South Africa


Drug Bust Blues: Ever-increasing arrests of people who use drugs helps fuel crime, not reduce it

Drug Bust Blues: Ever-increasing arrests of people who use drugs helps fuel crime, not reduce it
Illustrative image. Photo: Matthew Rader/Unsplash

By arresting people simply for drug possession, you are increasing drug use and crime. The threat of arrest does not curb the use of drugs or the development of drug dependency. All it does is criminalise a significant portion of the community and compromise the ability of the police to establish trust and focus on other crimes.

It was recently reported by Cape Town Metro Police that a “drug dealer” from the Cape Flats was apprehended while en route to supplying “drugs” to students at a school in the leafy Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. Based on a tip-off, police swooped and apprehended the suspect who was unable to provide a prescription for eight methylphenidate tablets found in his possession.

Methylphenidate, marketed under the brand name Ritalin, is a stimulant drug used to relieve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD). It can, under the right conditions, improve performance on certain cognitive functions.

This was hardly a significant event in the global war on drugs, but it does highlight some of the significant problems we have. Not with drugs, but in the way drugs, their use and the people who use and supply them, are portrayed and understood by the media and society. This seemingly benign report is constructed on a foundation of misinformation, racism, elitism and stigma.

First, it perpetuates the idea that the students at a school for the privileged class were “saved” from falling victim to the drugs being peddled by a “dealer” from a different social class. Why else would they mention the buyer’s and seller’s geographical position if not as a proxy for a social position?

In reality, kids have been swopping medications for as long as there have been medications to swop, and with the ever-increasing need to excel at school, there are some who may see the use of cognitive enhancers and stimulants as pragmatic and necessary.

Many people rely on coffee to get through their workload or prepare for exams, while others prefer caffeine pills, consume bottles of Red Bull or Bioplus. Some will ask their doctor for a prescription for Ritalin, and get it, even if they haven’t been formally diagnosed with ADHD.

None of these examples will make the daily news. That only happens when the “supplier” is crossing economic (and often racial) lines to deliver what was willingly ordered. The war on drugs incarcerates the poor by labelling them as dealers or drug-fuelled criminals, while drug use by the rich happens unobserved and unpunished behind gated communities, and when it can no longer be ignored, the rich are sent for treatment.

Then there is the question of why would the police commit scarce resources to following up a tip-off, securing a warrant, intercepting the suspect and issuing a press release to boast about intercepting eight tablets of a medication that is not particularly difficult to get hold of and not particularly harmful.

Perhaps the answer to this lies in the way police performance is measured. The 2018/2019 South African Police Service Technical Indicator Descriptions provide the National Department of Monitoring and Evaluation the benchmarks by which to judge if South Africa is succeeding in the fight against crime.

Across every category of crime, including crimes against women and children, contact crime, property crime and other serious crime, the aim is to reduce arrests by between 2% and 12%. Every category, that is, except for being in the unlawful possession of drugs. In this category, police are required to increase the number of arrests by 47.36%. That means in 2019 there need to be 146,000 more arrests for the unlawful possession of drugs than in 2018.

That is a lot of people to arrest. Arrest targets for people who are in possession of drugs have increased every year since 2013/14, when the baseline was 260,732.

The justification for the increased arrest targets for drug possession is that the use of drugs is seen as a driver of crime. Drug use is framed as the cause of all manner of social evils, and so by arresting people who use drugs, crime will drop. This is the faulty logic behind the indicators. The logic is faulty because it assumes:

  1. That the use of drugs drives crime;

  2. By arresting more people who use drugs, drug use and crime will also reduce; and

  3. That by arresting people, you will discourage the use of drugs.

All three of these assumptions are wrong. It is not the use of drugs that drives crime. We all use drugs in one form or another. Rather, crime levels are mediated by many factors, and increases in drug use and increases crime often develop in parallel due to common motivators such as economic exclusion, lack of opportunity and inequality.

Further, while many criminals may take drugs to reduce inhibitions or numb their conscience when committing crimes, the primary motivator is not the use of drugs. It is true that dependent drug use in individuals who cannot afford their drugs may lead to opportunistic petty crime to fund their drug habit, but evidence shows that interventions that include prescribing of pharmaceutical analogues for street drugs reduce acquisition crime.

Second, you cannot arrest your way out of what is essentially a social problem. People who are arrested go to jail where they meet other criminals, they get a criminal record and return to their communities with a new set of skills and almost zero chance of participating in the formal economy.

Research has also shown that they are now, independent of other variables, more likely to develop a drug dependence, and more likely to be involved in violent crime. By arresting people simply for drug possession, you are increasing drug use and increasing crime, and in this, there is no doubt — the data is clear.

Finally, the threat of arrest does not curb the use of drugs or the development of drug dependency. All it does is criminalise a significant portion of the community and compromise the ability of the police to establish trust and police other crimes.

To measure police performance by ever-increasing numbers of arrests of people who use drugs is not going to reduce crime in South Africa. It will, however, increase the pressure on police to identify and arrest an increasing number of people who use drugs. Considering that cannabis possession accounted for the vast majority of arrests for drug possession, and that the recent Constitutional Court ruling has made the effective prosecution for the possession of cannabis almost impossible, the police will need to find new targets to arrest in order to meet their performance quotas.

This is why significant resources will continue to be wasted on tracking down young people from economically marginalised communities who are enticed by financial gain to supply affluent willing buyers with products that can be found in the desk drawer or pencil case of many businessmen and students who can afford to access a doctor and describe the symptoms of ADHD. DM

Shaun Shelly is Deputy-Secretary, United Nations Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs, Sub-Saharan Africa RepresentativeInternational Drug Policy Consortium Management Advisory Committee, Researcher Department of Family Medicine, University of Pretoria, Project, Policy, Advocacy & Human Rights Manager (PWUD), TB/HIV Care Association.


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