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The AU and its Common Africa position on drug use has recognised that drug use is a public health issue and not a criminal issue, according to experts who addressed SADC-PF parliamentarians.
People who inject drugs (PWID) represent one of the key populations most at risk of HIV and hepatitis infection, while among an estimated 16 million PWID globally, three million live with HIV. The HIV prevalence is 28 times higher among PWID than the general population.
Vulnerability to HIV transmission and access to health services among PWID are directly influenced by the national mechanisms addressing drug issues and the decriminalisation of drug use.
This emerged at a SADC-PF session on criminalisation and people who inject drugs, which is being attended by SADC-PF parliamentarians from Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho, DRC, South Africa, Mauritius, Tanzania, Seychelles and Zimbabwe and that was chaired by Senator Monica Mutsvangwa from Zimbabwe.
It emerged during the presentation made by Kunal Naik from Mauritius that since Portugal decriminalised narcotics in 2001 it has seen a significant reduction in the number of people being incarcerated for drug-related crimes, while more and more drug addicts are seeking treatment.
SADC-PF parliamentarians told Wilson Box the executive director of Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network during an interactive session that the most commonly used drug in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho, South Africa and DRC is cannabis, known as “weed” or ‘’dagga’’. Other commonly used drugs in SADC are nyaope, whoonga, mercedes, ecstacy, broncho and cocaine.
The SADC-PF parliamentarians also admitted their countries do not have specific programmes to treat drug addicts so that they can be reintegrated into their respective societies once rehabilitated. The only exception among SADC-PF member states is Tanzania that has specific programmes to assist addicts.
Box who admitted that to have a “narcotic drug use-free world is a pipe dream”, implored SADC-PF parliamentarians to formulate laws and policies that would help destigmatise and decriminalise addicts. He also noted that most SADC countries have prohibitionist policies that criminalise drug users who are actually patients in need of treatment instead of having to end up being incarcerated.
“People who use drugs are isolated and stigmatised and at times isolated without any help extended to them,” stated Box, who also noted the existing policies on drug addicts in SADC are helter-skelter and hazy at most and need to be reviewed, otherwise drug addicts are being driven underground.
“Drug users need compassion, love and care,” Box implored SADC parliamentarians.
One parliamentarian from South Africa said the SADC region has been in a state of denial and should possibly look for donor funding to help treat drug addicts whose number has shot through the roof because of poverty, unemployment and other socio-economic factors. He said SADC needs a collective intervention and a new policy change if it is to address the issue of narcotics successfully.