Today is International Day Against Drug Abuse and Patricia De Lille, mayor of Cape Town, was interviewed on Morning Live about her rap against drugs and the city’s efforts to combat drugs. I don’t have the whole transcript of the interview but I want to focus on one of the things she said in particular, that drugs worked because of supply and demand and that the city was going to go after the supply. That is a very bad way to go about tackling the problem.
The way the city is planning to tackle drugs is similar to the way the country has been tackling rhino poaching. But while the people killing the rhinos and those selling and abusing drugs are the visible part of the problem they are not the best part to try and fix because they are caused by something else. Let me illustrate with an analogy.
You are out in a boat one day, enjoying the sun and having a relaxing sail. Then you notice that the bottom of the boat has some water and more is steadily running in. Obviously if the boat gets too full of water it will sink, so you start bailing the water out. You keep doing that but it should soon become obvious no matter how much water you bail out more will come in because the water in the boat is just a symptom of a bigger problem. The boat has a hole. Unless you plug the hole you will keep bailing out water but never accomplish anything. Similarly unless you deal with the reasons people use drugs or the reasons people are poaching rhinos you can crack down on the drug lords and poachers all you want but you will never accomplish anything. First you need to address the real causes of those ills.
While we’re on the subject of drugs I want to say a few more things. The current way of dealing with the drug situation does not work. Not only has it not worked but it has made life worse for many people. Sadly when the Global Commission on Drugs Policy released it’s report on global drug policy last year I saw no mention of it in South Africa and certainly no change in the way drugs are treated by the law.
Among the problems with drug policies currently is the criminalisation of users, the lack of medical support for users and the complete disconnect between drug policy and what the evidence says about drug harms. I strongly advise everyone to read the report which not only outlines the problems but also possible solutions. South Africa has a large drug problem and it’s obvious that the current criminal sanctions are not solving it. It’s time we tried more constructive ways of dealing with the problem that have actually been shown to work. At the same time it is necessary to find why people use drugs, which I expect has to do with a lack of future prospects and family problems, and work on fixing those issues. Treating suffering people as criminals is not helpful to anyone.