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51 Myths, Lies and Misconceptions behind the Drug Apartheid by Julian Buchanan

Drug law and policy has its roots in fear, ignorance, racism and self interest. Sadly, this has changed little over the years. It continues to be shaped more by punitive populism and moral crusades rather than scientific evidence, reason and rationality.


To expose and encourage a critical debate I’ve tried to uncover some of the main myths, lies and misconceptions that underpin and shape and inform drug policy development. Unless we acknowledge our philosophical position and identify the principles that inform our thinking, we risk replicating further misguided drug policies. Although punchy and accessible in style, each point below is carefully considered and can be academically supported – but that’s for another day!


1. “There is a clear pharmacological definition for drugs.” There isn’t – what we classify as illegal ‘drugs’ is a 1950s & 60s social and cultural construct with no coherent pharmacological rationale. We fail to recognise alcohol, tobacco or caffeine as drugs – and maybe sugar should also be classified as a drug.


2. “People who use drugs are drug misusers.” Untrue – the vast majority are recreational users who generally use drugs recreationally and sensibly, unfortunately we conflate use with problematic use. 


3. “Drug users are dirty, immoral and dangerous losers.” An unjustified and hostile stereotype – illicit drug users are a diverse group of people from every walk of life. The drug business is dirty, immoral and dangerous – that’s because it’s illegal, extremely lucrative and subject to fierce law enforcement.


4. “People take drugs because they have problems.” Untrue – most people take drugs because they enjoy the effect, just like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.


5. “Regular drug use inevitably leads to addiction.” Untrue – only a small proportion of people who use drugs develop addiction – just like alcohol.


6. “Taking drugs damages people.” All substances (legal and illegal) can damage people and the most damaging drug of all is a legal one – alcohol. However, prohibition makes illicit drugs more dangerous and damaging. In addition, acquiring a criminal record for drugs can be more harmful to life than the drug. 


7. “Drug use fuels crime.” The presence of a drug and the commission of a crime does not equate to a causal connection. The relationship is ‘associated’ rather than ‘causal’. However, there is evidence that prohibition and tough law enforcement fuel violent crime.


8. “Legal drugs are safer and less harmful.” This is particularly misleading statement because alcohol and tobacco are far more damaging than most illegal drugs. However, prohibition makes it difficult to know the strength, ingredients or quality of illegal drugs.


9. “Law enforcement measures affect levels of drug use.” Studies show that in advanced western democracies neither tough, nor liberal law enforcement approaches have much impact upon levels of drug use.


10. “Addiction is an equal opportunity employer.” Drug use is an equal opportunity employer but addiction isn’t. While anyone can be affected, chronic problematic drug use tends to disproportionately affect those with disadvantaged and damaged lives that had significant difficulties before PDU and these people lack the resources, opportunities and support to recover.


11. “Addiction is a brain disease”. Untrue, yes the brain will be affected but loss of control of drugs (similar to internet addiction, gambling, over-eating) has much more to do with social, psychological and behavioural fact than neurological defects. If addiction was a brain disease MRIs would be used as diagnostic evidence of addiction.


12. “The government can protect society by banning new drugs”. Banning drugs masquerades as positive action to deal with the ‘problem’ when actually banning drugs has little impact on use and actually makes production, distribution and consumption more dangerous.


13. “Once listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, drugs become controlled.” Technically correct – but once a drug is listed as a controlled drugit actually goes underground and ironically it becomes an uncontrolled drug.


14. “Cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to addiction to ‘hard’ drugs.” Untrue, most young adults have used cannabis and most have not progress onto using other drugs, nor have they become ‘addicts’. The last three Presidents of the USA all successfully used cannabis without any gateway affect.


15. “People who use caffeine, tobacco and/or alcohol are not drug users”.Untrue – they certainly are drug users and many are ‘addicts’. These three substances are all drugs, and ironically unlike some illegal drugs – in high dosages caffeine, tobacco and alcohol are toxic and result in death.


16. “If we lock up dealers we can reduce the drug related violence.” The opposite is true, disrupting the supply distribution and removing dealers creates more violence by fuelling market uncertainty, presenting new business opportunities and creating ‘business’ conflict.


17. “Drug use isn’t a crime issue it’s a health issue.” This may sound like a step in the right direction but taking a substance isn’t inherently a health issue anymore than enjoying a coffee or glass of wine is a ‘health issue’. Even problematic drug use isn’t best described as a health issue it’s more accurately a social, psychological, health and/or legal issue.


18. “There are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs.” There is scientific evidence underpinning the misleading categorisation of hard and soft drugs. While some drugs can generally pose greater problems than other drugs to some people – these generalisations are misleading because the impact of a drug varies from person to person depending upon the set (the person) and the setting (the environment) – it’s not just the substance.


19. “Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous, and the proof they are dangerous is that they are illegal!” This circular Double-Speak offers no evidence but is used to defend prohibition, but the substances we have called ‘drugs’ are not particularly more dangerous than other substances such as alcohol, sugar, tobacco, fat, caffeine and peanuts. However, prohibition increases the risk, danger and uncertainty considerable.


20. “Drug testing will tell you if a person is on drugs.” The result is unreliable due human error, machine error, deliberate and accidental false positives and false negatives. Some who tests positive for cannabis could have been cannabis free for four weeks because the drug can be detected days, weeks even months later.


21. “Like everything else on the market drugs must be proven safe before they can ever be legalised.” Not true. The safety for other products does not have to be established before approval (for example mobile phones or GM foods). Substances that are damaging or even lethal to some such as tobacco, alcohol, peanuts are legal and promoted, whereas a drug such as cannabis that has medicinal benefits and has never killed anyone is considered dangerous and remains illegal.


22. “People who use drugs are not criminals they need help.” An apparently benign and supportive statement, however, while taking a drug should not be a law enforcement concern, neither should we problematize or pathologize druguse as a health issue. There is no reason why we should assume a person using drugs needs help.


23. “Recovery is about becoming drug free.” Recovery is about people who have been dependent on drugs regaining control of their life, but becoming drug free isn’t always necessary to achieve that. Some people sort their life out and continue to use in a non-problematic way, and some take clean legal prescribed substitutes such as methadone or heroin and successfully lead productive and stable lives. 


24. “Harm reduction is about reducing the spread of diseases.” Harm reduction is not just about health – it’s also about reducing social, cultural and psychological harms. Harm reduction is an evidenced based approach that should sit alongside human rights to underpin all drug policy. It’s pragmatic, humane and non judgemental, it engages people where they are at with a view to reducing risk and harm.


25. “Harm reduction doesn’t support abstinence.” Harm reduction isn’t about getting people off drugs – it’s about working with people to reduce risks. However, in some cases abstinence might be a good way to reduce risks – so harm reduction incorporates abstinence – but only if the person is ready, able, interested and wanting to become abstinent.


26. “Illegal drugs have little or no use in medicine.” Although this sentiment is enshrined in the much out-dated 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Opiates are essential in severe pain management  cannabis and MDMA, have medicinal benefits in the treatment of a growing number of conditions (e.g. MS, PTSD, Epilepsy). Illegality has made medical trials and acceptance extremely difficult.


27. “People who use drugs need treatment not prison.” Another apparently positive statement however, people who use drugs don’t need treatment or prison anymore than someone who has a double espresso each morning, or the person who enjoys a glass of whisky before bedtime needs treatment or prison. Under the umbrella of ‘it’s better than prison’ all sorts of questionable practices can be made palatable.


28. “To prevent stigma we need to understand addiction as a disease.” Yes we want to prevent stigma but addiction is not a disease. The most effective way to prevent stigma is to end the drug apartheid and challenge the hypocritical and flawed social construction of ‘drugs’. 


29. “Drug laws affect everyone the same.” This is not true. The chances of being stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted for drug possession depends a greatly on the colour of your skin, your social class, age, location and your social background. 


30. “If we try hard enough we can eradicate drugs.” A fallacy. Forty years of extremely tough prohibition involving masses of time and money for police, armed forces and customs has had no impact upon supply, price or use. They can’t even keep drugs out of high security prisons.


31. “Heroin is a dangerous drug that damages your body.” Any street drug could be very damaging because illegality means the user hasn’t got a clue what’s in it. But clean pharmaceutical heroin (unlike alcohol) doesn’t cause any permanent damage to the body.


32. “Crack cocaine in pregnancy leads to permanently damaged ‘crack’ babies.” There is no consistent evidence to support this claim – from the longitudinal studies severe and enduring poverty appears to be the key factor that thwarts child progress and development not parental crack cocaine use during pregnancy. So instead of crying out about crack babies it would be more approapriate to get express concern over ‘poverty babies’. 


33. “Drug testing will help identify people who have a drug problem.”  Besides it’s unreliability – at best drug testing only indicates drug use it wont show pattern, time, place, nature or context of drug use. A positive results indicates drug use not problematic use.


34. “Law enforcement targets the most dangerous drugs.” Untrue, arrests and drug seizures for cannabis out number all the other drugs arrests combined. The war between drugs is largely a war on the relatively benign cannabis while the significantly more dangerous drug alcohol is enjoyed and promoted amongst law enforcement officials.


35. “People caught with cannabis don’t end up in prison.” Untrue, many certainly do.


36. “Drug law enforcement targets people who use drugs.” Levels of drug use across the white and black population are similar. However it depends upon the colour of your skin and your social status as to whether you will be targeted. If you are poor and have a minority ethnic heritage you are much more likely to be targeted – stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted and subsequently sentenced – for drug defined crime. 


37. “Heroin during pregnancy will cause permanent harm to the unborn child.” Street heroin is a problem because you don’t know what’s in it. But clean pharmaceutical heroin causes no known permanent damage to a baby. Once recovered from withdrawal symptoms babies will have no permanent harm. However, alcohol taken during pregnancy can cause Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – a permanent condition.


38. “A drug free world is desirable.” Drugs have been used since records began for pain relief, treating sickness, for relaxation and social reasons. Alcohol, caffeine, tobacco are drugs and arguably cocoa, sugar and fat too. A world without drugs is unthinkable, undesirable and untenable.


39. “Illegal drugs kill people.” This is misleading because the majority of drug deaths are consequences of prohibition and a draconian drug policy that makes taking drugs uncertain and more dangerous and getting help risky. A lot of deaths could have otherwise been avoided. 


40. “Drug policy is based upon the best available evidence.” For decades research reports, reviews, inquiries, expert groups have provided mountain loads of evidence – but drug policy has repeatedly ignored the best available evidence and instead continued to uphold the principles of prohibition enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention. Drug policy is rooted in ideological beliefs and moral high ground not science and evidence.


41. “It’s a war on drugs.”  Untrue drugs have never been more accommodated, integrated or promoted. There is no war on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, fat or BigPharma drugs.  It is a war on particular drugs that have been outlawed for political, social and economic reasons (not pharmacological or scientific reasons). It’s a ‘War Between Drugs’ enforced by an uncompromisingly tough Drug Apartheid.


42. “Regulation is the way forward.” Ideally, but it depends upon what regulation looks like. Not if that regulation (as illustrated in the New Zealand Psychoactive Substance Act 2013) means: you are now prohibited and punished for possession of substances not approved by the state (s.71 $500 fine); supply carries a 2 year prison sentence (s.70); all new psychoactive substances not listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act are automatically prohibited and the only way of acquiring ‘approved’ substances is through BigPharma or BigBusiness.


43. “Every day drug free is a another day of being clean.”  This is misleading, is anyone ever (and should they be?) drug free because we take caffeine, sugar, cocoa, aspirin, alcohol?  More importantly this statement wrongly insinuates taking a drug is wrong and dirty and without them we become ‘clean’.


44. “Alcohol occupies so much police time – imagine how bad it’d be if we legalise cannabis.”  There is no comparison these are two very different substances. The impact of any drug also depends more upon set and setting.  Better regulation will create controls of cannabis and alcohol – but prohibition provides no control whatsoever.


45. “Legalising drugs is dangerous because more people will use drugs.”  People who are currently using unknown (purity, toxicity, ingredients, strength) street drugs and risking a criminal record will be in a much safer position. In countries where drugs have been legalised or decriminalised there has not been any overall increase in drug use. However, it is dangerous and problematic drug use that should concern us not drug use per se.


46. “Cannabis use by drivers is leading to more deaths on the road.” Unfounded. There is evidence that cannabis is increasingly found in blood samples but this presence of cannabis in the blood stream could arise from use of cannabis days, weeks even months ago. Drug presence doesn’t mean impairment.


47. “Every drug death is further evidence of the dangers of drugs.”  Most drug deaths are a by-product of draconian drug policy that could be avoided by a combination of naloxone distribution, safer drug use education, drug testing kits, drug consumption rooms and less intolerance and stigma.


48. “The underground criminal business in drugs is enormous so we need tougher law enforcement.” Unfortunately it is prohibition that has created these conditions in the first instance, more enforcement will have little positive impact. However, regulation and decriminalisation would make a real positive difference significantly reducing the underground illegal drug business.


49. “Better that someone goes to Drug Court than prison.” Anything can appear palatable and justified if presented as an alternative to prison. Better that people who need help can access that help in the community following a thorough assessment and a best-fit treatment plan that has access to a full range of services, rather than having to access an enforced abstinence 12 step programmes through the criminal justice system.


50. “The world would be a better place without drugs.” Drugs are vital in medicine and pain relief, they are also important for relaxing, sleeping, socialising, providing energy, thinking laterally, creatively and artistically. Legal drugs alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are used for these purposes every day, although other illegal drugs might be safer and better suited.


51. “People grow out of taking drugs.”  While there is evidence that people grow out of criminal activity the use prohibited drugs involves criminal risks, so if there is a shift away from illegal drugs at a later age it’s not necessarily that people aren’t growing out of drugs but more likely people may grow out of accessing drugs if it involves criminal activity. There is no evidence people grow out of using the drugs alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.


TSB Driver Found In Possesion of Dagga Worth R500k Trial Postponed

On Monday morning the driver, who was found in possession of half a million rand’s worth of dagga in a TSB delivery truck, reappeared in court. His trial had been postponed to October 29 for further investigation.


MALALANE – On Monday morning the driver, who was found in possession of half a million rand’s worth of dagga in a TSB delivery truck, reappeared in court. His trial had been postponed to October 29 for further investigation.

The accused Mr Gebhuza Ngwenya (54) was charged with dealing in dagga after the search-and-seizure process had been conducted by the police. They discovered 14 bags of compressed dagga on top of a sugar load in the truck. Ngwenya was reportedly on his way to make a delivery in Johannesburg.

“The vehicle was pulled off after police had received an anonymous tip-off. A large TSB truck was allegedly pulling two trailers loaded with dagga,” Nkosi said. He said they immediately set up a roadblock on the N4 east. The truck had been identified and the driver was instructed to go to the police station.

“TSB has vehemently denied any involvement in the transportation of dagga.” According to the company, the truck passed security checks. “It was loaded on Sunday September 13 at 22:30 and left the premises thereafter. The dagga was loaded post-dispatch as all trucks went through the security checks at the exit gate,” said Vusi Khoza, TSB spokesman.

“We do not exactly know where the dagga was loaded,” said Nkosi. The officers could not weigh it at the post office due to its size, and had to take it to a nearby weighbridge.

It weighed in at 340kg and had an estimated street value of R510 000. Ngwenya appeared in the periodic court the following day and had been granted bail of R5 000.

Time to extend pockets of excellence in fight to beat cancer BY WILMOT JAMES

MARIJUANA has properties that moderate pain. Its use brings relief to cancer sufferers, as brought into focus recently by the tragic death of Inkatha Freedom Party MP, Mario Oriani-Ambrosini. Marijuana does not prevent cancer, nothing does. It is most likely the most intractable unsolved medical science problem of our day. Neither does it replace existing medical interventions such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or viral-based therapies that in certain defined instances can break down tumours after the cancer has taken hold.

Melanoma treated with dagga oil

No matter which marijuana strains are used, it bears repeating that it neither prevents nor therapeutically is capable of treating cancer. Depending on how far the cancer has spread, marijuana’s greatest benefit is to reduce pain and then only up to a point. In this respect it is uncontroversial if pain moderation (and other possible) properties are clinically verified, its use should be decriminalised for medical use. To do so does not require the commercialisation of production or distribution of marijuana.

These aspects are, as a matter of fact, not relevant in the least to the thrust of what needs to be done with the Medical Innovation Bill (a private member’s bill) introduced initially by Oriani-Ambrosini. Marijuana can be obtained by special dispensation, or it can be specially grown on experimental farms under the watchful eye of, for example, the Agricultural Research Council. Marijuana supply is a wholly separate issue from its appropriate medical use. This is why we propose that the issue of commercialisation of marijuana should be stripped from the bill.

In any event, we should not fixate on marijuana only. There are other plant-derived applications too. Though he overstates his case, Daniel Webster (in Botanical Oncology, 2014, Panaxea Publishing) provides considerable detail on well over 200 botanical health applications that may provide some benefit to cancer sufferers: “Many botanical substances,” Webster writes, “have good anti-inflammatory properties, can increase healing and stimulate immune response … botanicals have extensive properties to manage side-effects, overcome multidrug resistance and even increase the efficacy of chemotherapy.”

Of course, all these hypotheses should be subject to rigorous clinical scrutiny. But even if they were to pass the tough tests of clinical medicine, it must be said that plant-derived applications have some relevance when it comes to treating, but are not in the least significant when it comes to the real war involved in solving the problem of cancer.

To solve the cancer problem, requires a breakthrough in science that for now has proved elusive. That a breakthrough has not yet occurred gives no comfort to cancer sufferers, but that is no reason to give up on the scientific enterprise, which constitutes the only method in human history to generate consistently reliable therapies for many communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

Our understanding of what cancer is has advanced in leaps and bounds. In summary form, this is what we know about tumour cells and the onset of cancer (see Harvey Lodish et al, Molecular Cell Biology, 2012, chapter 24 Cancer):

  • Cancer is a fundamental aberration in the behaviour of cells. Most cell types of the body can give rise to malignant tumour cells.
  • Cancer cells can multiply in the absence of growth-promoting factors required for the proliferation of normal cells and are resistant to genetic signals that normally programme necessary cell death.
  • Cancer cells also invade surrounding tissues by breaking through the boundaries that define them and spreading through the body to establish secondary areas of growth.
  • Both primary and secondary tumours require the recruitment of new blood vessels in order to grow to a large mass.
  • Certain cultured cells infected with tumour-cell DNA undergo transformation. Such transformed cells share many properties with tumour cells.
  • The requirement for multiple genetic mutations in cancer formation is consistent with the observed increase in the incidence of human cancers as we grow older. Most of such mutations are not heritable.

While there have been major advances in integrating radio, chemical, genetic and botanical therapies, ongoing research is promising but has yet to yield prevention and curative breakthroughs. A noteworthy advance is gene therapy, but it is out of reach to most because at this time it is expensive and available only as part of clinical trials. Gene therapy is a treatment that involves altering the body’s genes (think of genes as “coding instructions”) to stop disease. Gene therapy replaces a faulty gene or adds a new gene in an attempt to cure disease or help our bodies’ ability to fight disease using existing immunity tools. It holds promise for treating cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart disease, diabetes, haemophilia and AIDS.

There are therefore compelling reasons to continue investing in advancing the science of cancer, chief among which is the ethical obligation to save human lives. It is in this respect that the Medical Innovation Bill should be redrafted to provide for a dedicated facility to co-ordinate existing and introduce new areas of research and treatment for cancers that tend to be most prevalent in the South African population.

During a recent visit to the biomedical research hub at Biopolis in Singapore, I was struck by how they, thinking and planning ahead, structured their high-level research to deal in an organised way with Southeast Asia’s disease burden, including cancers. Accordingly, Biopolis’s scientists have begun to establish the first stages in developing a therapeutic antibody pipeline by working with cancer stem, tumour-initiating and triple-negative breast cancer cells. They also developed a speciality in the early prognosis of gastric, liver and blood cancers in their populations of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian descent.

Even with lesser resources, thinking ahead, we should do the same here. We have pockets of excellence in cancer-related work at some of our universities, private hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and the Medical Research Council, but as an enterprise it is dissipated, unfocused, poorly resourced and without the right distribution of brain power. If nothing else Oriani-Ambrosini’s Medical Innovation Bill should focus our efforts.

• James is the Democratic Alliance’s shadow health minister

Police search for drugs at Cape school

Cape Town – At least four pupils from a Wynberg high school have been expelled and four others have disciplinary hearings pending for either using or dealing in drugs.

The situation is so serious that random search-and-seizure operations have been conducted by the police at Wittebome High School throughout the year.

“These form part of our broader campaign to improve safety in our schools,” Education Minister Debbie Schäfer’s spokesperson Jessica Shelver said.

The Western Cape Education Department confirmed that two pupils attended disciplinary hearings last month and the disciplinary committee had recommended expulsion in both cases.

Shelver said four pupils from Wittebome High had been expelled this year, one of whom was in matric. There were four cases pending and one also involved a matriculant.

She could not give further details about the cases because the minister was the final appeal authority, but said the department’s Safe Schools directorate had been working with Wittebome High after the principal reported that he suspected a group of pupils were using and dealing in drugs.

Pupils who tested positive for drugs had been referred for counselling.

According to Shelver, last year the department received 96 applications for expulsion from schools in the Western Cape for drug possession and/or use, and 38 were expelled.”

It had also received 48 applications for expulsion in the same year for dealing and/or distribution of drugs at schools. Of these, 36 were expelled. The vast majority of cases were for provision of dagga to other pupils.

In all cases, irrespective of the decision by the head of department, pupils involved with drugs were referred to the district-based support services for additional therapeutic support, and many were also referred to external rehabilitation programmes.

The provincial Education Department has encouraged schools to conduct their own search-and-seizure operations should they reasonably suspect any pupils of carrying any dangerous weapons.

It urged parents to use the department’s hotline at 0800 45 46 47 for counselling and assistance.

Wittebome High’s principal could not be reached for comment.

Phoenix man and woman arrested for dealing in dagga

The total value of the recovered dagga is estimated to be worth R14, 500.dagga-in-phoenix

A 42-year-old man and a 51-year-old woman were recently arrested by Phoenix SAPS officers for dagga dealing. The operations implemented by the police certainly yielded positive results, sending out a strong message to all drug dealers in the vicinity. According to police spokesman, Col Jay Naicker, the officers recently received information regarding a drug trade in the area.

“They proceeded to Snowfern Place, Redfern (Phoenix) where they recovered 118, 71 grams of dagga. A 42-year-old man was arrested for possession of dagga. They then proceeded to a house in the Geneva area, where a 51-year-old woman was found in possession of 5,556kgs of dagga. She was subsequently charged and arrested for dealing in dagga. The total value of the recovered dagga is estimated to be worth R14, 500,” he said.

Both suspects are due to appear in the Phoenix Magistrate’s Court today. KwaZulu-Natal police commissioner, Lt Gen Ngobeni praised Phoenix SAPS for the successful arrests. “Such operations destabilise drugs dealers and also slows down the trade and use of drugs in our community. These operations are a must and drug dealers must realise that we can strike at any time,” she said.