Editorial Comment: Harsher drug penalties needed to curb scourge The latest report to Cabinet this week by Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe showed another 2 373 arrests, and 48 drug bases, that is selling and processing points, had been raided. Many of those arrested would have been pure users, but a reasonable percentage, based on court records, would have been dealers or suspected dealers.

INCREASING penalties for many drug-related offences, as Cabinet approved this week, now seems to be necessary considering the sheer scale of the drug problem in Zimbabwe revealed by the present strong Government action, backed by many in the general community, against drug dealing and abuse.

The latest report to Cabinet this week by Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe showed another 2 373 arrests, and 48 drug bases, that is selling and processing points, had been raided. Many of those arrested would have been pure users, but a reasonable percentage, based on court records, would have been dealers or suspected dealers.

Zimbabwe still, correctly in our view, maintains a distinction between users and dealers, with the law hitting dealers hard and now able to hit them even harder, especially for what are considered the milder drugs such as mbanje where teeth were somewhat lacking.

But there are good arguments for increasing the penalties for use, even if pure users are not jailed, to encourage them to undergo rehabilitation and treatment so they can kick the habit and start living a better and cleaner life, and hopefully a more productive life. 

So higher fines and the ability of magistrates to consider community service more often make sense. Community service requires a prison term to be imposed, and then suspended so long as the convicted person performs the required community service satisfactorily, so the law does need jail terms for pure users if that route is to be followed. 

But another area where higher penalties are needed is when there is no proof that someone arrested for possession was dealing, but the quantity of the drug or drugs possessed was high. These higher quantities suggest dealing is in progress but the sentencing magistrate has to look at just possession.

But even here sentencing guidelines should start differentiating between the person with a few grammes of an illegal drug, and the person with bricks of the stuff. The possessor with the large amount is still potentially a dealer, even if they are not caught dealing, and should not be able to escape a more severe sentence by trying to pretend a year or so supply is for personal use. Quantities should be a serious aggravating circumstance.

If necessary, the statute law could be amended to make it clear that possession of quantities of more than a couple of doses should be considered in a quite different light from ordinary use, and be subject to far higher sentences.

With more than 2 300 arrests, it is obvious that most of the ordinary users have been allowed to escape with a fairly trivial admission of guilt fine. Putting that sort of number through the court system and the prison system would create strains in both that simply could not be managed. But perhaps the admission of guilt fine could be increased, which would put pressure on the user and, when they started begging for money from their family, on the family to take more action.

Even if the fine is above the level of a deposit fine, it should still be possible to have a special court sitting for guilty pleas and fines imposed by a magistrate that would not clog the system. This would be especially important for repeat offenders.

Here the admission of guilt system for all breaches of the law needs to be upgraded to record the admissions of guilt and subsequent fines on a database that is easy to access. The fine books kept at police stations are never accessed, nor is the data stored to see how many times a particular person has committed a minor offence.

Legally when someone charged with a minor offence decides to pay the admission-of-guilt fine, they sign a form where they plead guilty, renounce their right to be present at their own trial, and pay a deposit towards whatever fine might be imposed. In fact, the deposit is the fine and perhaps these days the fine books are not signed off in a five second trial by a magistrate with a pen.

But if the police station where the fine was paid could enter the details into a database, it would be possible to check next time the person came to the attention of the police to see if they were a repeat offender.

For drug offences this would help see if a user was an addict, or at least drifting that way, with multiple offences. That should then trigger compulsory rehabilitation and treatment as it appears that matters have gone beyond experimentation or occasional use. In some cases the fine could be suspended if the person paid a similar sum for treatment.

Dealers, or potential dealers, should as a standard sentence go to jail although courts still need the sentencing discretion so mitigating circumstances are taken into account.

But while we might need to increase the pressure on users, and especially repeat users, to mend their ways, we must still keep the sharp distinction between dealers and users. The one group are exploiting the weaknesses of the other group, and while users are not exactly innocent victims, they are still in a different criminal category from those who sell the drugs.

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