Editorial Comment: Agency necessary  to curb drugs scourge

SO serious is the menace of drug abuse in Zimbabwe, and so multi-faceted is the need for a response, that a specialist Drug and Substance Abuse Agency, now proposed by Cabinet, makes a great deal of sense. 

The principles of the proposed enabling legislation were approved this week and a detailed Bill will now be prepared for debate within Parliament so that the new agency has a sound legal foundation.

At the moment, the national response to what was recognised last year as a far more severe problem than originally thought has been co-ordinated through the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Drug and Substance Abuse, with the police providing the backbone of the response when it comes to enforcing the laws, and the Department of Social Services and Ministry of Health and Child Care the backbone of the rehabilitation response.

But a lot of other ministries and agencies have had to be involved through the committee, and the wide swathe of expertise required clearly led to consideration of a specialist agency where much of the required expertise can be concentrated in a single organisation.

The new agency also shows that there is general agreement that the war on drugs and drug abuse is not a short-term campaign, but rather a long and difficult operation, basically a permanent operation, that will have to go way beyond a single campaign. 

Even when we achieve victories and beat back drug abuse, there will still be need to be on permanent alert to interdict new supplies and prevent the rise of new supply gangs. So a permanent agency is required even if we do score major victories.

The idea of a specialist agency is not unique to Zimbabwe. The United States, for example, created the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, separate from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) although under the same federal Justice Department, to lead and co-ordinate the war on drugs in the largest national market for illegal drugs in the world. 

One major advantage that a separate agency has, with its own staff and own budget, is that it can apply constant and consistent action against drug smuggling, drug supply lines, suppliers, street agents and users. And it can build up the intelligence sources and analysis that will lead to major operations.

The police have been doing a good job in recent months, but cannot apply the same level of resources every day as other crimes also need to be fought and there needs to be major campaigns against other waves of crime, such as the recent operation against black market currency dealing. 

That said, a separate Drug Agency will need to work closely with the police and will need to call on other Government forces, perhaps even the Defence Forces, for agreed joint operations. For example, the Drug Agency might well discover that there is a major smuggling effort in progress, that will require border patrols, aerial surveillance and large combined units to surround and arrest gangs.

The operations side of the Drug Agency will obviously include interdiction of smuggled supplies, hunting down of home-grown drugs such as mbanje plots, disruption of supply lines and breaking into dealer networks. This needs specialist and dedicated intelligence staff working single-mindedly on the problem.

Joint operations then may come into play when the intelligence is applied. And the police, Zimra and Airports Authority will often bump into drug dealing during their normal operations and will need to have full co-operation from the Drugs Agency. It will not exist in a vacuum. 

At present, while a lot of Zimbabweans are involved in drug abuse, there is still a fairly low selection of illegal drugs available. We have home-grown mbanje and smuggled crystal meth as the main two, along with smuggled medicines that are banned in Zimbabwe because of their addictive side effects, but legal in neighbouring countries.

We have seen some cocaine and some heroin, although there is not much evidence of wide use of these drugs in Zimbabwe. There appears to be good international intelligence and couriers have been caught, although we have no idea how many couriers have managed to escape the net and not been caught. It could be very few, it could be a significant number.

But things could get a lot worse. On the home front the wide range of climatic conditions found in Zimbabwe means that other plants, such as opium poppies and at least one of the cocoa species used as the source of cocaine, could probably be grown somewhere in the country, and quite possibly in forest glades where they are difficult to spot. And the initial processing is not complicated.

Our serious stress on technical education means that there is a growing pool of people who have the expertise to process drugs and manufacture drugs, should they turn from the bright lights of national and community development into darker corridors. So the future Drug Agency will be very busy looking at potential threats, as well as existing threats.

Without actual details of the agency, we do not yet know how it will plug into the rehabilitation services needed by drug users. Presumably these will remain with specialised ministries, although the Drug Agency will probably want users undergoing treatment to also volunteer specific information on supply chains and the like.

Converting the accepted principles of a Drug Agency into the required detailed legislation will obviously require care, to make sure that the new agency can operate effectively. There will also need to be administrative measures to make sure it can be properly staffed. 

But the drug problem in Zimbabwe is sufficiently widespread and potentially can get a lot worse, that we need to go into overdrive to beat it back, and bringing in a new specialist agency is one way of concentrating resources, but at the same time maintaining pressure on other fronts.

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