Simon Howell
Simon Howell

The National Drug Master Plan: More bark than bite?

In August of last year the department of social development released the latest incarnation of South Africa’s National Drug Master Plan, the NDMP 2013-2017. The national press responded with deafening silence. Considering, however, that it will play a central role in both defining and guiding the South African government’s responses to the production, distribution, and use/abuse of illegal drugs for the next four years, I thought it quite important. I also thought that the media might show at least a little interest in the plan, especially considering that they are forever reporting on the latest drug “scourge”, “epidemic” or “plague”. Alas, I was wrong, and (apparently) with good reason. Who would report on a central policy plan that takes South Africa in a very new and progressive direction regarding drug legislation when Julius Malema has a new pair of shoes, or Oscar Pistorius wore a different coloured tie? In the pornographic industry of “breaking news”, these are the things that have come to matter.

The NDMP does, however, deserve a little attention, not only because of its centrality, but because it attempts to provide a “new” way of thinking about regulating illegal drugs. In the past, primarily thanks to the “war on drugs”, prohibition and criminal law were the key “weapons” in the drug “fight”. This approach not only failed, but actually created the conditions in which the illegal drug trade could flourish – it is increasingly being acknowledged that our present inability to stem the transnational flow of illegal drugs has something to do with the way in which they were “fought” for the last 40 years. Realising this, governments and agencies around the world have been scrambling to find policies and legislation that might be more effective – the NDMP representing South Africa’s most recent attempt. In the interest of highlighting the plan, and in hoping to encourage at least a little debate, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief outline of what it entails.

The new NDMP has two primary aims: reduction and rehabilitation. In terms of reduction, the plan focuses on avenues of supply, the demand for specific drugs and on reducing the individual and social harm caused by illegal drugs. Put simply, it is economically paramount that the supply and demand for illegal drugs are simultaneously reduced. The plan suggests numerous ways of achieving this aim, including “soft” measures such as the development of educational, sport, and spiritual programmes that may prevent youngsters from wanting to engage with drugs in the first place. From the perspective of rehabilitation, the plan focuses on both the individual and communities. Indeed, it takes a “bottom-up” approach in which the community, rather than state, is the basic unit of analysis, implicitly recognising that the way in which drugs affect different communities can vary widely. None of these strategies, aims, or prescriptions replace the traditional punitive approach – they are intended to supplement it at its weakest point while encouraging a long-term engagement with illegal drugs.

There are, however, numerous problems with the NDMP. It requires the participation of at least 37 government departments. Historical evidence suggests getting even two departments to work together effectively is frequently fraught with difficulty. Moreover, there is almost no mention of the costs of the various projects. Who is to be held responsible for any expenditure, and indeed, who is to be held accountable for said funds? Again, if recent history has taught us anything, it is that government departments cannot be trusted with their own expenditure or budgets, and require continual forensic auditing.

There is, however, a far deeper problem: how exactly can one determine if the procedures and practices that result from the plan have been successful? A decrease in crime? A decrease in drug-related incidents at hospitals? The problem, of course, is that social issues such as drug use are extremely complex, and do not occur in isolation – drug-related crimes are invariably related to other activities and problems. Moreover, how does the government intend to implement complex social policies across disparate communities, locations, and settings when, for example, it cannot even coordinate the delivery of school textbooks in one province. How will the plan facilitate changes in communities in which the state and the community are antagonistic towards one another?

It seems then that much like a number of other plans, the NDMP looks spectacular on paper and yet almost impossible to successfully implement. The plan uses all the right words and outlines all the right projects, yet I wonder how it will be interpreted by the agencies and forces tasked with making it a reality. Indeed, I worry it won’t be accepted at all – if News24 comments are anything to go by, most South Africans seem to think that anyone who touches drugs should be flogged. Above all, is the plan’s expense justified, considering the myriad of other problems the country is facing?

Perhaps then, after all, it is easier to go back to wondering what tie Pistorius should wear, or whether Shrien Dewani should opt for the gold or silver cufflinks.

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