Do policing and prison make a dent in the drugs trade?

25 March 2015
Huffing and puffing: Dr Simon Howell argues that traditional punitive approaches are doing more harm than good in combating drug use and the drugs trade. Photo by Brenton Geach.
Huffing and puffing: Dr Simon Howell argues that traditional punitive approaches are doing more harm than good in combating drug use and the drugs trade. Photo by Brenton Geach.

A purely punitive approach to criminal justice leads to more prisons being built and more people being housed in them. The legal fraternity knows this well, says Kelly Phelps, senior lecturer in criminology at UCT.

"Put simply, prison doesn't work most of the time – and we know that, but we haven't got a better idea for most of the people," says Phelps.

Dr Simon Howell of the Centre for Criminology uses the drug trade as an example to demonstrate that mere policing won't make a big enough dent in the problem.

"South Africa has recognised that the punitive approach doesn't work," says Howell. "The famous saying is that the war on drugs has failed; and it has failed. It's failed spectacularly. You're talking $50 billion a year spent on policing drugs globally, and it doesn't do anything."

In the context of the drug trade, the punitive model can actually exacerbate the problem.

Rat race to oblivion

Take tik – or crystal methamphetamine – for example. The 'demon' drug, it's especially popular among working class and unemployed communities in the Western Cape. Users of the drug are similarly demonised and cast out of mainstream society, and often find themselves in jail, says Howell.

"If you trace the logic of punitivism all the way back, you find that it is inherently wrapped up in the way we articulate the problem itself," Howell argues. "We talk about justice and stuff, but throwing someone in a police van is violent. If you're already feeling excluded from society – pissed off that promises from '94 haven't been realised, that you're still living on the Cape Flats, and you still don't have a job – you're going to get even more angry and you're going to take more drugs, and you're going to join gangs, and get sent to a prison where the gang system is entrenched."

Howell argues that unleashing the military on the Cape Flats will only reproduce the fear and antagonism that has often existed between communities and the state, further undermining the police's capacity to access the sources they need – and ultimately fuelling the conditions that allow drug use and crime to proliferate.

Revamp the social structure

"So the punitive model doesn't work. You need to deal with the conditions that encourage the drug trade to proliferate – and for that you need multiple, strategic interventions," says Howell. The entire social structure must become less fertile ground for the drug trade to flourish. This could be done by creating viable alternatives to a life of drugs and gangsterism, Howell argues – like employment and education opportunities.

Regarding cannabis, legalisation is not the answer. This would merely serve to placate middle-class recreational users and save them from falling foul of the law; but the ones who would suffer would be those who rely on the trade to live, says Howell.

Often, these people don't want to be involved in the drug trade. "They do it because in the Transkei, it's the only cash crop you can really grow – they do it to support their families."

The answer, then, lies in creating economically viable options outside of the drug trade: "You'd need to find a cash crop that grows like cannabis [which can be harvested up to four times a year] ... but few are as viable," is Howell's thesis.

How to break the cycle?

In parts of Uganda, women spend days brewing a particularly potent alcoholic beverage, which they sell to raise funds to send their children to school. The obvious solution there is to fix the schooling system so that poverty is no longer a barrier to education, says Howell. Jail, on the other hand, won't cure the malady.

We need to engage with issues of development and health to deal with drugs over the long term, says Howell.

"There are people who are doing work on neurobiology and the damage drugs cause because they undermine brain development, which increases the likelihood of people becoming violent.

"You need to break that cycle; and that cycle can be broken by police intervention, but you need to have support systems in place. At the end of the day, government can't do that, unfortunately."

Policing a last resort

Howell works with a SAPS sub-committee dealing with drug use in Khayelitsha. They have the Departments of Social Development, Education and Health on board, as well as NGOs, and it's this kind of multi-pronged approach that he advocates.

"Ideally, when you police drugs, using the police should be the last resort. Not the first. Because it necessarily creates the very violence in which drug use becomes more entrenched."

Story by Yusuf Omar. Photo by Brenton Geach.

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