Saturday, March 03, 2012

South Africa: Drug Enforcement’s Pyrrhic Victory

Source: ISS

Drug Enforcement’s Pyrrhic Victory

Anine Kriegler, Intern, Corruption and Governance Division, ISS Cape Town

In a parliamentary briefing on the 8th of February, Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer reported that police in the province had seized almost R12 billion worth of drugs in less than two years. This is twice as much as the estimated funds needed to build a university in Mpumalanga. The drug trade in the Western Cape is argued to be the largest in the country, and a significant contributor to crime statistics. “The violent crime and the gangsterism in the Western Cape are all linked to one thing, drugs,” Lamoer told parliament. “If we can stop the drugs, crime will come down radically, and people will be safe.” Community Safety MEC Dan Plato agreed, saying, “We need to continue to hit the drug cartels very hard. We can do much, much better.”

But the relationship between drugs and crime, and in turn between police vigilance and drug prevalence, is more problematic than such statements suggest. The “profit paradox”, the “hydra effect” and the “punish to deter fallacy” are well-established principles that thwart drug control efforts worldwide. The profit paradox captures the fact that the drug trade’s profitability is a direct result of its criminality, and resultant riskiness. The more successful drug law enforcement is, the more drug prices and profits are inflated, creating a strong incentive for drug suppliers to remain in the trade and for new suppliers to enter, and quickly cancelling out any law enforcement gains. And, as in business, high profits attract high risk-takers, escalating violence.

Drug-related violence comes in three forms: psychopharmacological violence (for example, the aggressiveness associated with tik use), economic-compulsive violence (committed in order to obtain more drugs) and systemic violence (between rival groups, because drug markets operate without the protection and dispute-settlement mechanisms offered by the legal system, or against the police). And while police success may temporarily decrease the first of these, which evidence has shown has the smallest impact of the three, it clearly increases the other two. Not to mention that it is the dangerous combination of high profits and extreme violence, both boosted by police success, which creates the ideal conditions for corruption.

The second principle behind warnings that police success against drug markets can turn out to be counterproductive is the hydra effect. The economics of drug production, transport and sale are such that barriers to entry are low, and successful enforcement in one area simply diverts the problem elsewhere. A massive victory against one drug organisation, for example, translates into an increased market share for its competitors.

The third principle, the punish to deter fallacy, is based on the evidence that the presumed deterrent effect of criminal punishment on drug users is inconclusive at best. Drug users, especially serious drug users, are not rational consumers. They are highly unlikely to quit because of threats of punishment, no matter how harsh the threat or how likely the punishment. The global experience shows, in fact, that an increase in drug arrests results in an increase in violent crime. There is growing concern, especially in the United States, that the social costs of using the criminal justice system against those who often already constitute marginalised groups may far outweigh any potential benefit from “keeping them off the streets”. Much of the harm caused by drugs, it is argued by those advocating a harm reduction (as opposed to either demand reduction or supply reduction) approach, can be minimised by treating drug use from a public health, rather than criminal justice perspective.

In fact, South Africa’s new National Drug Master Plan (NDMP) for 2012-2016, as designed by the Department of Social Development’s Central Drug Authority (CDA), has outraged some conservative groups by explicitly including the goal of harm reduction. Such a strategy can involve a range of measures to ameliorate the damage caused to individuals and communities affected by drug addiction, but opponents are concerned that any such policies can appear to condone drug use. Indeed, the CDA, has taken a bold step, while still fairly careful to include only those limited harm reduction measures endorsed by the World Health Organization (as morally policed by the US), and making it clear that decriminalisation is not on the cards. Education, early intervention, rehabilitation and re-employment still form the basis of the harm reduction component of the NDMP. But, controversially, it also includes provision for drug substitution (e.g. methadone) maintenance and needle exchange programmes. The debate on these measures, and indeed on the use of the very term “harm reduction” is ongoing, and it remains to be seen what exactly will be implemented.

The sad fact about such debates, however, even at the very highest levels of decision-making, is that rational scientific discussion is often trumped by moralising. The World Health Organization’s 1995 Cocaine Project, for example, made the mistake of mentioning in its briefing kit that health problems from the use of legal substances like alcohol and tobacco are greater than health problems from cocaine use. Indeed, the truth is global deaths due to all illicit drugs are a tenth of those due to alcohol and a twentieth of those due to tobacco. WHO was forced to suppress the entire report, however, after the United States threatened to withdraw its funding to the organisation. More recently, in 2009, Professor David Nutt, the UK’s chief drug advisor, was fired the day after making a similar claim.

If we can commit ourselves to having drug policy conversations based on fact, we might be able to move beyond thinking of the drug problem as one that can be effectively countered through busts and arrests. Hitting the drug cartels hard is a simple and tempting plan of action, and one that makes sense in terms of the South African Police Service’s mandate. But there are seldom simple solutions to social problems, and given the criminal impact of the Western Cape’s drug market despite law enforcement successes, it may be time to recognise that a great deal of what we believe about countering drugs may be wrong.