For part five of the series, please click here.

History has a number of valuable lessons to teach us not only about drugs, but also about ourselves. Problematically however, we still have yet to learn many of those lessons. While the “war on drugs” has begun to fade from view, at least in official rhetoric, we are still left with many of the consequences of the “war” – unjust and ineffective social, economic and political policies being but a few examples. African countries have the unique opportunity to navigate for themselves new and creative ways of “dealing with” the drug “problem”. For the most part, however, they seem to be towing the line rather than questioning it. The problems that illegal drugs present to modern societies are complex, and require that we deal with them with care, sensitivity, and responsibility. With this in mind I would like to highlight three specific areas that call for urgent attention.

Firstly, the “war on drugs” has failed. It has also, paradoxically, made the drug problem far worse. The militarisation of state responses to the transnational trade in illegal drugs has become a proxy for forays by military powers into other countries to further their own ends. One only has to look at the way the US dealt with Farc in Colombia to understand this. These type of responses can only persist however if we continue to see drugs as apart, rather than a part, of modern societies. Accepting that the problem is not going to go away no matter how many guns and how much money we throw at the problem is, ironically, the first step in winning this so-called “war”. If we accept that we can never eradicate illegal drugs from our societies, then we are forced to accept that we need to think beyond the “war on drugs” paradigm and attempt to find a new justice for this thing we call “drugs”.

Secondly, our understanding of what a drug is has as much to do with who we think uses the drug as it has to do with a chemical substance. The charge of drug use is politically potent, especially when we artificially link drug use and users with disease, crime and immorality. These assumptions serve to detract from the real problem – people often resort to taking, dealing or producing drugs because they have been politically, socially or economically marginalised. Criminalising already marginal members of our society is probably the worst thing we can do, and has been proven time and again to be ineffective. Dealing with a society’s drug problems means dealing with far deeper issues – poverty, fear, victimisation etc.

Thirdly, legalisation is not the ideal answer. The blanket legalisation of any drug, whether it be cannabis or cocaine, presupposes a homogeneity to society that simply does not exist – the blanket legalisation of any drug would result in the weakest members of society (once again) experiencing the most harm. This does not rule out, however, the far better strategies of regulating or medicalising certain drugs, so long as it is done with care. As history has shown us, this is nothing new. Legalisation pundits do themselves a great disservice by constantly buttressing their arguments with claims that they, and they alone, have discovered some special “truth”, that all governments are in a worldwide conspiracy aimed at undermining the human race, and (generally) that aliens exist. The history of the drugs discourse has taught us that we should be especially wary of any truth claims – it is, after all, what the “war on drugs” paradigm relied on in order to make meaning. Comparing the harm caused by alcohol and tobacco with that of illegal drugs is not useful – alcohol and tobacco are misnomers with their own histories very different from other drugs. The legislation of illegal (or legal) drugs is extremely complex and requires a considered, critical and careful approach.

There are of course many, many other issues at play here. This brief series has barely scratched the surface of even one drug’s history. The complexity of this narrative is personally what enthrals me, but it also points to a need for responsibility – the drug “problem”, no matter what the media may say, is not black and white. We are dealing here with real lives and real problems that cannot be abstracted from the contexts in which they occur. The time has come, in other words, to begin to think through these problems in their complexity rather than attempting to distil them into neatly analytical categories such as legal or illegal, good or bad. In concluding this series then I can’t tell you the answers to many of the questions that I have raised. But I can tell you why the questions are so very, very difficult.


  • Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.


Simon Howell

Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD...

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