/ 21 October 2022

What’s ‘moral’ about a misguided war on drugs that defies common sense?

Six, or half a dozen: Bonteheuwel residents shelter from the drug trade at night. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)

Tautology is the grammatical device separating South Africa’s wealthiest woman Wendy Appelbaum from slain Cape Flats Hard Livings gangster boss Rashied Staggie.

Both did — and Appelbaum still does — profit from recreational drugs. One is lauded; the other condemned. 

Tautology’s stylistic fault is repeating the same meaning using different words, such as drugs and alcohol. This camouflages the world’s largest recreational drug purveyor and allows the beverage company Anheuser-Busch InBev a more than $80-billion blue-chip stock market listing. Its local drug merchant for the debilitating depressant is South African Breweries. 

Society’s most savage drug is legally sold across a spectrum of potencies, from low-alcohol beer to the subtle fragrance of a Merlot or a cheeky Pinotage. 

Within the drug’s spirit realm — where a litre or less in one sitting can cause death — 18-year-old whiskey is often cited by the drug’s aficionados as the pinnacle of its expression. 

Medical research shows alcohol, heroin and fentanyl jostle for a top-three podium spot as the most harmful drug for users, while alcohol stands alone in its damage to society, from gender-based violence to road carnage through to Test match rugby chants of “Olé, Olé, Olé”. Alcohol’s collateral damage in 2009 was nearly R40-billion — not adjusted for inflation — a South African Medical Research Council survey found. 

Orwellian classifications globally deem some drugs to be more equal than others. Banning heroin, cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy, nyaope, methamphetamine, LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and other mind- and mood-altering substances herds society towards alcohol, to gift the spoils of “illegal” and many less harmful drugs to crime syndicates. 

Appelbaum’s De Morgenzon wine estate caresses its drug fields with classical music strains, borrowing from connoisseur cannabis grower cultivation techniques — albeit with a more extensive playlist — and that’s where any similarities between the drugs end. 

Cannabis is yet to clinically record a fatal overdose after thousands of years of widespread use. The Cato Institute, the right-wing Washington DC-based think-tank, advocated for drug legalisation in a 1990 study published by the Hofstra Law Review, surmising if US alcohol users switched their drug to cocaine or another banned narcotic, “a substantial reduction in death would occur”. 

Former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe is a fierce proponent for all recreational drug legalisation to reduce substance abuse harm, with the logic that the problem is not drugs like heroin, tik and the other usual suspects, the problem is they are illegal. 

It’s a view endorsed by 14 other former presidents and prime ministers from Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Mauritius, Timor-Leste and Poland, among others, as signatories to the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s 2021 report, Time to End Prohibition. Motlanthe was unavailable for comment by the time of publication.

The commissioners, many of whom were prohibition’s enforcers, were “unequivocal” in finding international drug prohibition, codified by the UN’s 1961 Single Drug Convention and its 1971 and 1988 offshoots, “is itself the problem”.

Prohibition legally restricts the production, distribution, sale, and use of “certain” mind- or mood-altering drugs and sanctions state violence against those engaged in nonviolent action. Legalisation is the converse. 

Decriminalisation, often confused with legalisation, is still too similar to prohibition. A drug user escapes criminal liability, but the value chain — the crucible for criminal and state violence — remains illegal, which guarantees the cherry ain’t out of reach from the corrupt police and political classes. 

Cocaine’s prohibition creates its own geography. The “marching powder” journeying through South and Central America to feed the US’s political and financial elites, among others, leaves in its wake 42 of the world’s 50 most violent cities. 

It’s a granular, corrosive global war, where prohibition’s celebrated architecture is merely a high school wrapped in a bulletproof fence. 

Gang frontlines splice the Cape Flats’ Hanover Park low-rise residential blocks, sparing none from their horrible intimacy. This battleground is replicated in Los Angeles’ projects, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and a catalogue of other cities splattered across the world like a Jackson Pollock canvas.

Cape Town’s mayoral member for safety and security JP Smith told the Mail & Guardian that “49% of murders in the last year were gang-related. If there wasn’t the constant gang warfare … murder rates in Cape Town would be something completely different.” 

The opiate of the people’s fingerprints were smeared across the US’s 1914 Harrison Act when it banned opium, morphine and cocaine to solve a largely non-existent problem, except insulting Christianity’s brittle sensibilities. 

The Illinois Medical Journal dismissed the Act’s champion, secretary of state William Jennings Bryan, a former college chaplain and crusader against teaching Darwin’s evolutionary theory in public schools, as a “well-meaning blunderer”.

Monotheism’s “moral” slurs pervading liberal democracies like a sulphuric fart in a space suit was the air breathed by the US Congress’ refusal to entertain medical evidence when it turned a plant into a fugitive in the 1937 Marihuana Act. 

It was both a grossly blasphemous act against the prophet Moses’ insistence that cannabis is a must-have item in any Israelites’ grab-bag to navigate parting seas, and the crypt for the export of a political mind’s shallowness.

Smith glimpsed the wonderland during South Africa’s pandemic prohibitions’ brief reprieve from “plain old, cheap and nasty alcohol” the “drug that destroys our communities”. 

“On the other side of prohibition lies quite a happy community,” Smith said.

His nostalgia for the god-fearing Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s hair-trigger for prohibitions (when she banned alcohol and cigarettes for a spell during South Africa’s lockdown measures) to contrive a bankers’ bonus for organised crime — the kissing cousins to ANC kleptocracy — is at odds with Smith’s Groundhog Days.

Customers drink legal alcohol at a Diepsloot tavern. Alcohol use has devastating social consequences, as does forcing the drug trade underground.(Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

“None of the enforcement we are doing has a meaningful outcome” for reducing drug harm, he said. “That the drug war is not effective is not news … No amount of arrests help it.” 

“Why bother?” Smith asked. “We have to continually dismantle the criminal economies they [gangsters] build. Otherwise, they will become more and more powerful and start supplanting the state … They dole out more patronage than the state can give welfare money.”

Reason, common sense and medical evidence occupy the cheap seats in the politician’s theatre of the absurd. The pantomime’s cast features derelict imaginations spanning South Africa’s political spectrum for a chorus line peddling lies for truth and moral cowardice for votes.

Incompetence, cutting off the hand that feeds, the “values” of a single-parent god and cadre plundering distractions, are all contenders for the ANC government’s failure to respect the constitutional court’s 2018 ruling to decriminalise cannabis.

Portugal broke ranks from the drug war in 2000 to flirt with the rational, decriminalising the whole gamut of recreational drugs to cure a narcotics epidemic. It toppled the country from the European Union’s highest rates of drug harm to among its lowest, and without Lisbon and Porto morphing into Sodom and Gomorrah.  

Prohibition, derived from the “morality” tales of a Bible-thumping apologist for Jim Crow racial segregation laws, might struggle under constitutional review for its “good intentions paving the road to hell”.   

Prohibition’s preachers would both have to prove “immorality” is tailored to drug tastes and answer to the havoc wrought by criminalising some drugs to invent, sponsor and subsidise wars fostering far greater misery than the policy attempts to solve. 

Constitutional rationality may have a sniper shot salvaging society from its theocratic acts of mass-self harm, but it will require a prince, rather than a tsar, to rid a Holy War.  

Guy Oliver is a photo journalist based in Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.