Why Zim needs to review its drug laws
Wilson Box Correspondent
On June 26, Zimbabweans from all walks of life joined other countries across the globe to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse and International Trafficking.
Although celebrated internationally for years, this year’s events were unique as the message from millions of people who gathered for the events, was the same — that governments should take stock and urgently change drug policies.
It is no longer a secret that Zimbabwe like other countries is battling an upsurge in illicit drug trafficking and problems associated with it, which mostly affects the end users — the drug users, their immediate families and communities they live in.
The problematic illicit drug use in Zimbabwe has unfortunately spilled over to public health issues that accompany drug abuse such as the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Other worrying issues are that the average age of drug use is now 17 years. However, children as young as twelve years are also using drugs.
That is why the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), a local advocacy and harm reduction organisation is calling for urgent drug policy reforms that will view drug use as a health issue and not a criminal issue.
Addiction is the challenge that drug users face which can only be saved through counselling, treatment and rehabilitation not through incarceration.
The ZCLDN’s position is that it is now very clear that the issue of illicit drug use in Zimbabwe has reached alarming levels and is affecting every fabric of the society whether in homes, communities, schools or the workplaces.
However, the policy makers seem uninterested in coming up with solutions to salvage the matter when the country is literally burning. Drug users revealed in a pilot research that the ZCLDN carried out that the reasons for using drugs, among others, included relieving stress as a result of unemployment, poverty, social disapproval and mood elevation.
They claimed that drugs such as marijuana enabled one to work and some used it for spiritual purposes.
It is clear from this research that these reasons cannot be addressed through sending one to prison, but through prevention, counselling, treatment and rehabilitation.
The current approach by the Government to arrest drug users is not a solution as the same offenders came worse off from the prisons upon their release as they came into contact with hard-core criminals and were exposed to all forms of vice while incarcerated.
Our preliminary research also shows that over 80 percent of drug users are reluctant to seek medical attention and are afraid of the stigma associated with the local primary health care delivery services.
It is against this harsh reality and other challenges that the ZCLDN like other concerned citizens believe that drug users should be assisted with harm reduction and prevention strategies.
The justice system and communities have been harsh on drug users as they view them as outcasts and criminals — a situation that has seen most drug users in need of medical treatment failing to come in open and shun the use of conventional health care centres as they fear arrest.
The result is that their health will deteriorate to a stage that they will require emergency and expensive treatment, which at most times is impossible, leading to an early loss of life.
As ZCLDN, we are concerned that the Government is taking drug misuse as a war, a war which unfortunately no one is winning. Therefore, there is need to support drug users and not punishment.
Using the international adopted theme; “Support Don’t Punish”, the ZCLDN feels the Government and legislators should reconsider the policy of convicting and sending drug users to jail.
Under the “Support Don’t Punish” programme, drug misuse should not be treated as a criminal issue, but a health and social issue that needs everyone to be on board.
However, before we go any further, we want to explain that we are not in cahoots with drug traffickers and pushers. Instead we are saying as the drug policy in Zimbabwe is reviewed, drug trafficking offences and sentences should be made sentence stiffer.
As a result, the ZCLDN has in place several suggestions that it hopes decision makers should consider in order to make drug use in the communities is more manageable.
More than 75 percent the participants in the pilot research done in five constituencies cannot wilfully leave drugs as there are no support systems from the family, community and State.
That is why as the ZCLDN, we are also advocating among other issues for the low-threshold treatment programme. Under this programme there are harm reduction-based health care centres targeting drug users.
The low threshold programme has proved to be a success in most countries that have adopted this as drug users are given minimal demands and are provided with counselling only if they request for it.
In our engagements with drug users, the ZCLDN has also come across pleas from drug users on how best they can quit drug use as they have become prisoners to the drugs they take on a daily basis.
The users are facing complications with the drug they take or the lifestyle associated with the drug use and dependence. We, therefore, believe the only solution to this is to encourage users to adopt the low threshold treatment programme as it is virtually impossible to advice a user to stop using the drugs at the moment he or she is at the peak.
Counsellors who will offer help to users; do not have to impose abstinence from drug use as a condition of service. Therefore, Zimbabwe is in need of urgent and effective strategies that address the challenges associated with drug misuse. The strategies should be grounded in science, public health and human rights in order to minimise the harms associated with drug use and misuse.
Zimbabwe needs to create effective solutions that can help serve its citizens and ultimately the strategies will also serve as models for other countries.
The ZCLDN calls on the Government to put in place proactive measures and not be reactive to drug abuse. It should fight this scourge with the same spirit it is fighting other national challenges such as HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Cancer.
- Wilson Box is a specialist in Drug Policy and Harm Reduction Strategies, a holder of Masters in Development (Public Policy and Management), Certificate in Human Rights and Drug Policy and an Executive Certificate in Drug Policy, Global Diplomacy and Health, The Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland.