The need for a different approach to policing illegal drugs in South Africa

The need for a different approach to policing illegal drugs in South Africa – Understand

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Despite serious and sustained efforts, countless billions of dollars, and the loss of many lives, the trade in and use of illicit or illegal substances – drugs – have never consistently declined in the last hundred years. While there may have been periods in which an individual drug, such as cocaine, may have been ‘forgotten’ or has ceased to play a prominent role on the international stage, the fact remains that the trade in illicit or illegal substances is larger, more diverse, and more profitable than ever before. This is not to say that the features which have defined the transnational trade in illicit substances have remained stable or uniform – the structure of the trade, the consumption patterns of various substances, and the social profile of those who consume drugs has changed radically over time. What has not changed however are the typically monolithic governmental responses, perhaps more commonly understood as the ‘war on drugs,’ which has come to define the parameters by which the illicit trade in banned substances is defined and reacted against. Ethan Nadelmann argues that ‘in all of human history, no society has ever been drug free, nor will any be so in the future. Drugs are not going to be eradicated; the challenge is to mitigate the harm they cause’. This notion is extremely important, for if we accept that the transnational trade in illicit drugs is something that can never be completely eliminated – is not of the epistemological type of problem that can be ‘solved’ by the complete eradication of all instances of illicit drug use/distribution/production – how then do we begin to seriously think through the various problems that illicit drugs present to contemporary societies? 

“The structure of the trade, the consumption patterns of various substances, and the social profile of those who consume drugs has changed radically over time”

Historical records have shown that in attempting to ‘deal with’ the ‘problem’ of drug use, the use of drugs has become more problematic, more complex, and more entrenched. In recognising this, we need then to begin thinking beyond an understanding of illicit drugs that positions them as somehow ulterior or external to the legitimate and legal, to understand that the use of drugs is symptomatic of the very conditions which make drug use illegal in the first place. South Africa is now one of the last outposts of the ‘war on drugs’, and not without irony, is home to a growing population of drug users and is playing an ever more important role in the transnational movement of illegal drugs themselves. This overview aims to detail how this has happened and what realistically might be done about it in the future.

Policing and drugs in South Africa

South Africa is ideally placed both as a conduit for the trafficking of illegal drugs, and increasingly, as a destination for consumption in its own right. The former is a product of its geographic position, well-developed infrastructure and ports, and extensive connections to other countries. The latter is a function of (increasingly) systemic forms of corruption, lacklustre policing efforts, weakening border control, and depreciating currency. As a forwarding hub, South Africa plays an important role in the movement of cocaine from South America to Europe and further eastwards, and helps facilitate the movement of heroin-based substances from the middle eastern region to the US. Favourable climatic conditions facilitate the production of cannabis, much of which is consumed locally but some of which is exported to the European market. There is significant production of both methamphetamine and methaqualone (or ‘mandrax’), both of which are also extensively consumed locally. Smaller markets exist for synthetic substances, primarily stimulant-based substances (ecstasy/MDMA-based substances, amphetamines and newer syntheses).

In meeting their respective legislative mandates, the regulation/policing of illegal substances in South Africa has been ineffective, scattershot and piecemeal. Drug-related arrests are the most significant arrest type, and have remained so for the last 5 years, with 258,472 incidents occurring in 2014, 266,902 in 2015, and 259,165 in 2016. Despite this, conviction rates remain extremely low – aggregated convictions relating to cannabis (the most widely used illegal substance in the country) have remained below 3% of arrests (2.71% in 2012, 2.25% in 2013, and 2.12% in 2014). Moreover, there are massive disparities in the arrest and conviction levels between population groups, with cannabis-related convictions of white women standing at just 0.0038% in 2014. At the same time, the availability and affordability of the primary illegal substances continues to increase. While the nominal value of the primary drugs of use in South Africa have only decreased marginally over the course of the last decade, as a result of rapid inflation the real value of these substances has decreased greatly – methamphetamine is 181.7% more affordable, heroin some 317.4% more affordable, and cocaine 159.7% more affordable than ten years ago.

While high-arrest or conviction rates are not indicative of effective regulation, they are symptomatic of significant structural challenges in the police forces, most prominent of which are corruption/racketeering driven by very low salary levels and the lack of significant career opportunities, traumatic working conditions and a lack of counselling/support structures, and a numeric performance measurement matrix which mandates for the meeting of ‘quotas’ at the station level. Indeed, evidence exists of officers specifically not arresting local dealers so as that the ‘pool’ of users that purchase substances from them is maintained within their jurisdiction, and which can be drawn upon in the fulfilling of these numeric objectives. Despite this, many officers are aware of these challenges and of the ineffectiveness of the policing model but lack the scope and space to voice such concerns for fear of being persecuted by colleagues or for being charged with dereliction of duty. The overall result is that the regulation of illegal drugs is uncoordinated and marred by systemic obligations that preclude effective responses.

The collateral damage of the war on drugs

The punitive regulation of prohibited substances with the aim of ‘eliminating’ them from society underpinned the ‘war on drugs’ and remains central to South African drug regulation strategies. While the ‘war’ is now widely recognised as a failure, and has lost political currency in most countries, these features still remain the ‘default’ departure point by which the production, distribution, and use of drugs are controlled in much of the world. South Africa is no exception – arrest rates continue to increase, rapidly in recent months, yet these are not even slightly matched by conviction rates. Moreover, recent research in the Centre of Criminology has provided empirical evidence which shows that drugs have, at least in Cape Town, over the last ten years become much more affordable. If they are more affordable, they can be accessed by a greater number of people, which also tends to increase arrest rates. Even if this inconvenient fact is ignored entirely, what cannot be escaped is the logic by which punitive drug regulation works. Policing is largely reactive and symptomatic, and fails to really engage with a question that underpins much of drug regulation itself – just why are people using drugs in the first place?

In the 1960s drugs were extremely topical for researchers, and numerous foundational studies were conducted. In a famous example, rats were put in cages fitted with a lever that would activate a cocaine dispensing machine. On depressing the lever, a rat-size ‘hit’ of cocaine would be dispensed, seemingly to the delight of the rat – researchers found that the rats were not only quite keen to push the lever, but that they would not stop depressing the lever. At times ignoring hunger, thirst, and everything else. Some rats pushed the lever until they died. The example became central to biological theories of addiction, and was widely used in illustrating the power of illegal drugs, as well as a potent justification for their prohibition. Consequently, if rats and humans were in any way alike, ‘addicts’ had to be removed from society because just like rats, they would stop at nothing to satisfy their slavish addictions. To the chagrin of many rats, the experiment was repeated across the world, and the results were easily replicable.

What researchers failed to show in these experiments, however, was the context. Brief descriptions of the experiments – the rat was put in a cage – seem innocuous when most people have experiences of rats in cages, and thus not ‘seen’ as critical. These cages were however very small, allowing little movement or space. They were often placed under hot, bright spotlights needed to film the experiment, thus confining, heating, and asphyxiating the animals. These cages were not of the type seen in homes, but more akin to tanning beds, that were shut and locked after the rats had been forcibly been put in them. Understandably, the rats were extremely distressed, frightened, and uncomfortable – and were then offered a substance that could alleviate all of these things, repeatedly. Knowing this, a more sympathetic researcher decided to try the same experiment, but changed one element – they designed a ‘rat park’, a large, comfortable, and open-plan cage in which the rats could mingle freely as they would prefer. The cage had the same lever that would dispense the same cocaine, a practice the rats had been trained to do. What the rats did was unexpected – they rarely if ever favoured the lever, invariably ignoring it entirely even though they knew they could access cocaine through it. This flew in the face of bio-pharmaceutical assumptions and indicated that environmental factors may be serious drivers for the use of drugs. The first results of the experiment were rejected by both Science and Nature, although they later were gracious in accepting other publications concerning the study. Rats and humans are of course very different, yet an opportunity for comparison did soon emerge. 

During the Vietnam war, some 20% of US servicemen reported active heroin use. Heroin was easily available, and the stresses of war eroded the moral boundaries many individuals may have grown up with. Yet, when the war ended and the men came home, only 5% of soldiers relapsed into drug use. Inversely, this indicates that some 95% of those defined as active heroin addicts ceased to use what is colloquially considered the most addictive drug without any interventions, such as therapy and opioid-replacement efforts. When placed in the heat of battle or under the heat of lamps, both humans and rats tend to want to escape from these situations, either physically or by masking their reality. Hence, context is very important. Yet from the early 1980s until the late 1990s, the importance of context rarely featured in the literature, displaced by concerns with the ‘war on drugs’ and the original biological model.

South Africa, as is often noted, is highly unequal. 41% of the residents live in poverty in peri-urban ‘townships’ located at the edges of urban areas where levels of unemployment are exceedingly high. Consumer-orientated narratives have simultaneously driven material understandings of success, individuality, and identity. The result has been economic exclusion, and social alienation. Recent studies (including those by the Centre of Criminology) have shown statistical correlates between poverty levels, unemployment, and drug use prevalence levels in communities. Public demand for the police to ‘eliminate’ drug use has further driven violent interactions and confrontations, creating antagonistic relationships between the state and impoverished communities that themselves further entrench violence into the daily realities of many. Hemmed in economically, locked out of development, and caged politically, drug use becomes a completely valid choice, both economically and ontologically. The result is indeed arrest rates – yet these arrests are meaningless in the face of the structural drivers that have defined South Africa’s history and its present. While many police officers work tirelessly, and are driven by merciless performance systems, they cannot be expected to solve the very problems that they are tasked with policing.

“The result is indeed arrest rates – yet these arrests are meaningless in the face of the structural drivers that have defined South Africa’s history and its present.”

Such systemic issues are difficult to solve when by their nature they are almost impossible to solve. They can be mitigated, however, as well as undermined and reduced. Portugal, for example, has decriminalised (but not made legal) the use of drugs. This has not solved or eliminated the use of drugs in the country. What has, however, been created is a space for dialogue, for reflection, and indeed for solutions. Importantly, the country has both created and sustained these spaces, so that when problems have emerged with their regulatory efforts, they have the resources and will to be able to change and adapt. This is especially important considering the dynamism of the transnational illegal drug economy. The resulting solutions are multiple, but a useful example is that decriminalisation has created the space in which some clinics now supply clean needles, clean smoking instruments, and guidance that reduces the harms and health risks associated with drug use. More importantly, drug users are supported in even the smallest ways; that they are accepted by communities in which they live; and their experience of care has, for many, given them a glimpse of life beyond their drug use. 

Whether such solutions would work in South Africa requires critical thinking. It is clear however that whatever the measure, they cannot simply be ‘implemented’. People become addicted to drugs, often because their realities are unbearable. Given just a little space, however, and the most basic of opportunities (even if this means only not further excluding them), drugs not only lose their lustre, but ultimately their necessity. This does not mean that ‘only’ context is relevant, or that ‘only’ biology’ is important. Such arguments are reductionist. Drug use is a function of the complex interplay of social, individual, and biological forces – it is for this reason that they invariably become one of the clearest mirrors with which to reflect people’s experience of reality.

Harm reduction and moving forward

The South African regulatory architecture intended to govern the production, distribution, and use of illegal drugs has as its basis the dated Drugs and Drugs Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992, which was last amended in 2002. It is fundamentally punitive in its approach – criminalising users and prohibiting the substances – and primarily relies on the national police service and criminal justice system to enforce the legal provisions. As has been widely shown, solely punitive approaches to illegal substance use/users are frequently not effective, and can at times, be counterproductive by creating the environmental conditions in which the illegal drug economy can thrive. Such approaches are usually justified and normalised through the perpetuation of misinformation, stigma, and acts of scapegoating that have been shown to underpin much of the rhetoric used both informally and by media agencies in reports on illegal substance use/users, as highlighted above. As a result, the police and criminal justice systems are self-referentially justified as the gatekeepers of a safe and ordered society, in which drug use and users are positioned as predatory and undesirable. Ironically, such understandings frequently prevent alternative regulatory efforts from being established.  

“As has been widely shown, solely punitive approaches to illegal substance use/users are frequently not effective, and can at times, be counterproductive by creating the environmental conditions in which the illegal drug economy can thrive.”

The South African legislative system tasked with the reduction and/or prevention of the use of illegal substances has proven itself to be ineffective. Perhaps this has already been realised, as the new National Drug Master Plan (2013-2017) makes an explicit attempt to encourage local and community-orientated interventions that are reduction- and rehabilitation-orientated. However, the plan arguably speaks the language of reform but continues to empower the criminal justice system as the primary port of call with regards to the regulation of the use and users of illegal substances. Given this state of affairs, it seems that a ‘new’ paradigm or regulatory environment in relation to drugs cannot be realistically and meaningfully adopted in South Africa. 

Strategies and frameworks that have at root the principle of harm reduction, taken in its broadest sense, can however be used in the formulation of an alternative, less damaging approach. Such an approach need not be framed in terms of legalisation (as South African society is perhaps too conservative for this at present), but could rather take the form of a hiatus of the most harmful (to society) of government responses. These include, for instance, the ongoing demand for the SAPS to arrest close to 200,000 people per year on drug related offences, the vast majority of which are classified as users rather than dealers. These arrests are not only a fruitless use of police resources, but contrary to their purported aim, no addiction has ever been ‘cured’ by arrest. As things stand, such harms are set to only increase, as the SAPS strategic plan for the next five years calls for further increases in arrest numbers. Simply assessing the utility of such a strategy, and focussing police efforts towards the supply of illegal drugs rather than their use, can in this context thus be considered a form of harm reduction. 

Another form of harm reduction in the South African context is perhaps more straightforward to implement, namely changing the way in which drugs and drug use are spoken about in general discourse and the public media, which can help reduce harms that use these narratives as a justification for the use of force and punishment. Talk of ‘scourges’ or ‘epidemics’ frames drugs and their use as immoral issues that draw attention away from the very real socio-economic and governmental failures that are at root the principle drivers of drug use in South Africa. Harm reduction, in short, need not necessarily involve the explicit creation of a ‘new’ system, when in fact, the reorientation of the ‘old’ system may suffice. 

Useful resources

There are a number of useful resources available online, some of which speak to drugs and their use more generally and some of which speak to the South African context specifically.

For resources relating to further information on treatment and dealing with addiction in South Africa, the SACENDU project provides an excellent overview of the current situation, updated twice a year.

The Western Cape Government has released a useful pamphlet covering a range of issues relating to drugs, which is especially useful at a local level.