‘Don’t punish the addicts’

Mitchell's Plain neighbourhood watch, residents and representatives of TB/HIV Care at the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre and the CPF supported the "Support. Don't Punish" march.

The war on drugs has failed. This was the sentiment prevalent among Mitchell’s Plain residents, the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre (CTDCC), TB/HIV care and community structures who marched for the decriminalisation of drug use on Sunday, June 26, which marked the International Day against Drug Abuse.

The march, which was part of a global protest called Support. Don’t Punish, is an initiative to get the South African government to change the policies on drug use, and, instead of arresting the youth who are caught with drugs, they should fund projects to treat users.

About 60 community members, young and old, the Mitchell’s Plain Neighbourhood Watch, the Community Police Forum (CPF) chair, Abie Isaacs and representatives of TB/HIV Care braved the cold on Sunday morning to march from the CTDCC offices in Eastridge through Tafelsig, collecting signatures and informing residents about the drive.

Many passers-by and motorists supported the message by hooting and stopping to sign the petition.

Mitchell’s Plain is one of the areas in the Western Cape plagued with drug abuse.

According to police crime statistics for the period from April 1 2014 to March 31 2015, Mitchell’s Plain was ranked the worst policing precinct in the country for drug related crimes, with over 4 000 arrests made in this period. However, the statistics do not express a true refection of the situation in Mitchell’s Plain as the police statistics are only made up of the number of arrests made. The crime statistics for this year are yet to be released.

The director of the CTDCC, Ashley Potts, said the National Prosecuting Authority, government and the South African Police Service should look at an alternative way to combat drug abuse, other than arresting substance abusers and sending them to jail, where they receive a criminal record and become hardened criminals.

He said in other parts of the world, it has been proven that decriminalising drug use has significantly reduced crime.

“We are saying that the war on drugs has failed. It doesn’t work. We want them to realise that this is just costing our economy, and it is marginalising those who are struggling with substance abuse disorder. We have too many people incarcerated and the plight for us is to get decriminalisation for those who use substances and find a way to not use the funds of the state to put them into prison, but to divert those finances to treatment facilities.”

He said that CTDCC and the Sultan Bahu Centre in Westridge offer in- and outpatient treatment for drug users. However, it is up to the South African police to clamp down on dealers in the area.

At the march on Sunday Shaun Shelly of TB/HIV Care encouraged the community to spread the word and get as many people to sign the petition to spearhead the change in policy. “We can take some of the money that the government is using to imprison people and put it into some of our community resources to help our people. Let’s put money into supporting our people instead of criminalising them.

“We need a better solution than throwing our youth in jail for drug use. We are calling for the decriminalising of drugs.”

Mr Isaacs told the Plainsman the Mitchell’s Plain CPF is supporting the initiative because most of the crime and social issues in Mitchell’s Plain stem from drug abuse. “As theCPF we are calling for this campaign to be taken forward. Young people should not be arrested for possession of drugs. They should be treated. Drugs are prominent in our community. The police are just boosting statistics by arresting the young people who come out of known drug houses. They should be targeting the dealers.”

He said one of the highest reported crimes in Mitchell’s Plain is domestic violence, which largely stems from substance abuse. “People’s houses are empty because of children who are on drugs stealing from them. I had an incident where a son slept with his mother because of drugs. This is how evil drugs make you. And it’s because people who use are not in their right mind. They need to be treated. Even gang wars in Mitchell’s Plain, which has subsided a bit now, is solely about drug turfs.

“The CPF says that children should not be thrown in jail for using. Target the dealers. They are feeding our children poison. The CPF also believes that drug dealers who are caught should be charged with premeditated murder. They know what they’re feeding our children. It’s a contravention of the Medicines and Related Substances Act.”

The act deals with the registration of medicines intended for human and for animal use; for the control of medicines, scheduled substances and medical devices and for the control of persons who may compound and dispense medicines; and for matters incidental thereto.

Mr Isaacs said because of poverty in the community, some of the youth caught with drugs for usage and not selling is arrested and cannot always pay a fine, resulting in them being sent to jail and coming out worse than before. “More than 80 percent of inmates are there because of possession of drugs, it’s shocking.”

Mitchell’s Plain police spokesman, Captain Ian Williams, said Mitchells Plain has a “big problem” with drug abuse in the area. “There are lots of arrests made weekly. Substance use brings on a lot of other crime in order for addicts to feed their habits, such as theft and robberies.”

He said the police find that the drugs most used in the Mitchell’s Plain area are dagga, tik and mandrax, as well as unga, a heroin-based drug.

“The police have a clear mandate, and that is, if you are found to be in possession of an illegal substance, you will be arrested,” said Captain Williams.

Mr Isaacs said because of the high drug-related crime in the area, Mitchell’s Plain has been called the “drug capital”. “I don’t live in a drug capital. I am a resident of Mitchell’s Plain. This is my community. We are battling, yes, but good people come from this community. Families are being destroyed. This is a drive to address this issue.”

Most residents who attended the march were residents directly affected by drug abuse, and were desperate for solutions.

During the march, a resident spoke to the Plainsman about her sons who were on drugs. She said she was at her wits’ end, as she does not have the heart to report them to the police and have them incarcerated.

She said she has younger children, and she feels guilty because she is so worried about her sons that she feels she cannot be a mother to the school-going ones. The woman said she has sleepless nights over the issue and is encouraged by local social workers to exercise tough love, but she cannot bring herself to do it.

Linda Hartzenberg, an elderly woman from Beacon Valley, said her daughter has been using heroin from the age of 13. Her daughter is now 36. Ms Hartzenberg said she is physically ill because her daughter drives her insane. “I am asthmatic, and every time I stress, my chest closes up. The doctor said I am chronic now because of stress.”

She said she supported the campaign because she desperately needs to find a way to deal with her daughter’s substance abuse. She still works, and she looks after her daughter’s six children. “ My home is empty because my daughter steals everything.”

Ms Hartzenberg said her daughter has not sought help and she doesn’t have the heart to put her in jail. “I even threatened her, but it doesn’t work. I am getting old. I can’t anymore. Sometimes I go to the toilet at work to sit and cry.”

Denise Cameron has a son who is on tik. She said her son uses her name to buy and get money from neighbours to feed his addiction.

She said that although he does not steal from her, the neighbours are angry at her because they come to look for their money. “I am desperately looking for a way out. I have blood cancer (leukaemia), and my illness has worsened because of the stress.”

Community activist and resident, Lynn Phillips, said it is heartbreaking to see how much of the next generation the community of Mitchell’s Plain has lost to drugs. “I support this campaign because I want to assist our youth. We need to approach this another way. Young people who use drugs are being incarcerated, yet drug dealers are not. The young ones get caught. We need to support them and not treat them as criminals.

“Our children are not prison material. I personally experienced a young boy being arrested and sent to Pollsmoor where he was beaten, sodomised and traumatised. He is still using.

“Drug use is a health issue and not a criminal issue. We need to change the policy.”

She added: “I strongly suggest the courts should look at premeditated murder for drug dealers. They know what the drugs contain and it is killing our children.”

Dr Robert Rapiti, a community doctor who is passionate about combating drug abuse in the area, has offered training to residents who want to start support groups for families who are affected by drug abuse.

Dr Rapiti could not attend the march, but supported the campaign because he believes that addiction is an illness that needs to be treated. However, he said drug users who commit crime should face the law. “We can’t use drugs as an excuse for our actions, then too many crimes will be excused.”

He said part of the problem was families in Mitchell’s Plain who have working or absent parents, and children end up being left to fend for themselves. This results in truancy, or children giving in to peer pressure. The fight against drugs is a lifetime battle, but we need to start somewhere.”

Dr Rapiti started support groups in Mitchell’s Plain, which run from the St John Bosco Catholic Church in Amandel Street, Westridge, on Saturday afternoons, from 3pm to 5pm, and from the Orion Church in Caravelle Road, Rocklands, on Thursday morning from 10am to noon, to help parents of drug users understand the addiction and help them deal with the issue.

He himself has a son who uses drugs, and said he has come to terms with the fact that he is sick. “As a parent, I don’t have to feel guilty. My research helped me understand the problem. But the sad part is that I just have to wait … Wait for him to be arrested, or wait for him to die.”