Print version ISSN 0256-9574
SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 no.5 Cape Town May 2011
Decriminalisation of drugs
To the Editor: I appreciated the editorial1 on the decriminalisation of drugs, which argued that psychoactive drugs are part of human antiquity, that world-wide attempts to 'clean up' the drug scene have been counterproductive, that the 'war' on drugs has failed, and that attempts to root out drug barons and supply routes has hiked prices and destabilised political systems rather than achieving the noble aim of drug eradication. With subtle reference to human hypocrisy, Professor Van Niekerk points out that official acknowledgement of the futility of drug wars is political suicide. He makes the sobering observation that tobacco and alcohol are in the top half of the ranking scale of human harm and yet these drugs are legal. He implies that decriminalising the others will go a long way toward relinquishing the lucrative control of drug dealing from the barons to the State, which could put the money to better use.
This is food for thought and, hopefully, to civilised debate. Any quick legislative response to Van Niekerk's pragmatic suggestions is unlikely. Instead, in the light of the drug trafficking process (manufacturer - dealer - user) I suggest that the first step towards the decriminalisation of drugs be a focus not on the drugs but on those who take them. I agree with Van Niekerk's statement that 'making people criminals for taking psychoactive substances is in itself criminal for one is dealing with a vice and not a crime'. This drug use and abuse - be it tobacco, alcohol, marijuana or the refined 'speedline' drugs - is not going to go away. The exploratory or seeking drive - be it for food, water, reward, stress release or meaning - is hard-wired into humans. Risk taking, innovation and opportunism (among others) are also essential survival strategies. Humans are a creative and social species. Kinship recognition and a sense of belonging are key ingredients in holding societies together. Enter the many and varied rituals and rites of passage-defining in-groups and out-groups, and it is clear that the dynamics of individual drug taking and drug abuse are biologically, socially and psychologically complex.
Despite peer pressure, conformity and that sometimes deep narcissistic need to belong, the majority of human beings somehow succeed in finding that illusive balance between individual needs, thrills, expectations of others, personal insight and socialisation. Some get it wrong and, with that comes the collapse of the triad of requirements necessary for social and individual well-being - a creative sense of self, creative relationships and a meaningful job or career. The frustration, anger and heartache that comes with this collapse distresses us and spurs our search for solutions, one of which is to criminalise the offender. I agree that this has to change, and that it is not about condoning the use and abuse of any particular form of drug, but about understanding the shame, isolation and hopelessness experienced by individuals who are perceived as social failures as well as criminals. Think of the impact of such a criminal label on possible rehabilitation. To me, it is worth noting that, long after the early experimentation with drugs and with it the 'highs' and 'lows' of substance abuse, addicts, once addicted, continue taking drugs not for the 'high' but to feel 'normal'.
Should drug taking become a non-criminal offence, would this translate into an open invitation to 'party'? I doubt it. We are going to 'party' anyway. I choose instead not to underestimate the intelligence and capacity of most human beings to decide for themselves. Rather than exacerbating the problem by decriminalising possession of drugs, I think the reverse will happen. We all know that 'stolen fruit' tastes better than the legal variety, not because of the taste but because of the challenge of succeeding and getting away with it. Despite the warnings and legislation, the negative consequences are invariably minimised. Again, I choose not to underestimate the intelligence of the majority of individuals who get the balance right, and also the plight and intelligence of those so-called criminals who eventually get it right.
I will never forget being exposed to young, burned-out addicts in a central district of Zurich. Some were sound asleep, no doubt needled into unconsciousness. Nearby was a caravan that supplied sterile needles to avoid, among other complications, HIV contamination. On hand were health care workers who could deal with emergencies and for some the possibility of rehabilitation. No drug dealers were to be seen. It is illegal to deal in drugs in Switzerland. And so it should be. What struck me about this approach, and to which I was so foreign, was that it was a realistic attempt to deal with a problem that affects a small percentage of the population. Although this is expensive, it costs less than the wars on drug cartels, other drugrelated crimes and criminals. In other words, if you're into drugs, do it where you can be seen and, if necessary, helped. I agree with the view that to commit a crime because of drug abuse is a criminal act, but to have a vice is not.
1. Van Niekerk JP deV. Time to decriminalise drugs? S Afr Med J 2011;101(2):79-80. [ Links ]