The UNGASS on Drugs is underway and South Africa has delivered two statements in the plenary sessions. The first (PDF download) was by the Minister of Police, Honourable Mr Nhleko, as head of the South African delegation, and the second (PDF Download) was by the Deputy Minster of Social Development, the Honourable Ms Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, on behalf of the African Union. Both these statements show a level of diplomacy in a difficult political landscape, and both are important if we want to try and predict the future of drug policy in South Africa. Which strutures, the security structures (with possible influence from trade-partners Russia and China) or the social development and health structures, will have the most influence on future policy, remains to be seen. Clearly the latest and previous statements by the Deputy Minister show the direction she would like to take - a direction that could result in a new National Drug Master Plan that aligns with our constitution, economic and development goals and the National Strategic Plan on HIV, STIs and TB and could significantly reduce the burden of illicit drug use on our most vulnerable and under-resourced communities. Despite the evidence that supports these progressive policies there is likely to be strong opposition from various sectors, including from communities who have largely accepted the narrative that drugs are the root of many of their social ills and the drivers of crime and gangsterism.
Click on the Read more link to see my analysis of the positions and some of the background and possible implications.
The South African Statement by the Minister of Police
The fact that the South African UNGASS delegation is headed by the Minister of Police says much about the current drug policy landscape, both locally and internationally. Similarly, the delegation to Vienna for the 59th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), where much of the UNGASS negotiations took place, was led by the South African Police Services, Justice and Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). Health had two representatives, but one was from their law enforcement arm, and the Department of Social Development, the lead agency for drug policy, had no representation.
The statement made by Hon Mr Nehleko demonstrates diplomacy. While it is certainly not progressive, one would imagine that there are parties who would have liked to have seen a far stronger prohibitionist stance. I am certain that the Common African Position for UNGASS (developed by the Specialised Technical Committee on Health Population and Drug Control, chaired by South Africa's Deputy Minister of Social Development), the statement made on behalf of the African Union at the 59th Session of the CND, and the recent plans to ensure that South African drug policy aligns with the National Strategic Plan to Address STIs, HIV and TB, tempered and limited the scope of the official South African statement delivered by the Minister of police.
One of the purposes of the country statements is to report on achievements and progress made in terms of the 2009 Political Declaration, which seeks to address the "drug problem" through demand reduction, supply reduction and international cooperation. The South African statement focuses heavily on issues of trafficking and calls for "decisive measures to address illicit drug production and trafficking" because it "undermines national safety and security and threatens to reverse the socio-economic gains we have achieved as a young democracy". The statement also draws attention to the belief "that financial and technical assistance should be an integral part of our regional and international cooperation efforts".
The emphasis on trafficking and need for financial and technical support may be logical in light of the objectives of the 2009 Political Declaration. However, in the current local context, it could be seen as something more ominous. The statement refers to the second Russia Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue which took place in Durban in March 2016. It fails to mention that this dialogue was boycotted by the Central Drug Authority and the Department of Social Development. It also fails to mention that the proposed joint declaration that was intended for release after the dialogue was never released due to political pressure. You can read more about this here. Russia is not a country you want to be receiving technical or other advice from when it comes to drugs. The undue and destructive influence of the Russians has been noted throughout the UNGASS process and is reported here, and here. The process they are following in Africa is not new, and follows the same modus operandi that led to significant harms in central Asia, as reported by "At What Cost?".
The official South African position is therefore much as I expected considering it was led by law enforcement: A repeated commitment to the conventions, a repetition of the usual drug-war rhetoric and a commitment to a "society free of substance abuse". Of course there is no mention of the numerous and extreme harms that drug policy has caused, and only limited references to the total failure of these policies to reduce the harms related to drug use, the amount of drug use, the number of drug dependent people or the supply of drugs.
Of concern is the possible warning that the political battle for effective drug policy may be influenced by external interests and powers. We need to be cautious of this influence. Africa has suffered from these types of influences for far too long, and when Russia is trying to guide drug policy, while at the same time causing the preventable deaths of their own and other populations through harmful drug policy, we should not be influenced by offers of their money, business or other potential trade benefits.
The statement on behalf of the African Union
As to be expected, the statement by the Deputy Minister of Social Development, the Honorable Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu was far more progressive.
The statement highlights the AU Plan of Action on Drug Control 2013-2017 and, more importantly, the Common African Position, which will no-doubt influence the future Plan of Action. In the opening paragraphs of the statement the emphasis is on human rights and draws attention to the need for "comprehensive, accessible, evidence-informed, ethical and human rights based drug prevention, dependence treatment and after care services". This is a welcome relief from the usual drug-war language so common to this type of document.
By far the most progressive and essential aspect of the statement, and a point rarely raised in the ivory tower of drug-policy makers, is the inclusion of drug-user networks in resolving their own issues. The call for an appropriate environment in which this can happen, and the "joint training among the criminal justice system and social work professionals to facilitate the implementation of evidence-based programmes and interventions" hints at a policy and legal framework that, at minimum, offers diversion from the criminal justice system, and, more optimistically, moves towards the decriminalisation of low-level drug possession and use.
The reference to Agenda 2063 in the closing paragraph is perhaps a subtle call to countries that we cannot stick to policies that have, at best, not worked, and on the balance of evidence, have caused great harm to the people of Africa and South Africa.
Of course, as with any consensus statement, and particularly a statement that is delivered in the context of the UN and within the framework and expectations created by the conventions on narcotic drugs, the statement on behalf of the African Union falls short in some areas. As an activist I would immediately point out that there is no explicit mention of the significant and indisputable harms suffered directly because of prohibition*. Further I would argue that the goals of a "drug free continent" is neither desirable nor practical. As a pragmatist I see the statement as a number of steps in the right direction, and, more importantly, it creates the framework for further leaps forward. It is particularly significant that a South African delivered this, and the Deputy Minister is a South African to whom the Central Drug Authority reports. As the body mandated to develop and monitor the implementation of the National Drug Master Plan, it needs to be given the resources, power and technical expertise if it is to fulfill this role effectively. As an optimist I am looking forward to the development and implementation of a progressive, inclusive, evidence-informed National Drug Master Plan 2018-2023. Taking into account the statements made by the Deputy Minister over the last two months, I feel reason to be optimistic, but as a realist I know that there will be strong opposition to some of the policy changes needed. As a natural skeptic, I will celebrate when I can celebrate by using (or not using) the drug of my choice, without the fear of being arrested, harassed, forced into treatment or excluded from partaking in the policy-making processes that determine this responses.
*The harms related directly to drug policy include, but are more extensive than: limited access to essential pain medications, the destruction of crops and poisoning of communities in a futile attempt to eradicate "illegal" crops, the establishment of a multi-billion dollar mechanism to fund crime and terrorism, the human rights abuses endorsed by and entrenched in country drug policies to the preventable HIV and other infections in the absence of proven harm reduction services, the unnecessary deaths of drug users for diverse reasons directly attributable to policy and the continued stigmatisation and exclusion of drug users which in itself contributes to increased, prolonged and harmful drug use. For more information, please download this very informative piece from the Lancet.
We will be adding the latest drug policy news here, as well as providing updates for the drug policy week.
Subscribe to the SA Drug Policy Newsletter by clicking below: