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“Rethink Prohibition and Stop Picking on Users”: New Era on the Horizon as Eastern and South African Commission on Drugs Launched to Re-Examine drug policies.

“Rethink Prohibition and Stop Picking on Users”: New Era on the Horizon as Eastern and South African Commission on Drugs Launched to Re-Examine drug policies.

Former South African President Kgalema Mothlante is part of a new initiative that is working out appropriate southern Africandrug policies in the wake of the failure of the 'War Against Drugs'. Part of the plan, which is based on a human rights approach to substance abuse, is to encourage law enforcement to clamp down on narco-traffickers and to provide better social support for drug users.

Carolyn Doley, Daily Maverick

12 February 2023 at 11:00:00

This report by author and leading investigative journalist Carolyn Doley first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 12 February 2024.

The Eastern and Southern Africa Commission on Drugs (ESADC), which involves ex-presidents including South Africa’s Kgalema Motlanthe, was launched in Cape Town on Saturday 11 February 2023. It will push for law enforcers to focus on narcotraffickers instead of criminalising users, who need better support.

More heroin from Afghanistan and destined for Western markets is ending up in eastern and southern Africa.

In South Africa, the trade of inexpensive heroin is linked to another crisis – gang violence in Cape Town.

Daily Maverick has reported extensively on how major drug syndicates, with links to countries including Brazil, Australia and the US, are operating by way of South Africa.

Beneath these global and local narcotrafficking problems are drug users, who can end up in prison for what some view as unreasonable lengths of time and who lack access to health-related interventions they need.

Ex-presidents and experts

This is where ESACD fits in.

The ESCAD is aimed at law reform and better ways of dealing with drug users as there is a consensus that the “war on drugs” – cracking down on illegal drug use – has largely failed and that there are more humane ways to deal with related issues.

Launched in Cape Town on Saturday 11 February 2023, the commission follows the model of the West Africa Commission on Drugs.

According to its website, the West Africa commission was launched in 2014  “to mobilise political attention and practical responses to [drug trafficking-related] challenges”.

The ESACD is also linked to the Global Commission on Drug Policy that was created in 2011.

It comprises four commissioners.

Three of them are former presidents:

Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa (who is also on the global commission), 

Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique

Cassam Uteem of Mauritius.

Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim of South Africa, one of the world’s leading Aids researchers and an infectious diseases epidemiologist.

‘Harmful and failed war on drugs’

Helen Clark, the global commission’s chair and a former prime minister of New Zealand, spoke at the ESACD’s launch.

She said there was a global growing appreciation of the “very real harms associated with the prohibitionist approach of the war on drugs”.

Clark added: “It has led to really massive human rights violations. It’s associated with harsh and utterly disproportionate treatment of people convicted of so-called drug offences ranging all the way to the death penalty.

“Over-incarceration is very much associated with this prohibitionist drive.”

She said this could be proven by looking at prison populations and checking how many inmates were detained on drug-offence charges.

“The ‘war on drugs’ has failed…We urgently need new drug policies that prioritise people’s health and well-being”. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe, chair of the Eastern & Southern Africa Commission on Drugs (ESACD) at today’s launch in Cape Town. #ESACD #drugs

— Julian Rademeyer – (@julianrademeyer) February 10, 2023

“The global commission,” Clark said, “takes the view that the prohibitionist approach was always bound to fail. Throughout human history human beings have reached for some kind of substance for whatever reason.”

Regulation and decriminalisation

She explained that different ways to regulate drugs, as was the case with alcohol and tobacco, which could also be harmful, needed to be looked at.

“There is a great deal of momentum around the world on drug law reform,” Clark said.

This included decriminalisation.

She referred to Uruguay and Canada. In 2013 Uruguay legalised recreational cannabis use and, five years later, Canada followed suit and legalised the drug for recreational use.

Germany, Clark said, was considering doing the same.

She acknowledged that, in trying to push for “forward-leaning reform” in Africa, “you’re trying to overturn decades of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ approach”.

‘Cops should focus on kingpins’

Motlanthe explained that the commission’s focus was “on harm reduction, decriminalisation and, of course, the criminal justice system, rather than penalising end users.”

He added: “[Law enforcers] should really focus on the manufacturers, and the traffickers, the major players, because the focus on the end users [negatively affects] the prison population and creates all manner of violation of basic human rights.”

Motlanthe hoped the commission would give key communities a voice “given the criminalisation and prohibition of drugs has resulted in the human rights of even children and young people being violated”.

He said alternative and “more humane ways” needed to be found to deal with drug-related societal problems.

Chissano agreed with Motlanthe’s statements and said a key focus was to research how to combat “bad” drugs in a good way.

Aspects of the fight against drugs, he explained, could become harmful.

Chissano hoped lessons could be learned from West Africa, which launched its drugs commission nearly a decade ago.

Health effects and overdoses

Abdool Karim said the drug problem was multifaceted.

“It’s not just an issue for the eastern and southern African region, but globally what we’ve been seeing is an increase in drug consumption in very complex ways, with many ramifications at a community level,” she said.

“It’s not something that can be solved by one entity or one ministry.”

Abdool Karim detailed some ways in which drug use could affect a person’s health.

“We already have a high burden of HIV. Sixty percent of the global burden of infection is in eastern and southern Africa,” she said.

“It’s primarily being transmitted sexually but, with the increase in substance use, we’re seeing an increase also in injecting drug use which provides a new mode of transmission.”

Abdool Karim said increased purification of some drugs, as well as the price of drugs, was leading to more deaths from overdoses.

In terms of the “war on drugs”, she said “what we’ve learned very clearly, [there is] substantive evidence to show, that’s not the way to go”.

She added: “What we need is a human rights approach … we need a more humane way of dealing with it that includes law reform.”

Many narcotrafficking methods

At the ESACD launch, the issue of mass drug consignments being smuggled in shipping containers was focused on.

Shaun Shelly, an ex-deputy-secretary of the UN’s Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs, said this was just one of the methods traffickers were using.

“To exercise stringent border control on containers … you’d basically have to shut down all trade,” he said.

“It’s already tremendously problematic to search that number of containers … and also, transnational organised criminal enterprises have many ways, besides containers.

“We know that, down the east coast of Africa, there’ve been bales of drugs just dumped in the currents … they’ve got tracking devices on them and they get picked up off the coast.”

Bernice Apondi, of VOCAL-Kenya, a human rights NGO dedicated to transforming drug control laws, said traffickers were exceptionally creative.

Some were using motorbikes to transport drugs and others were employing school-going children as couriers. DM

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