Pubdate: Sun, 20 Mar 2016
Source: CityPress (South Africa)
Copyright: 2016 City Press
Author: Don Pinnock


Gang Town, the City Press Tafelberg Nonfiction Award-winning book by 
Don Pinnock, is being released this month and is a comprehensive and 
relatable look at gangsterism on the Cape Flats. This edited extract 
looks at how the international 'war on drugs' means a war on our 
youth that need not be happening.

Gang Town by Don Pinnock Tafelberg 280 pages R225

Cape Town has a youth drug problem that's out of control. It's 
possible to fix it, but it will need a government with both insight 
and guts. Drugs largely drive Cape Town's stratospheric levels of 
interpersonal violent crime. Users rob and steal to get them, gangs 
murder to retain their sales turf and drug lords hold neighbourhoods 
in thrall by violence. There is a solution to this, but it would take 
a brave and resolute government to implement it.

First, though, here's a necessary backstory about the so-called War 
on Drugs involving Harry Anslinger, the former head of the US Federal 
Bureau of Narcotics who started the war in the 1930s.

Anslinger became obsessed first with the Mafia and then with opium. 
He claimed China was smuggling it into America to undermine the 
country and soften up teenage girls for sex with Chinese dealers. He 
considered all African-Americans a criminal threat.

In the 1950s, after befriending Senator Joseph McCarthy, known for 
his 'Reds' witch-hunt that led to crippling smear campaigns against 
thousands of Americans, Anslinger widened his attention to communism. 
His primary tool was the Harrison Act of 1914 and he dramatically 
expanded the size and reach of his bureau using little science and 
considerable scare tactics. By the 1950s, the bureau had sufficient 
clout to threaten with trade sanctions all countries not altering 
their legislation in line with the US War on Drugs. South Africa's 
drug legislation is a product of this history.

Anslinger was well aware that alcohol prohibition had failed in 
America and he must have known why. The banning of anything the 
public desires simply hands supply to the criminal underworld.

This ensures that the state loses control of the situation and, 
without quality controls, often leads to a bad, even dangerous, 
product. Before his campaign, drugs could be bought over the counter 
and only a small percentage of the population used them, mainly 
recreationally. Addiction was low.

The result of the War on Drugs was that, almost overnight, the 
crackdown on the legal purchase of cocaine, heroin and cannabis 
conjured into existence criminal cartels and drug smugglers. Prices 
went up and a new business model was created that required intensive 
drug pushing and profited from (and promoted) addiction. Every addict 
became a potential customer and a cash cow. Anslinger claimed he was 
fighting the Mafia, but in fact he was transferring what became a 
hugely profitable drug industry into their exclusive control. By 2010 
the illicit global drug market was valued at over $300 billion a year.

In his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War 
on Drugs, Johann Hari suggests that the Mafia needed the War on Drugs 
so badly they bribed officials to intensify it. By criminalising drug 
use and sending thousands of users to jail, Anslinger's campaign made 
it inevitable that they would emerge with criminal records. They 
would be unable to find legitimate jobs and would invariably beg, 
borrow, steal and deal to secure a fix and survive.

The massive revenue that dealing illicit drugs earned drug lords 
allowed for the buying off of police and politicians. It also 
increased levels of aggression because drug lords  who don't want a 
shoot-out every day  tended to establish a reputation for being 
excessively violent so people didn't pick a fight with them. They 
instituted a reign of terror and 'owned' neighbourhoods. Sound familiar?

In Cape Town you find a gang protecting street corner drug sales. 
Beyond them is a syndicate importing drugs, a network supplying them, 
drug mules carrying them, another syndicate controlling their 
production in a foreign country, a gang protecting the supply to that 
syndicate and a farmer illegally growing opium or coca.

Each step encourages corruption and violence and at each transaction 
money changes hands  ultimately huge amounts. Drug smuggling is one 
of the most profitable trades in the world, largely because of Harry 
Anslinger and his War on Drugs. Is there an alternative to that war? 
An experiment began in Portugal in 2001 when the persecution of drug 
users and addicts came to an end. A new law (Law 30/2000) stipulated 
that recreational drug users should not be marginalised, labelled or 
imprisoned and addicts were encouraged to seek treatment. The law did 
not make it legal to sell or traffic drugs; it simply no longer 
considered possession to be criminal.

Drug use did not skyrocket as predicted. Instead, addiction 
stabilised, the prison population dropped and the police are now able 
to attend to serious crime.

The Portuguese accepted that drugs and drug use were not going to 'go 
away'. They recognised that people at risk of entering the drug world 
should be given internal tools  confidence, knowledge and support  to 
make the right decisions for themselves. Street crime and violence 
have declined. The country now has one of the lowest levels of drug 
use out of 28 European countries and is the only country in Europe to 
have exhibited declines in problematic drug use.

In the United States, 90 per cent of the money spent on the drug 
policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 per cent going to 
treatment and prevention. In Portugal, the ratio is the exact opposite.

The Netherlands decriminalised the use of cannabis in 1976. The 
possession of a maximum amount of five grams for personal use is not 
prosecuted and cultivation is treated in a similar way (cultivation 
of five plants or less is usually not prosecuted). Uruguay legalised 
the growing and sale of cannabis in 2013 and eight other South 
American countries are considering loosening their drug policies. 
These moves to decriminalise drug use are way stations on the road to 
a solution. The bigger step is to legalise drugs and treat their use 
as a health problem not a crime problem. Given the hysteria and 
propaganda around the War on Drugs, despite its obvious failure, it's 
difficult to think this through rationally without raising the 
spectre of addicted children and tik babies.

But a first step is to admit that our escalating problems of drug 
use, and the extreme damage this is doing to our young people, is not 
being solved through prohibition. South Africa has usable legislation 
already in place regarding tobacco and alcohol, so it's time to think 
more clearly.

When you legalise drugs, the first thing that happens (as long as the 
state doesn't set the tax too high) is that you drive down the 
profitability of drug cartels, weaken the networks and drain money 
out of neighbourhood syndicates. You stop the turf wars, make drug 
use less cool and more mundane and free up policing for more serious crime.

Government will be able to budget for better family support where the 
problem starts in the first place. Many addicts who currently get 
worse behind bars will get better in hospitals and then in jobs.

Billions of rands would be saved on the detection, arrest, court 
appearances and imprisonment of drug dealers, and billions would be 
gained on taxing drug use, as is done on alcohol and tobacco. This 
revenue could be channelled into curative and supportive agencies and 
information campaigns on the dangers of drug use. Leisure drugs of 
any sort taken in excess are not good for human consumption, but if 
the desire to be high is unstoppable, then it needs to be 
intelligently managed.

Is it likely that South Africa will legalise drugs? Not in the 
present international climate, given the probable threat of US trade 
sanctions. But legalisation will happen eventually.

When the American government's war on alcohol ended, the gangster war 
for alcohol stopped. All violence produced by prohibition disappeared 
and it's today impossible to imagine guntoting gangsters selling 
whiskey on a street corner.

We'll look back one day and wonder at the social destruction that the 
War on Drugs caused and be amazed at how governments seemed unable to 
comprehend how prohibition fuelled one of the world's largest and 
most vicious criminal networks.

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