‘Support, don’t punish’
As Zimbabwe and the world commemorates the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking today, it is prudent to note that Zimbabwe and the world`s current approach to challenges posed by illicit drug use is causing significant harm and wasting scarce public resources to humankind.
Alternative approaches are emerging and every effort must be made to support new, innovative, and bold proposals for change.
The current overdose crisis in Zimbabwe especially amongst the youth and working men and women is a cause for concern. Zimbabwe has no data on the prevalence of drug use but anecdotal evidence on the ground points to a lot of illicit drug use in the country. Our people die from illicit drug use but some of the cases go unreported.
A sad situation indeed and sadly, the majority of lives lost are people in the prime of their lives: between 20 and 49 years of age. This tragedy is a catastrophic failure of our current drug policies, and if we do not overcome the societal resistance to modernising them we will continue down this horrible trajectory for individuals, families, and communities for generations to come. Now is the time to consider a new path forward.
Modern drug policies are based on prohibition: forbidding an act or behaviour by law where people face criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for the contravention of that law. Zimbabwe’s drug laws prohibit the possession, distribution, and production of substances without authorisation.
They were first envisioned in the early 1920s as a means of social control over racialised communities in the then Salisbury and born out of the 1960s race riots fuelled by anti-black sentiments in the country. Drug laws have not changed and they continue to disenfranchise and adversely affect the health and well-being of marginalised populations.
Organised crime and illegal, unregulated markets
Prohibiting access to drugs encourages the creation of lucrative illegal, unregulated markets controlled by organised crime. These markets are incredibly profitable, providing an economic incentive for them to expand and diversify despite the risk of criminal penalties. The proliferation of psycho — active substances in Harare and other urban areas streets is a case in point in Zimbabwe.
Because there are no formal rules governing the production and distribution of drugs, there is no quality control to ensure the substances available on the streets are safe. They are mixed with potent unknown substances and musombodhiya, which has killed a number of people to date in Zimbabwe. Because drug traffickers are at risk of arrest, they have a strong incentive to deal in stronger, smaller quantities of drugs that can be more easily hidden and imported.
Police maintain that enforcement is directed at stopping high-level production and selling of criminalised drugs, but statistics show that it is actually the youth and the poor and marginalised people who are most vulnerable to arrest. Although no credible data has been availed to date, anecdotal evidence points to an increase of arrests on people who use drugs for personal use rather than traffickers. Of those arrests, it shows that a large portion of police and court resources are targeted at low-level offences. Inflated drug prices compel people to engage in other high-risk behaviours, like sex work and property crime, which increases the likelihood of imprisonment. The destabilising effects of spending time in jail puts these individuals at greater risk of homelessness, social isolation, poverty and contracting opportunistic infections like HIV/Aids, TB and Hepatitis B.
Because there are no rules and regulations governing how the illegal market operates, violence can be the default method for resolving disputes, enforcing payment of debts, and expanding market share. Players in this unregulated economy cannot resolve disputes in normal ways because the activity they are engaging in is itself illegal. Evidence strongly suggests that “disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence.”
Millions of dollars in tax revenue spent on the ineffective enforcement drug laws could be better spent on more important areas such as housing and healthcare, or more effective programmes addressing the social factors driving substance use.
In Zimbabwe, it is estimated that as little as 10 percent of illegal drugs meant for this country are intercepted by law enforcement. Drugs are even smuggled into our prisons, a scathing indictment of our current criminal justice approach.
The system is broken, and collectively we can work to change it.
Modernising our drug policies to reflect the evidence and realities of our current times is long overdue. Only a few high-profile public health officials and politicians have joined activists in calling for a new approach to our drug policies.
They and we are envisioning an approach based on principles of public health and human rights. We should regard drug use as a matter of public and individual health, and treat people who use drugs more humanely.
Reducing the risks associated with drug use to individuals is imperative. Substance use disorder is often a symptom of pain, trauma, social exclusion, homelessness and other factors that society must address if we wish to sincerely help communities in need.
We should create a system that provides alternatives to the unregulated and extremely toxic illegal drug market through legal regulation of all drugs.
Box, projects executive director for Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network, is a graduate from the University of Zimbabwe, Erasmus University Graduate School of Social Studies, Central European University in Hungary and The Graduate School in Geneva. He writes in his personal capacity).