It is vital for decision-makers working to change drugs policy to recognize the degree to which the criminalisation of drugs and drug use is deeply steeped in xenophobic and racist views of the world.
This is according to Ethan Nadelmann, the keynote speaker at the opening event (31 July) of the SA Drug Policy Week (SADPW) conference currently taking place in Cape Town.
Nadelmann is widely regarded as the outstanding proponent of drug policy reform in the United States and abroad. He is the founder and former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based NPO working to end the War on Drugs, and an advisor to the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
Nadelmann argued that criminalisation is not related to the relative risk of drugs, but is a matter of “who uses particular drugs and who is perceived to use particular drugs”.
He provided examples of historical shifts where some drugs ‒ previously regarded as socially acceptable ‒ became criminalised when people the elite feared, or were seeking to suppress, began using them too.
Drug use laws are not, he asserted, based on science, but rather on moralism. They are reflective of the racsim of the time in which the laws originated. “There is no legitimate basis in science, medicine, ethics or even the Bible for distinguishing amongst or against people, based solely on the substance they put in their body.”
Nadelmann further related the fight against apartheid to the current approach to drug use. He said that in some cases, the very same people who had fought against apartheid were now applying apartheid-style discriminatory and racist approaches to people who use drugs.
He urged those at the forefront of pioneering drug policy change in South Africa to recognise that they were part of a bigger, international process of global drug policy reform. At the same time, he called for people from South Africa and the region not to assume the role of followers, but to recognise the possibility of being leaders in developing unique interventions.
Professor Harry Hausler, CEO of the TB/HIV Care Association, who opened the conference, outlined progress since the previous SADPW 18 months ago. He indicated how the Association was seeking to ensure that people who use drugs are able to access health services; and that the policy framework does not impact negatively on their core constitutional rights.
“Health is, after all, a human right and enshrined in our constitution. I hope that we will see an Africa where all people receive the basic right of access to health, whether or not they are using drugs.”
Connie Kgangaka, acting CEO of the South African National AIDS Council, emphasised that people in key populations (such as TB sufferers) experience high levels of HIV prevalence (14%) and that the vulnerability of these groups needs to be recognised.
Kgangaka outlined key elements of the new National Strategic Plan for HIV and TB (2017-2022), saying that this emphasised the importance of paying attention to the needs of people who inject drugs. The protection of human rights was an essential aspect of the HIV response.
Johan Strijdom, Head of the Social Welfare Division at the African Union Commission, said SADPW played an important role in shaping local and regional policy frameworks. For the AU, it was timely for three reasons:
- The AU has communicated that countries need to review their drug policies in line with the Support Don’t Punish campaign. He was working with Namibia to develop the country’s new policy by the year-end;
- The AU Plan of Action 2013-2017 is being reviewed in line with the decisions of UNGASS 2016(Special Session of the UN General Assembly on the world drug problem), and this conference will assist with that process; and
- An Article will be introduced relating to people who use drugs, seeking to ensure that they will have access to the same social protections as other vulnerable people.
Carol du Toit, representing the chairperson of the Central Drug Authority, David Bayever, said it was recognised that drug use would never disappear. The challenge was to minimise harm ‒ and the SADPW conference could provide guidance on how to do this.
To find out more, http://www.sadrugpolicyweek.com/
Two open public interactive sessions will take place on Tuesday 1 August and Thursday 3 August at UCT’s Kramer Building from 19h00. The topics are drug policies, perceptions around drugs, drug use and the impact of drugs on society. Costs are R100/ session or R150 to attend both, with tickets available online through Quicket.