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Experts push for legal regulation of drugs in South Africa

The war on drugs has done more harm than good and must be replaced by legal regulation, say eminent doctors at the helm of a new think-tank. University of Cape Town emeritus professors of medicine Dan Ncayiyana and JP van Niekerk are among the founding board members of the South African Drug Policy Initiative, SADPI, The Sunday Times reports.

Announcing the new NGO in the South African Medical Journal, they said there is an urgent need for a new approach to “this emotional and important healthcare and socio-political issue”.

Their approach is supported by unpublished Western Cape government research that looked at how to defeat gangsterism. It found that drugs were the main source of income for almost all gangs, that the intensification of anti-drug enforcement efforts fuel violence, that a significant proportion of street crime is drug-related, and that existing drug policies maintain inequality.

"Given the escalating scale of the drug problem, it's clear that the present approach has failed and a recalibration is urgently necessary," says the research, according to The Sunday Times report published on 13 October..

The new approach was backed by one of South Africa's leading experts on alcohol and drugs, Charles Parry of the Medical Research Council, who said: "By decriminalising the personal use of drugs, funds spent on policing otherwise harmless people could be redirected to preventing and reducing harms associated with drug use."

But police minister Bheki Cele was adamant that the war on drugs is "winnable", saying alcohol is legalised and regulated but still causes "havoc" in many communities.

"Through targeted policing and also collaborations with international law enforcement agencies such as Interpol and other agencies, SA can be a drug-less country," his spokesperson Lirandzu Themba told The Sunday Times.

Cape Town doctor Keith Scott, chair of the new NGO, said the “punitive law enforcement approach” had victimised addicts, who amounted to only 10% of all drug users. They were often imprisoned at a young age, robbing their families of parents and breadwinners.

Prevention and treatment of addiction, in the context of a regulated drug market, would not eliminate drug problems but the benefits – including a dramatic reduction in the burden of drugs on the criminal justice system – would outweigh any disadvantages, said Scott.

Cayla Murray, spokesperson for Western Cape community safety MEC Albert Fritz, said most drug-related offences involve possession of small amounts of dagga, mandrax and tik. But they consume a large proportion of the criminal justice system's capacity, The Sunday Times reports.

Parry said it was time drug policy shifted towards "decriminalising and adopting a rights-based public health approach". The "political rhetoric of a drug-free society" needed to change and be replaced by more evidence-based drug policy.

Full report on The Sunday Times site

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