Explosive new research was released at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria on Thursday. The research reveals that SA is ignoring a spike in heroin use, which is expanding at an alarming rate, fed by a surge along the East Africa drug trade route.
ENACT (a programme of the Institute for Security Studies) shared insights from interviews with drug dealers and drug users. It mapped the heroin trade from Southern to East Africa, and spoke about the role of police corruption in this illicit industry.
SA’s heroin problem is made worse by poor drug policy and the neglect of marginalized communities.
The rapid emergence of the thriving heroin industry has gone largely undetected by police and government despite more than the substance having over 100,000 users. Its estimated annual turnover may be worth billions of Rands, mostly earned illegally in poor communities.
“South Africa’s heroin crisis is extremely serious and taking a heavy toll on communities,” says Simone Haysom, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Simone Haysom is the author of a new report on SA’s heroin problem. ENACT researchers found widespread and problematic heroin use in SA’s small towns, big cities and rural areas. The impact of the illegal drug trade falls on local authorities who are under-prepared and under-resourced to provide effective responses.
The cash-based and criminalized heroin economy has had a severe corrupting effect on police, who have interdependent relationships with gangs, drug dealers and communities of users, the ENACT research shows.
In Cape Town, dealers in gang-controlled neighbourhoods say patrol vans visit their selling points for small cash bribes. Interviewees in Tshwane spoke of corrupt junior police confiscating drugs and selling them to other dealers.
Researchers suspect a deliberate strategy of drug dealers to expand heroin use, as it creates high dependency with a reliable income stream from repeat customers.
South Africa is at risk of following drug patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is expected to have 20 million users of hard drugs by 2040, says ENACT programme head Eric Pelser. “It is a potential crisis, but there is insufficient policy attention being paid to it”.
The problem is exacerbated by poor policing, absence of crime intelligence, and the failure of the state to provide social care or adequate education and health services.
SA’s heroin economy is a spinoff from the growing international drug smuggling route down the East Coast of Africa for shipment to international markets in Europe and the United States. This follows an increase in heroin production in Afghanistan, better enforcement on other routes, and persistent impunity for African drug traffickers in neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.
Tanzanian criminal networks have been pivotal in developing the SA heroin market. They control wholesale heroin supply in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane, supplying SA gangs who run the retail market. “Heroin is a key commodity today, underpinning the criminal economy in South Africa,” Haysom says.
The growth of the heroin market in South Africa has been facilitated and compounded by poor policy, with severe social, economic and political implications.
Poor communities in several major urban areas are subject to extreme violence as local gangs compete for control of drug markets.
Drug users in South Africa generally have poor access to services, as a result of neglect, marginalisation and deliberate policies. Heroin is highly addictive and injecting it raises the risk of HIV infection and transmission of Hepatitis C.
Because they are criminalised and cannot access appropriate services, people who become dependent on heroin become socially marginalised and many end up living on the street, where they face assault and extortion by police.
Despite commitments to harm reduction in government’s drugs master plan, government strategy is not based on evidence or international best practice. Provision of less harmful substitutes to heroin, and needle and syringe exchange programmes, are successful and accepted internationally, but only Tshwane currently has both these programmes.
ENACT says a southern African political response is needed to address the corruption that facilitates the heroin transit route through neighbouring countries. Police and other government agencies should develop an evidence-based analysis of the heroin economy and its impact on users, communities and crime. Police investigations should focus on the secretive high-level facilitators of the trade, and the traffickers that reap the bulk of the profits.
Government’s response to SA’s heroin crisis should go beyond law enforcement. It also needs a public health response and should address the causes of community vulnerability to drugs and gangs.
Use of heroin is a rational response to living in economically depressed and socially fractured neighbourhoods where anxiety, depression and physical pain are features of daily life, Haysom says.
Rather than cutting off supply and criminalising users, a more effective response would be to provide information and services, increase access to regulated substances, and implement social programmes that target the problems people try to solve with substance abuse.
“Heroin use is increasing and we are not prepared for it,” says Shaun Shelly, founder of SA Drug Policy Week. He calls for the decriminalisation of drug use and the removal of police targets for drug arrests.
The harm of heroin lies largely in the drug being illegal and traded by criminals, the quality of the drug when mixed with other substances, and the absence of health and other social support for people who use drugs, Shelly says. Decriminalising heroin would take it away from criminals, free police to focus on violent crime, and reduce gang recruitment.
“Arresting people for using drugs has no benefit to the individual or society,” he says. Government should rather focus on harm reduction, creating spaces where people can use drugs safely, and making social services more available to drug users.
And government should end its fixation with a drug-free South Africa. “It’s not achievable,” Shelly says.