Time for war on drugs and alcohol

27 March 2013

Speaking to family members of a drug addict is heart-wrenching. They tell you about late night visits to hospitals after an overdose. They describe the sadness they experienced after discovering that items of sentimental value had disappeared and were sold for drugs.

Often the family’s money for groceries vanishes which leaves them feeling desperate and insecure. Their distress becomes tangible as they recall nights filled with terror when a loved one turned violent.

These scenarios leave one with a lump in your throat often wondering who is to blame when someone turns to drugs. Some might point a finger at the parents. Others will blame peer pressure and bad friends, while there are those who will accuse Government.

Frankly, it is time to stop playing the blame game, and we all should start working together to address this matter with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.  Last week at the inauguration of the new Central Drug Authority (CDA) Board, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini made it clear that “if we are to conquer this war, it will not be as a result of Government action alone, but it will occur as a result of a coordinated national effort”.

Our challenge is daunting. This is underscored by research conducted between June 2010 and March 2011 by the Central Drug Authority which indicates that the drug use in South Africa is twice the global average.

The reality is that the problem is growing. In 2011 President Jacob Zuma pointed out: “Over the past decade there has been a rapid increase in the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs by citizens of all ages, men and women, boys and girls.” He added that “it was alarming that the age of first experimentation with substances has dropped from teenagers to children aged between 9 and 10 years old”.

According to a 2008 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey conducted by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) among grade 8 to 11 learners, about one out of two learners drank alcohol on one or more occasions, with 28.5 per cent engaging in binge-drinking (5 or more drinks in one sitting) during a past month. The study also showed that while 13 per cent of learners used cannabis (dagga) in their lifetime, 11.5 per cent took drugs such as heroin, mandrax, or tik (methamphetamine) in their lifetime.

The Department of Basic Education has also expressed grave concern about substance usage saying that it can be linked to academic difficulties, absenteeism, and drop-out from schooling.

Alcohol and substance abuse however occurs in all segments of our society and create numerous social problems. In particular, it results in road accidents; gangsterism; crime; violence against women and children; interpersonal violence between men and above all instability within households.

During the 2nd Biennual Drug Summit in 2011 President Zuma referred to a visit at a rehabilitation centre in Mitchells Plain. At the time he unambiguously captured the devastating effects of substance abuse when he said: “There are parents and relatives who live in constant fear of being assaulted and ill-treated by family members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, including abuse by their own children.” He added:  “We have heard from women who suffer beatings and abuse from their partners who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The impact on affected households is truly devastating.”

Alcohol and substance abuse truly destroys the social fabric and undermines our development efforts by eroding social, economic and human capital. Given the seriousness of the situation, Government has placed the response to substance abuse as the core mandate of the newly appointed board of the Central Drug Authority (CDA).

The CDA is an advisory body established under the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Dependency Act, 1992. The CDA board consists of members from government departments and civil society and has expertise in law enforcement, medicine and community mobilization.

The main task of the CDA will be to implement the National Drug Master Plan (NDMP) for 2013 to 2017 which will be submitted to Cabinet for approval next month.  The plan aims to advocate for collaborative, balanced, and research-based approach interventions. The NDMP draws up the operational plans referred to as mini-drug master plans and highlights the roles of the government departments as per their respective core functions.

Community awareness about alcohol and drug-related issues will be the cornerstone of the National Drug Master Plan with the Local Drug Action Committees (LDAC) playing a vital role. These committees consist of members from all sectors involved in substance abuse and related problems in a municipality such as justice, police, probation and correctional services, schools, health, social development and community structure officials.

To date, there are 215 Local Drug Action Committees with 23 local municipalities still having to establish them. One of the key mandates of the CDA is therefore to increase the number of committees and to enhance existing community initiatives with specific knowledge and skills to manage their own preventative work at grassroots level.

The CDA board will also support the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on Substance Abuse in its initiatives. Minister Dlamini said that recent IMC initiatives “include legislative reforms such as the banning of alcohol advertisement, increasing the age of alcohol consumption and zero-tolerance on drunk-driving”.

Furthermore, the current national drug awareness and prevention programme, “Ke moja, I’m fine without drugs”, will also be reviewed and strengthen.

Government is committed to rid our society of substance abuse, but need the help of parents, non-profit organisations and communities. We urge parents, relatives and other community structures to play a role in raising awareness and to provide support to those affected. We call on communities to report those involved in the trade of illegal substances. Together we can fight and beat the scourge of substance abuse.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)