Just over two decades ago, South Africa underwent a massive political shift. The oppressive laws of the apartheid government were dismantled, and a new constitution was created and praised as one of the most progressive and inclusive in the world. One area in which South Africa continues to lag behind, however, is drug policy.
In South Africa, drug use is criminalized and often incorrectly blamed for an array of social ills, a simplistic conventional wisdom that doesn’t give due consideration to the multiple and complex drivers of poverty, crime, and drug use itself. At the 58th Commission on Narcotic Drugs, for instance, South African officials inaccurately described drug dependence as one of the “root causes of crime.” This misunderstanding of drug use has led to high levels of stigmatization and exclusion. When it comes to the “drug problem,” apartheid-style policing is seen as justified and remains the norm.
In South Africa, the war on drugs is waged daily in communities that have been oppressed for decades. These communities are now so criminalized they are essentially police states. The costs of this—social exclusion, mass incarceration, strain on the justice system—have been ignored. Instead, officials focus solely on the politically expedient target of eradication. Even with this focus on drugs, however, evidence-based treatment options are lacking and barriers to entry are high. The increase in injecting drug use is also a concern, especially considering the notable lack of harm reduction services and state-funded opioid substitution therapies in a country already suffering an HIV epidemic.
Across the globe, societies are abandoning their old-school methods of dealing with drugs. Treating drug users as criminals is increasingly recognized as a failed approach. The upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) has provided further momentum for countries and regions to consider health- and human rights-based drug policies instead. Yet in South Africa, debate around the UNGASS process has been almost non-existent at both the government and the civil society levels.
It is against this backdrop that the TB/HIV Care Association organized RUN2016 SA Drug Policy Week, an opportunity to discuss drug use and progressive drug policies openly and freely. Much common ground was found at the event. For instance, delegates were perhaps surprised to hear members of the South African Police Services express their frustration at the ineffectiveness of arresting drug users—a view shared by members of the drug-using community, who were able to describe first-hand the futility of these arrests.
The event was the first of its kind in South Africa and enjoyed the support of organizations as diverse as the South African Medical Research Council, UNAIDS, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the International Drug Policy Network. Many of the presentations highlighted the unintended consequences of current drug policy and introduced participants to the need for a new human rights- and health-based approach.
It will take a fundamental shift in attitude, but drug users in South Africa must be seen as people who deserve the same rights as everyone else. This shift may be starting to occur. At the event, someone sent me a grainy cell phone photo that showed the deputy chair of South Africa’s Central Drug Authority deep in conversation with a member of South Africa’s first drug user network. If we can foster conversations like these, we’ll be one step closer to a South Africa that promotes equality, social justice, and respect for human rights.