The War on Drugs: Is It Time to Change?

By Glenn Ashton · 4 Sep 2009

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Picture: Splifr
Picture: Splifr

South Africa has one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the world. The most commonly abused drugs are alcohol and dagga (cannabis). The abuse of chemical stimulants such as tik (methamphetamine) has recently soared. Other synthesised drugs like cocaine, heroin and mandrax remain deeply problematic, both to users and society.

The drug scourge is an historical international problem linked to globally connected and well resourced criminal enterprises. Russian, Italian, Columbian, Chinese, Nigerian and European gangs and networks all play a role in the lucrative manufacture and trade in illicit drugs. 

The "War on Drugs," declared by President Nixon has been a thirty eight year failure. Billions of dollars have been wasted while the numbers of people taking, making, and trading in drugs has risen inexorably. The social costs have been massive with over 6 million people arrested for cannabis possession in the US alone between 1992 and 2006. 

South Africa too is seriously affected by this problem, with drugs-related offences rising from 53, 000 in 2003 to 109, 000 in 2008. The Western Cape accounts for nearly half of the cases. Our overburdened legal system is forced into reactive rather than proactive responses to the problems, wasting precious resources.

A heavy handed approach has solved little, in fact things grow steadily worse. In our massively unequal local and global society, legal and illegal drugs are all freely available to anyone seeking temporary solace from the harsh realities of life.

South Africa's ingrained drinking and binge culture has become a socially accepted norm. This has massive social effects – poor health, the highest foetal alcohol syndrome rate in the world, widespread familial abuse, astronomical rates of assault and rape and drunken driving. If anything is a gateway to drugs, it is alcohol abuse

Historically, access to alcohol was gained mainly through speakeasys and shebeens. Here a relationship between the drink and drugs trade existed, mainly involving cannabis. The formalisation of the shebeen trade has resulted in the drugs trade moving into the control of gangs and professional criminals. 

The financial heft of the illicit drugs industry renders its influence pervasive. The tangled relationship between our ex top cop Jackie Selebi and Glenn Agliotti, a convicted drug smuggler and alleged crime kingpin, demonstrate how damaging these influences can become. 

International criminal syndicates specialise in actively undermining legal controls – border control is undermined, police become corrupted, Home Affairs is infiltrated and politicians and authorities are targeted. Poor communities identify more closely with criminals than cops, further undermining the social order.

Since our democratic transition South Africa has actively implemented the UN Vienna convention, the primary international agreement aimed at combating the drugs trade. This has led to development of strict anti money laundering laws, while the SAPS drugs bureau was short-sightedly disbanded. Prosecution of the trade is patchy at best. A modern, implementable national drugs strategy remains as tangible as a puff of dagga smoke. Change is needed. 

Besides its dividends, freedom exposed us to the criminal underbelly of the world. The drugs trade, intimately connected to organised crime actively undermines the rule of law. 

If the war on drugs has failed, how do we to turn this extremely serious problem around? 

The most widely touted solution is the decriminalisation of illicit drugs. Holland has the longest track record of decriminalising cannabis through regulated sale. Mexico recently surpassed Holland and decriminalised the possession of small amounts of cannabis, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine (tik), ecstasy and even LSD.

Ironically, even in the USA, the cradle of the war on drugs, 12 states have decriminalised cannabis and California has legalised its medical use. Many other nations have adopted similar stances: Portugal, most of South America, Russia and parts of Australia are just a few places that have adopted a tolerant attitude toward personal cannabis use. 

It is also crucial to remember that decriminalisation does not equate to legalisation. It merely sets a threshold between personal use and criminal sanction, with charges only laid against those deemed to be dealing in drugs, not those using it privately.

The focus of this social experimentation is to reduce the broad societal harm of the drug trade. The trade of illegal drugs provides a point of contact between otherwise law abiding citizens and those involved in criminal activity. Criminalising drug use automatically forces users into illegal activity, providing direct access not only to dangerous drugs but criminal activity. 

Decriminalisation also reduces the social stigma of drug use. After all, throughout history drug use has been condoned or normalised. Lewis Carrol, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sagan, Aldous Huxley and many other well known people partook of substances that are now illegal. Even Queen Victoria was rather fond of her coca wine, cannabis and opium! What would we have lost by criminalising them? What do we lose by indiscriminately criminalising millions of otherwise productive individuals?  

Cannabis is the most commonly decriminalised drug, seen as a far softer, safer drug than the more potent alternatives. Nobody has ever been proven to have died from a cannabis overdose. Its role in triggering psychosis remains hotly debated. If only the same could be said for alcohol. 

Cannabis is instrumental in far less criminal behaviour than alcohol, such as violence related crimes. Its health effects may be disputed, but are at worst comparable to ther three socially acceptable legal drugs, tobacco, caffeine and alcohol. Recent research shows that cannabis may even confer protection against various cancers. 

Cannabis and hemp, its impotent cousin, have been a foundation crop since before the advent of organised agriculture. Hemp remains an extremely valuable commercial crop. It is, simply put, an historical aberration that cannabis has become an illegal substance over the past century or so.

Cannabis was traditionally grown in apartheid's impoverished and marginalised 'homeland' areas and transported to cities, bringing in much needed money to the 'homelands.' It is anecdotally claimed that dagga cultivation in KZN is more valuable than the entire sugar cane industry. It is California's most valuable agricultural crop. Why not integrate this resource into the economy?

Decriminalisation cannot solve all the problems related to the drug trade. Even in Holland, the state regulated system of coffee shops remain highly controversial and cannabis is illegal, yet decriminalised. This is an important differentiation.

The Dutch programme proves how a well regulated system can reduce levels of associated criminal behaviour, spur economic activity and provide tax. The incidence of hard drug addiction has dropped, while the age of drug users has risen as the youth is denied access, similarly to alcohol. 

This is not to say the Holland does not have a drug problem. No nation on earth is immune, but decriminalisation allows the problem to be better managed in that resources can be more effectively managed and directed.

While the Mexican experiment is more radical than most, the sky-rocketing local drug problem was not controllable through punitive measures. The Western Cape, responsible for almost half of the drug arrests nationally, is far closer to the Mexican model than to the Dutch, yet we can learn from both. It is also interesting to note that three South American ex presidents from fairly conservative backgrounds, have written openly on the failure of the war on drugs.

South Africa stands at a crossroads as far as managing our expanding domestic drug problems are concerned. Violence levels associated with the trade are well established. Many international players have entered the market. Our financial controls like money laundering laws have failed to achieve desired objectives. Drug addiction is at unprecedented levels, with even the platteland falling prey to remorseless expansion of the trade.

Support for decriminalisation of drugs like cannabis has grown. Only by legitimising the trade in drugs, can quality standards be set. Addicts can more readily access assistance. Surely it is preferable to gain transparent, legitimate control of the trade, instead of perpetuating a direct route for citizens to deal directly with criminal elements? Take the trade from the shadows into the light.

As far as sourcing drugs for a legalised programme, the state makes sufficient seizures of cannabis to at least legitimise the supply lines, licensing growers, providing tax, employment and control of the trade, always aimed at harm reduction. Licensed growing and distribution channels can be developed, along with the formalisation of the hemp industry. 

It is interesting that our new Chief Justice, Sandile Ngcobo wrote a lucid dissenting judgement in the Prince case, where application was made to decriminalise Rastafarians for partaking in the use of cannabis as a sacrament. Justice Ngcobo remarked that the South African narcotics bureau, the Attorney-General or the Health Ministry, had not shown that through appropriate legislation and administration, dagga use by Rastafarians could not be controlled.

More to the point, Chief Justice Ngcobo noted that the problem was that the government had never considered these matters. 

It is time to consider these matters now, before it is too late. 

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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4 Sep


In 2001 Portugal decriminalised all drugs for personal use, with remarkable success:

Not only is the state's intervention proven to be ineffective - counter-productive, in fact - the state has no business dictating what citizens do, so long as it harms no-one else.

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4 Sep

Decriminalisation of drugs

This can only be the right way to go, as it would free up the police and the courts to deal with serious crimes. It would also disempower many of the dealers.

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Rory Short
4 Sep

Decriminalising Personal use of All Addictive Substances

Decriminalising Personal use of All Addictive Substances

The reality is that there will always be elements within any society that fall prey to the use of addictive substances.

It is in any society

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Kenneth Carstens
5 Sep



MANY thanks for all your excellent info! - & also for raising the drugs issue. I strongly support Ashton's argument. I wonder whether it would be a more effective tactic to begin by focussing on hemp? The advantages of growing it as an agricultural crop are so overwhelming that one has surely to be ignorant or a bigot to continue the present costly & deleterious & idiotic policy.


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6 Sep

Learn from the Americans

We need to learn from the mistakes that the Americans have made over the last 4 decades. A war on drugs is a far bigger danger to society than drugs are. In fact any war against it own citizens for whatever reason has histocally been proved as more dangerous than any vice. Prostitution also needs to be decrimilised.

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