By Shaun Shelly / Daily Maverick

We don’t have a drug problem. The problem lies in the way we think about drugs. Unless we stop demonising drugs, criminalising or pathologising the people that use them and abandon the goal of a drug-free society, we will continue to be distracted from the real problems that cause many of our youth to find solutions in the dependent use of drugs.

The 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs committed countries “to prevent and combat the evil of drug addiction”. In 2019 the heads of 31 UN agencies expressed unanimous support for the decriminalisation of possession and the use of drugs.

The shift in UN thinking enables us to move forward. We have relied on the criminal justice system to address drug use for far too long. In a 2020 article, Justice Edwin Cameron described the catastrophic effect of the “war on drugs”. We need a fresh, bold response to the use of drugs. People who are dependent on drugs need support, not punishment.

South Africa is beginning to see changes. The new National Drug Master Plan (2019-2024) promises a shift in policy. It “recognises that the punitive approach has not been successful in tackling drug-related problems”. Instead, it emphasises “evidence-based public health and social justice principles that focus on individuals, families, communities, society as a whole”. These must “underscore social protection and health care instead of conviction and punishment”.