In reviewing the Provincial Policing Needs and Priorities (PNP) Report for the Western Cape in 2018/19 on the Policing of Drugs, it became wholly apparent to me that we are not policing drugs effectively, and are, consequently, losing the battle against drugs, illicit substances and its associated harms.
More than ever, we need to take a harms reduction approach to illicit substances. What’s more, policing of illicit substances should focus on the manufacturing and trade of substances, rather than simply possession.
Prior to the Constitutional Court matter on dagga, 1 in 6 remand prisoners at Pollsmoor Prison were sentenced to prison for dagga possession. Many of those arrested are unable to pay bail, often spending long periods in prison awaiting trial. Following the Constitutional Court case, dagga-related arrests have decreased by 30.6% in the Western Cape, according to the latest crime statistics for 2018/19.
The PNP report highlighted a need for law enforcement agencies to focus on the drug trade rather than on drug users. This is because arrests related to drug-possession clogs up the criminal justice system and impacts on the trust in the same criminal justice system. In turn, drug users who have been incarcerated may end up joining gangs in prison after being criminalised.
SAPS explained that one way in which they are fighting the war on drugs is by creating substance abuse awareness through targetted programmes. They further outlined the following issues in relation to policing drugs, which include:
- The policing of drugs requires extensive resources. Processing a drug arrest takes two to two-and-a-half hours, time that an officer cannot spend patrolling the streets;
- The need to educate the community on the effects of drugs to decrease drug use;
- Drugs are easily accessible in many communities and SAPS’ aim to remove drugs from the streets;
- SAPS seeks to shut down drug houses but can only enter with a search warrant; and
- SAPS need more support from the other components of the criminal justice system to prevent drug dealers being released on bail.
It was further highlighted that the Provincial Crime Prevention office was disbanded by the previous Provincial Commissioner, thereby affecting SAPS’s ability to provide crime prevention services. This means that the SAPS are fighting in reaction to, rather than proactively against drugs, with little intelligence and coordination to combat manufacturers and distributors.
Consequently, this manner of policing drugs leads to a large proportion of the population being exposed to the correctional environment. The University of the Western Cape’s Jean Redpath explained, during the PNP, that while 11% of the South African population resides in the Western Cape, the Western Cape contributes to 19% of the country’s remand detention population, and to 16% of the country’s sentenced population.
The report pointed to a need for a harms reduction approach to drugs. We need to build community resilience to the availability of drugs, which requires a change in the legislative and policy framework from the national government and the police.
An important component of a harms reduction approach to drugs is the need for information sharing and public education on the harms of drugs, on alternatives to drug use and on support structures available. This is achieved by providing alternatives to vulnerable communities, such as referral spaces or job opportunities.
This is also what the Western Cape Government’s new safety plan seeks to do, by providing after school activities for youth at risk of engaging in crime or drug use, scaling up programmes which work with young people, training them in employable skills and placing them in work experience opportunities for a year, and rolling out parenting programmes aimed at reducing violence and drug abuse.
Ultimately, there is a need to focus policing on the drug trade and manufacturing rather than on the drug use. Additionally, SAPS should increase its focus on removing those who control and benefit financially from the drug trade.
The presence of the SANDF in the province currently provides an ideal opportunity for police to start to conduct this work, with the assistance of the army.
We also need to measure police performance differently in terms of drug-related crime. Police performance on drug policing should not be measured through arrests alone but also through the extent to which the syndicates are arrested, prosecuted and convicted.
As a society, government and SAPS, we should be working to build spaces for dialogue, support and focus on psycho-social support for individuals, but also spaces for engagement on the kinds of good policy options to be promoted. Indeed, SAPS cannot win the fight against drugs alone, but needs the support of all of society to overcome the scourge of drug-related crime. Only then will we ensure proactive policing which identifies and reduces drug trade and manufacturing.