7 May 2002

Study reveals tenous link between drugs and crime

South Africa's drug problems are still very much segmented along ethnic, gender and geographic lines according to a new study aimed at understanding the causal link between drug use and crime in the country. The national cross-sectional study undertaken by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) showed that blacks are least likely to use drugs. Whites are more likely to use cocaine, and coloureds (mixed race) and Indians are most likely to use the depressant Mandrax.

Undertaken at 146 police stations in three of the country's metropolitan centres - Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town -researchers interviewed 2,859 people within 48 hours of being arrested. They were asked a battery of questions about previous drug use, and were expected to provide urine samples for testing.

The study titled 'Drugs and Crime in South Africa', aims to forecast trends in drug use and provide information needed for more effective interventions in the fight against narcotics. "Up until now, very little has been done into the drugs-crime link in South Africa. The study attempts to address this gap in the research," Antoinette Louw, the head of the Crime and Justice Programme at ISS, told IRIN. Louw added that although the final results showed that 46 percent of all arrestees in the study tested positive for some drug, it did not conclusively prove that drugs are a major driver of crime in South Africa. "Ideally, it would be more telling if the sample extended beyond arrestees to give us a clear picture of the correlation between drug use and crime," she added.

Seventeen percent of the respondents said they were under the influence of drugs, or drugs and alcohol, at the time the offence was committed.

The study also clarified that while race and class categories provides a convenient shorthand for South Africa's drug problems, a more accurate description of South Africa's distinct drug "cultures" was needed. Each of these cultures, the study suggested, has a "market mechanism" built around it.

According to the study, cannabis is consumed by people of all ethnic groups throughout the country. Forty percent of arrestees tested positive for the drug. The city showing the highest level of use was Durban, which is near some of the primary production areas, where 43 percent tested positive. The producers are an army of small farmers, mostly poor and black, who supplement their subsistence agriculture with an easy to grow cash crop.

South Africa is believed to be one of the largest producers of marijuana in the world. However, despite the frequency of use, very little additional crime is associated with the cannabis market. "The supply and the demand are both immense, and the stakes are not high enough to merit such violence. Costs are low so even habitual users are not compelled to engage in crime to get to their drugs," the study concluded. The study also showed that the offence profile of those who tested positive for cannabis was about the same as those who did not. However, the sample group showed that cannabis users were slightly more likely to be arrested for violent crimes. Like all drug users, they also were more likely to have a prior arrest.

Particular to South Africa, Mandrax is mainly used by the coloured gangs of the Western Cape and the working class in Indian communities in Durban. Mandrax (methaqualone and diaphenhydramine or diazepam)is crushed and smoked with a mixture of tobacco and cannabis, usually in a broken bottleneck or pipe. In some of the biggest consumer communities, Mandrax is controlled by gangs. Many of these gangs have existed as criminal organisations long before Mandrax. That suggests the drug, while presently an important source of income, is not at the root of gangsterism. Most gangsters, the study added, consume and sell the drug as part of their larger counterculture. Mandrax, unlike cannabis is, however, a dependence producing substance, which means that users may feel compelled to engage in criminal activity in order to secure the drug.

"Despite the strong empirical connections between Mandrax and other forms of crime, those who tested positive for Mandrax in this study were not arrested for a distinctive set of crimes. Over one quarter of those testing positive for Mandrax were arrested for drug-related crimes. Otherwise, their offence profile does not differ from that of the other arrestees," the study read.

Crack cocaine is a fairly new phenomenon in South Africa with the first arrest only in 1995, a decade after the drug peaked in the United States, the study said. It suggested this was due to a lack of a "community of pushers resident in the country".

This vacuum was, according to the study, filled when Nigerian nationals arrived in central Johannesburg after the 1994 democratic elections. Some had international connections to procure the drug and experience to know how to market it. They settled in residential hotels, where they found themselves next door to sex workers, who were largely addicted to Mandrax at that time. The study said that this connection became the basis for a crack cocaine market that has grown significantly over the years. However, none of the 57 Nigerians in the sample tested positive for the drug. This was attributed to the fact that Nigerian dealers are not users but instead prefer to "treat crack as a business".

Despite the inference that Nigerians were involved in other criminal activity, such as fraud and dealing in stolen property, none of the Nigerians in the sample had any previous criminal records. Crack cocaine, according to the study, is the choice drug of sex workers who represent the core of the demand. Overall, more whites tested positive for cocaine than any other group. White females in the sample tested highest of all, with 65 percent testing positive. Based on the locations of their arrests, most of the women were probably sex workers, the study said.

What this study shows is that drug use is common among people arrested for committing a wide range of crimes, although Louw pointed out that the greatest danger with a study is a tendency to exaggerate the significance of the findings. Louw said: "The problem with previous anti-drug policy campaigns is that they have been too generalised. A kind of one size fits all. Although, this study is inconclusive about the link between drug use and crime, it does shed some much needed light on who is taking what kind of drug and in which part of the country certain drugs are more prevalent." (IRIN)

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