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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.


  • 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.


  1. Charles Charles 16 May 2014

    Thanks for reporting on this matter. It seems that perhaps South Africa needs to take a page from the US and their increasingly liberalised and sane approach to the drug issue than the draconian and ineffective manner in which the drug scourge has been dealt with thus far. In fact, most countries around the world are radically realigning their drug policies as the past 40 year violent and punitive war on crime has turned everybody into war-victims and helped nobody. The past 40 years have been like a scorched-earth policy and nothing beneficial has really come from it.

  2. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 17 May 2014

    Where might one find the full version of this plan? Do the “Hi I’m Famous, and I have a drug problem …” bus stops have anything to do with it? I haven’t had a chance to examine them in detail, but I noted they included drugs and alcohol in the same sentence. Which is possibly a step forward, however small.

  3. Rory Short Rory Short 17 May 2014

    People addicted to substances are not criminals but patients in need of care. In simplistic terms the suppliers of these substances, from tobacco to alcohol
    & tik are the real criminals and should face social censure. However some addictive substances are quite legal so their suppliers are not criminals. A way to solve the supplier problem would be to nationalise all addictive substances and make the State medical services the sole supplier of them. This would not go down well with the tobacco and alcohol companies or drug pushers I guess, but I think it would do a great deal for society.

  4. pongoland pongoland 18 May 2014

    It sounds like more of the same with a bit of harm-reduction shoehorned in. The only solution, as other posters have said, is to legalise, regulate and tax.

    It is quite clear that alcohol is the most dangerous drug around. But we also know that prohibition gifts billions to criminals and does nothing to reduce consumption.

    Same with all recreational drugs.

  5. Simon Howell Simon Howell 19 May 2014

    @Stephen – The document is available at . Be warned though, the document is extremely tiresome to read, and must be a contender for the most grammatically offensive document ever written. Indeed, if the government cannot even get its documents proofed, just how are they going to organise the NDMP?

    With regard to the posters, this article was initially aimed at them, but in writing it I stumbled over some problems I haven’t had time to properly conceptualise. Watch this space though.

  6. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 19 May 2014

    I still don’t see why they don’t just legalise drugs and (like the casinos have to do) make the suppliers contribute towards rehab centres. Prohibition taught us that making something illegal just makes it a blessing for criminals.

    Substance abuse is a symptom. Tackling the underlying cause is a great idea but I can’t see it happening. Unless we can get unemployment down to single digits, living conditions up to a higher level and social problems under control – the desire to escape reality will continue.

  7. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 21 May 2014

    Thanks Simon! Tough reading, but the similar treatment of alcohol and (other) drugs is readily apparent. I haven’t the time to conclude on the precise nature of the connection i.e. in which direction are they pulling – make alcohol more illegal or other drugs less illegal. I also see no no mention of tobacco (though I may have well missed it.)

    Watching this space!

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