/ 2 December 2022

Motlanthe: It’s time to legalise all recreational drugs

Legalisation advocate: Kgalema Motlanthe is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, made up of humanitarians, intellectuals and former presidents. Photo: Jelesai Njikizana/AFP


ANC elder Kgalema Motlanthe is under no illusions that calling for the legalisation of all banned recreational drugs is to tango with reason’s toughest adversaries — ignorance and superstition. 

Motlanthe is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Speaking at his foundation’s Houghton offices, he explained the endgame was to collapse the global drug prohibition’s architecture so “people can get drugs over the counter. Then you are halfway towards a much more normalised situation. 

“You will have a happier environment than we have now,” he says. 

Motlanthe is an aberration among South Africa’s political classes for his opposition to more than 100 years of folklore punting state-sanctioned violence as an effective treatment to cure disease. 

The witch-burning philosophy was concocted in the United States when women were disenfranchised and Virgin Airlines was constrained to the pages of science-fiction novels. 

The crusade against banning “certain” recreational drugs was ignited by the United States’ 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act that, against medical advice, criminalised opiates and cocaine to enshrine prohibition as society’s immutable article of faith.

The net result from prohibition’s borrowing from Catholicism’s dogma of “unaided reason” has poisoned democracies, spawned military adventurism, xenophobia, mass incarceration and incalculable human rights abuses, among other deleterious side-dishes, to create a picture-perfect blueprint for organised crime’s enrichment. 

Rehabilitating scientific truth from one of the 20th century’s litanies of Big Lies by politicians, preachers and other vested interests is to confront author George Orwell’s reckoning that “it’s frightful that people who are so ignorant should have so much influence”. 

Motlanthe ascribes the “ignorance” of South Africa’s political classes’ prohibition endorsement as victims of a “prejudice transmitted from generation to generation. It’s not scientific, it’s not based on any scientific evidence … the whole notion of banned substances has not worked at all.”

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is a collective of political and intellectual luminaries, who, after a decade of scientific and social investigations, identified prohibition’s design flaw: its existence.  

Motlanthe’s global commission colleagues include former presidents, premiers and prime ministers from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland and Timor-Leste, among others, as well as public intellectuals and renowned humanitarians, and all on an offensive to expose a fraud. 

“We need to strive for government to move towards legalisation of recreational drugs,” Motlanthe said. Politicians and the public need schooling in scientific evidence, rather than faith in prohibition’s “pure superstition” and “utter nonsense”.

The ignorance is not confined to the corridors of Cape Town’s fire-gutted parliament and is reflected internationally, and in many cases exceeded. 

But Motlanthe says there “is momentum” towards legalisation and “abolishing” prohibition’s Holy Grail — the United Nations’ 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. 

Since the 1990s more than 20 countries have eroded, to varying degrees, the convention’s pre-eminence through decriminalising drug use and possession, while channelling redundant security and criminal justice budgets towards harm reduction programmes.

The rubber touched the road for the legalisation lobby two decades after the 40-year-long Salazar dictatorship was overthrown in the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Portugal’s fledgling democracy was flailing in the 1990s from a narcotic epidemic that forced the government’s hand in playing its last card that placed trust in science.

Portugal dispensed with prohibition’s patronising sadism. It accepted people have good and bad relationships with recreational substances, and medical and psychological resources should prioritise those suffering the bad, rather than criminalise them. 

Portugal dropped from the highest rates of drug harm to the near lowest among fellow European Union states after decriminalising all recreational drugs in 2000.   

South Africa’s constitutional court 2018 decriminalisation of cannabis was a beginning. 

“We have not gone the full distance,” Motlanthe said. “The whole thrust is to decriminalise and legalise substances.” 

The constitutional court ruling “has loosened the grip of the police, which is a huge resource allocated towards literally arresting end users”. The ruling allows police to “focus on serious criminality”. 

Decriminalisation is prohibition-lite. Users escape criminal sanction, but product supply chains remain illegal, ensuring drug cartels and syndicates continue to feed from absurdity while keeping the justice and security sector in the loop and corrupt cops on the payroll.

Legalisation removes the security services and criminal justice networks from the equation, as well as its associated widescale corruption and violence. 

“There will always be pushback. Those with vested interests always have their policies,” Motlanthe says. “It is not easy to end prohibition.” 

Dismantling prohibition’s war economy, which has seeped into society’s almost every facet, will wound and maim both legal and illegal businesses raised on a dysfunctional diet. 

The legal fraternity’s easy money will desiccate. Bloated government rolling security sector contracts terminated and reallocated to health and social services to the soundtrack of preachers’ preaching Sodom and Gomorrah’s damnation.

The crime lords may well instruct their pocket politicians to thwart any drug legalisation, much like Angolan MPLA president José dos Santos’ army generals selling weapons and munitions to Jonas Savimbi’s Unita rebels to maintain a conflict’s profit logic.

Legalising drugs is the existential threat to organised crime’s business model that would force a “switch to a substitute”, Motlanthe says. Although nothing quite matches profit margins raked in by prohibition — be it alcohol or opioids. 

Legalisation advocates envisage a regulatory regime, including quality control, for the majority, if not all, presently illegal recreational drugs, with guidelines similar to alcohol and tobacco for their production, marketing and distribution. 

The legalisation lobby shares prohibitionists’ ambitions to reduce drug harm, but its methods are proving more successful in answering the defining question: why do heroin addicts get cages and alcoholics get treatment?

“Alcohol is enjoyed by the elites, that’s why it’s legalised,” Motlanthe says. “Of all the substances alcohol is the most dangerous.” 

Whereas an alcoholic can reach out for help, a cocaine addict “cannot ask for help even though they are in dire need of it. 

“It’s an act of criminality and therein lies in the rub,” he says. “It’s complete ignorance and prejudice. Moral prejudice.” 

Guy Oliver is a photojournalist.

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