Mov­ing the nee­dle

A war on drugs does not stop crime

Sunday Times - - Insight - By SHAUN SHELLY

● 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

Pic­ture: Moeletsi Mabe

Drug use is of­ten an es­cape from harsh re­al­i­ties, not a cause of so­cial prob­lems.

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