence law enforcement.
It’s also a lot of missed opportunities for generating tax revenue. Colorado generated R4bn in revenue from regulated cannabis trade in 2018. In SA the Constitutional Court has ruled that it is an infringement of people’s rights to criminalise the use of cannabis in the privacy of the home. With 51-million users in Africa, and cannabis growing like, well, weed, the move towards the regulation of cannabis is unlikely to be stopped.
Gen Lebeya, perhaps recognising that his commitment to targeting supply was futile, said: “We are making a call to all communities not to do drugs. Do not demand drugs. Do not apply for a criminal record of doing drugs. If you stop demanding drugs, cartels will not be producing or delivering them.” To ask people to stop using drugs is never going to prevent the use of drugs. Altering one’s state of mind through the use of drugs (including coffee, sugar, alcohol and nicotine) after millennia is not going to go away.
Guided by the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, nations have been arresting people who use certain drugs in the futile hope that this will reduce demand. However, arresting someone for the use of a drug has absolutely no positive outcome. None. Numerous studies have shown that arresting a person for a drug offence impacts negatively on their health, job opportunities, level of drug use and increases their chance of involvement in future criminal activity.
Yet we continue to fight a “war on drugs” and, when one is at war, all manner of means are considered acceptable. This is not simply a term of rhetoric used by politicians, but a reality suffered by marginalised people around the world. The harsh reality is that the war on drugs has significantly increased the risk of drug use impacting negatively on the health, security, wellbeing and basic human rights of people. This is particularly true for black and brown people who are far more likely to be arrested and convicted of drug-related offences, even in environments where they use less drugs than white people.
In reality the war on drugs has been a war on certain people. Increasingly people are recognising these failures. Recently the International Drug policy Consortium released a report, “Taking Stock: A Decade of Drug Policy”. The report measure progress towards goals set in the UN 1998 “Political Declaration and Plan of Action on Drugs” – a document that proudly announced: “A Drug Free World: We can do it.”
Well, we can’t, as the IDPC report shows. The goal of a drug-free world is pointless and unattainable. In recent years the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a think tank made up of former heads of state and global leaders, has released a number of reports that advocate for evidence-based alternative drug policies that promote rights, health and development. Evidence from a number of countries indicates that decriminalisation reduces the harm of drugs, and countries as diverse as Ghana and Malaysia are moving towards decriminalisation and regulation.
In SA we need to stop calling for more police action, harsher sentences and, in some communities, extra-judicial violence against people who use drugs. Drugs have become the catch-all, politically convenient target to distract people from the failures of government and increasing economic and social inequity. We need to realise that we have been fooled into accepting policies and practices that can only increase the problems our communities face. Each time we arrest someone for a drug-related offence, including subsistence dealing, we are recruiting for the criminal enterprises we are complaining about. We are driving the marginalisation of our community members, many of whom use drugs, but only some of whom get caught and suffer consequences. Perhaps when it is our own child, mother, father, uncle or aunt, we will realise that no good will come of their arrest.
Even if we had no drugs in our communities, we would still have problems: lack of opportunity, unemployment, economic and social marginalisation, massive inequity and a growing sense that the future holds little hope. These are not problems created by drugs, but problems that, for some, drugs offer the only solution.
Shaun Shelly is Deputy-Secretary, United Nations Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs
Drug use is often an escape from harsh realities, not a cause of social problems.