Institute for Security Studies, 27 September 2011, by Annette Hubschle

In June 2011, fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and forty years after former US President Nixon launched the US government's 'War on Drugs', the Global Commission on Drug Policy released an explosive report on the failings of the war on drugs and its devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.

The purpose of the Global Commission on Drug Policy is to bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies. It consists of former world leaders, writers and business leaders including Kofi Annan, Carlos Fuentes, Ernesto Zedillo, Richard Branson and others.

Traditionally, policy makers around the world premise drug strategies upon the belief that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to a diminished market in controlled drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis. As a matter of fact, the global scale of the illicit drug markets largely controlled by organised crime networks has grown dramatically over the past fifty years.

The international experience is replicated in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has seen the proliferation of organised crime networks involved in the international drug trade in the past decade. Cannabis is grown, smuggled and traded across the subcontinent, of which the majority is destined for the lucrative markets of Northern America and Europe. Hydroponic cannabis plantations have been found across South Africa. Authorities in South Africa have had some success in dismantling drug laboratories in urban centres, but acknowledge that synthetic drug producers have diversified and house their operations in mobile laboratories or have moved to neighbouring countries. While West Africa remains the major African transhipment region for cocaine consignments from South America to European markets, the potential for displacement of routes to Southern Africa has been a major concern to regional law enforcement bodies. East Africa, on the other hand, has become a port of entry and transhipment for the opiate trade from the Golden Triangle.

Since the northern markets are largely oversupplied and saturated, drug networks have been expanding their illicit operations to new markets in the developing world. This has led to an upsurge of the levels of 'hard drug' consumption including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and amphetamines in Sub-Saharan Africa. There has been a steady increase of consumption levels of cannabis and other natural stimulants such as the herbal drug Khat across the continent. Massive and potentially lucrative illicit markets that can be exploited by transnational organised crime networks are being created and at the same time, the incidence and scale of drug related violence is likely to escalate.

ISS research into organised crime shows that transnational drug trafficking networks are firmly entrenched at both the local and inter-regional levels. Local crime networks run domestic distribution of cannabis and some harder drugs, while foreign nationals ensure the smooth distribution and transhipment of both soft and hard drugs to regional and international markets. Corruption of police, airport security, customs officials and some politicians ensures that the majority of consignments pass undetected across borders. Networks employ dealers to distribute the drugs effectively. Drug related violence has been growing steadily in recent years. Several targeted assassinations against gangland leaders occurred in South Africa and turf wars between competing dealers have been documented, such as those among urban gangs in Cape Town, South Africa and drug dealers and consumers in the Colombias in Maputo. Additionally, Chibolya township in Lusaka and Kariakoo and Kinondoni townships in Dar es Salaam have encountered violent confrontations with the police.

Law enforcement authorities have prioritised the fight against drug trafficking across the subcontinent. Specialised police units have been set up. Interception efforts, drug seizures and interdiction at national borders have shown limited or low success rates. Ultimately vigorous action in one area leads to shifts in the pattern or modus operandi, or to the movement of the illegal activity to another area. Our research shows that the focus of law enforcement authorities has been on the low-level dealers, consumers and couriers, who are easily replaced with new recruits. Hundreds of drug couriers have been caught and are serving lengthy prison sentences across the region and elsewhere in the world. Small town dealers and drug consumers are sitting off long prison sentences in overcrowded prisons, whereas the kingpins carry on with their business unperturbed. A notable exception is the recent conviction of Sheryl Cwele, the wife of the South African Minister of State Security, and her associate Frank Nabolisa who were convicted of recruiting two women to deliver cocaine consignments.

Cannabis eradication campaigns in Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa have been highly controversial and unsuccessful. The Agent Orange-type chemicals employed by the South African Police Service have led to the toxification of arable land and ground water. Subsistence farmers have moved their plantations to inaccessible land in the mountains. A divergence of legal and social morality is clearly discernible where local communities regard the cultivation of cannabis as necessary to survival thereby depriving the police of legitimacy and support from civil, political and social structures.

Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have signed and ratified the United Nations' Vienna Convention (1988) limiting the production, distribution and use of listed narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as well as the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (also known as the Palermo Convention of 2000). However, most of these countries have no drug strategy and, in most instances, archaic and draconian anti-drug laws have been instituted which tally with the dominant drug control paradigm.

The global objective of the drug control paradigm has been twofold: on the one hand, the suppression of supply through action in source countries and strong enforcement against distribution and retail markets; on the other, the suppression of demand through hard hitting education and prevention and the identification and punishment of users. The prohibitionist paradigm underpins the law enforcement approach to drug control on the subcontinent. Moreover, authorities in East and Southern Africa see the drug problem as a law enforcement issue and not a health or social problem. This has led to very little resources being made available for treatment and harm reduction initiatives in both regions.

Internationally, there has been a move away from the repressive zero-tolerance model towards a more evidence-based humane drug policy paradigm. Examples from abroad provide lessons learned about less punitive approaches and their impact on levels of drug use and drug related harm to the individual and society. For instance, legislation lessening criminalization combined with shifting resources from law enforcement and incarceration to prevention, treatment and harm reduction is more effective in reducing drug-related problems. The so-called harm reduction approach has resulted in a greater diversity of treatment options, less stigmatization of drug users, prevention of diseases and overdoses, and reduction of crime. Moreover, this approach has been applied to deal with social harms such as the reduction of drug-related violence in Latin America. It is high time for Southern African law and policy makers to consider its utility in dealing with the drug problem.