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The most widely-used drugs in South Africa

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) latest World Drug Report for 2020 reveals the latest trends in global drug use – including the impact of Covid-19.

The data covers the latest available year (2018) and includes all member nations of the UN. According to the group, around 269 million people used drugs worldwide in 2018 – 30% more than in 2009 – while over 35 million people suffer from drug use disorders. Cannabis was the most used substance globally in 2018, with an estimated 192 million users. Opioids, however, remain the most harmful drug, with deaths due to opioid use disorders up 71% over the past decade – 92% increase among women compared with 63% among men.

Drug use increased far more rapidly among developing countries over the 2000-2018 period than in developed countries. Adolescents and young adults account for the largest share of those using drugs, while young people are also the most vulnerable to the effects of drugs. In South Africa, the latest estimations point to cannabis being the most widely-used drug out of all substances tracked by the UN.

Approximately 3.7% of the country’s population use cannabis, followed by cocaine (1%), amphetamines (1%), opioids (0.5%), opiates (0.4%), ecstasy-type drugs (0.3%) and prescribed opiates (0.1%). South Africa doesn’t have a centralised or regular drug survey through which to source up-to-date figures, with the UN’s estimations coming from Annual Report Questionnaires last published in 2008 and 2011.

However, the global body has been tracking drug trends across the world, including South Africa’s role in them. Findings in its 2020 report include:

  • A study conducted among 1,000 people being treated for TB in South Africa found that participants in poverty were more likely to be drug users.

  • Heroin is trafficked into South Africa from the Middle East, while cocaine is trafficked through South Africa into the rest of Africa from South America.

  • Cannabis was the most prevalent drug for which criminals tested positive for in violent and property crimes. There is some association between drug use and acquisitive crime – ie, a higher prevalence of drug use was reported among arrestees for property offences than for violent crimes.

  • A significant number (>10%) of internet users in South Africa who use drugs say they purchase them over the dark web.

The UN report delves only into drug use in South Africa, not specifically its criminalisation – or more specifically its more recent decriminalisation. South African courts have upheld that private use of cannabis in the country is legal and protected by the constitution. The ruling culminated in the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, tabled in parliament on 1 September, which provides clarity and limits around the growing and private use of cannabis in the country. Under the regulations, persons are able to use small amounts of cannabis which they have cultivated themselves – however, the buying and selling of the plant remains illegal. While the bill has been welcomed, and seen as a step in the right direction for decriminalising cannabis use in the country, it also has the effect of further stifling the economic potential of wider cannabis cultivation, critics have argued. Further, it has been argued that the limitations within the bill still marginalise those who live in poverty who don’t have the means to cultivate plants themselves, leaving their only access to the substance through illicit means.

Drugs and Covid-19

The UN broadly noted that the use of cocaine appears to be stabilising in many regions, but amphetamines are showing a growing use trend. While the data reflects information available as at 2018, the body noted more recent trends due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant and future impact on the global drug trade.

Most notably, the pandemic and economic lockdowns have stalled or halted drug production in many regions – but following similar economic declines in the past, the UN warned that the economic fallout of the pandemic will likely result in elevated drug use in the coming months.

“While its effects are not yet fully known, border and other restrictions linked to the pandemic have already caused shortages of drugs on the street, leading to increased prices and reduced purity,” the UN said.

Rising unemployment and reduced opportunities caused by the pandemic are also likely to disproportionately affect the poorest, making them more vulnerable to drug use and also to drug trafficking and cultivation in order to earn money, the body said.

“Vulnerable and marginalized groups, youth, women and the poor pay the price for the world drug problem. The Covid-19 crisis and economic downturn threaten to compound drug dangers further still, when our health and social systems have been brought to the brink and our societies are struggling to cope.”

Due to Covid-19, traffickers may have to find new routes and methods, and trafficking activities via the darknet and shipments by mail may increase, despite the international postal supply chain being disrupted. The pandemic has also lead to opioid shortages, which in turn may result in people seeking out more readily available substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or mixing with synthetic drugs. More harmful patterns of use may emerge as some users switch to injecting, or more frequent injecting.

Looking at further effects of the current pandemic, the UN said that if governments react the same way as they did to the economic crisis in 2008, when they reduced drug-related budgets, then interventions such as prevention of drug use and related risk behaviours, drug treatment services, the provision of naloxone for management and reversal of opioid overdose could be hard hit.

Interception operations and international cooperation may also become less of a priority, making it easier for traffickers to operate.


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