25/06/2018 09:37 BST | Updated 25/06/2018 09:38 BST

Substance Abuse: Criminalising Drug Use Is Part Of The Problem

'Prosecution for drug use often amounts to criminalising the illness of addiction. Far from being a solution, the criminal justice system exacerbates the problem.'

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Is it possible to get to zero drug addiction in Gauteng communities? This International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26th is an expression and determination by the province to strengthen action and cooperation and get community input to combat the scourge of drugs and to achieve the goal of a society free of drug abuse.

It could not come a moment too soon. This year's protest against drug peddlers and human traffickers in Krugersdorp has certainly put the issue on the agenda. Then-police minister Fikile Mbalula said at the time was that "it must be clear to all drug lords, we will identify and destroy drug dens. We can't live side by side with criminals." But what can be done? It is clear that we need a partnership between government entities, communities and civil society.

At the Soul City Institute for Social Justice, we are urging vigilant policing to increase public trust in the South African Police Service (SAPS) so that residents are not tempted to take the law into their own hands. Soul City's community research confirmed that substance abuse was perceived as a huge challenge facing not only the youth but entire communities.

There was an overwhelming sentiment among participants in the focus groups that there was not much the community could do to respond to substance abuse. Participants felt that communities affected by substance abuse were often poor communities in which dealers sometimes came from the community.

All acknowledged that substance abuse had the most negative impact on the individual using drugs (health, social relationships, attitudes and behaviour), then the community (crime) and then the family (broken families).

All groups highlighted the significant link between substance abuse and crime and violence in their communities. Their perceptions are confirmed by other research. The Poverty Trend Report shows that young people aged 18-24 are increasingly facing challenges of poverty with its related socioeconomic challenges such as unemployment, economic marginalisation, poor health outcomes including high HIV/AIDS prevalence, high levels of violence and substance abuse, and limited opportunities for development for many.

Johann Hari found that: (a) Drugs are not what we think they are; (b) addiction is not what we think it is, and (c) the 'war on drugs' has very different motives to the ones we have seen in our media for so long.

Substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol abuse, are pervasive — causing a spiral of socioeconomic issues. The abuse of all forms of drugs, including alcohol, is a huge problem in South African communities, and there is clearly a direct link between drug abuse and domestic violence, rape, abuse and other crimes.

According to the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use report, March 2017, the average age of experimentation in South Africa is 12 — and decreasing. While the age of patients undergoing treatment in Gauteng region ranged from 9 to 82, the proportion of patients aged 10 to 19 increased to 29 per cent." Indeed, South Africa's statistics of substance abuse is double the global average.

What then should communities be doing? The communities should unite and speak out on drug lords whilst no protection should be granted for drug lords. For many community members, the supply of drugs fuels the demand for drugs. Drugs are openly sold within communities and access is without a problem. During interviews for Soul City Institute's documentary "Kick It!", we met a young man who — on his return from rehab — was offered free drugs by dealers until he was addicted once more.

Researcher and journalist Johann Hari found that: (a) Drugs are not what we think they are; (b) addiction is not what we think it is, and (c) the "war on drugs" has very different motives to the ones we have seen in our media for so long. In his book, "Chasing the Scream", Hari writes that more people are killed and harmed through the war on drugs than through the drugs themselves.

Since 2006, over 100,000 people were killed in Mexico alone in gang violence linked to the drug trade and the war on drugs. In the U.S., 47,000 people were killed as part of the war on drugs. Closer to home, gangs in Western Cape and in Newclare/Westbury in Johannesburg, resourced by the illicit drug economy, are powerful and wreaking havoc on communities and people.

Westbury and Manenberg, though, are not experiencing anything different to what people in the barrios of Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro or the ghettos in Chicago are experiencing. The experiences are unfortunately remarkably similar. The illicit drug trade fuels gangs, gang violence and addiction.

There remains a disconnect between what is happening and what the police and local authorities say is happening. We need everyone to walk the talk.

Many young men and women have been forced into sex work, crime and other hazards due to the combination of the illegal nature of drugs, stigma, discrimination and the resultant disconnection from family and community. The arrest and prosecution of mainly drug users, many who often use drugs as a result of undiagnosed and/or inadequately treated mental illness, is also a great harm. The prosecution for drug use often amounts to criminalising illness, including the illness of addiction.

Far from being a solution to reducing harmful use of drugs, the criminal justice system exacerbates the problems associated with the harmful use of drugs and the underlying causes of harmful drug use and addiction. This includes the trauma of being subjected to legal processes where police, prosecutors and magistrates have very little knowledge about the drivers of harmful use of drugs and addiction. The prohibition of drugs has not reduced their availability or served to reduce addiction rates or harmful use across the world.

Building community capacity to engage their representatives at the appropriate structures is important — but so too is ensuring that public officials hear what communities are saying and can be held accountable for their actions and their lack of actions.

There remains a disconnect between what is happening and what the police and local authorities say is happening. We need everyone to walk the talk. We cannot continue to implement plans that are clearly not working. People we have worked with in various communities have said that the community safety response is too slow in shutting down supply. Indeed, we need to align the region to eliminate drugs in all corners of the province.

It is not that the province is not committed. Gauteng has invested a lot of money in education and awareness but the constant supply of drugs undermines their efforts. If the police don't take action, then all this money will be wasted. As we bring together stakeholders to review what works and how we can take forward our fight against substance abuse in our communities, we must put aside our own prejudices against those battling addiction, and realise the only way to "Kick It!" is through community-led collective action.

Bongani Ndlovu is Soul City Institute for Social Justice senior manager for media and content development