Do 15% of SA’s population have a drug problem? We fact-check 4 ‘shocking stats’

Comments 7

In a newsletter that goes to 700,000 medical aid members a health insurance company presented “shocking South African drug statistics”. But are these claims factually accurate?

The apparent drug-related murder of a respected media personality Hope Zinde has reignited a countrywide discussion about drug abuse in South Africa.

Her son has been formally charged with her murder and possession of drugs. Media reports have linked his actions to a drug addiction he is said to be suffering.  

But how widespread are drug abuse and dependence in South Africa?

A June 2016 newsletter that goes out to over 700,000 principal medical aid members of Tiger Brands, Compcare Wellness and the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) alerted them to “shocking South African drug statistics”.

In the Heartbeat newsletter, South African medical insurance schemes’ administrator Universal Healthcare painted a dire picture.

It suggests rampant drug-related crime with 15% of South Africans having a “drug problem”, that the country is home to “one of the world’s drug capitals” and that drug abuse costs the country R20 billion a year.

But are these claims true?

We asked Universal Healthcare for their sources. But despite saying that they will reply we have not yet received a response.

Claim

“15% of South Africa’s population have a drug problem.”

Verdict

incorrect
A man smokes a marijuana cigarette outside the Cape Town high court in support of a court application to decriminalise marijuana in December 2015. Photo: AFP/RODGER BOSCH
A man smokes a marijuana cigarette outside the Cape Town high court in support of a court application to decriminalise marijuana in December 2015. Photo: AFP/RODGER BOSCH

This claim has a long history. The statement that about 15% of South Africans having a drug problem has been quoted extensively, in a government press release, news headline, addiction rehabilitation groups and among religious drug support groups.

The earliest mention we could trace was in a book published in 2009 titled “Pan-African Issues in Drugs and Drug Control: An International Perspective”.

The current deputy chair of South Africa’s Central Drug Authority and pharmacology lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, David Bayever, was quoted as saying “15 % of South Africans have a drug problem and this figure is expected to rise”.

Bayever told Africa Check that “the stats are the drug authority’s figures, not mine” and that he would have to contact another board member, Dr Ray Eberlain, who was responsible for putting together the statistics.

Eberlain referred to figures compiled by the South African Community Epidemiology of Drug Use (SACENDU), based at the Medical Research Council of South Africa. He also referred us to the 2013-2017 National Drug Master Plan.

But a SACENDU scientist, Siphokazi Dada, told Africa Check that they do not have information on the prevalence of drug use in South Africa’s population. The only figures they collect are the number of people being treated at government-funded as well as private rehabilitation centres. Currently, SACENDU collects data from 70% of all treatment centres in the country.

The most recent SACENDU report, for the first half of 2015, includes information from 75 rehabilitation centres and 10,936 in and outpatients. For most of the patients (32%) cannabis was their primary drug of abuse, followed by alcohol at 23%.

The drug master plan does not cite nationally representative studies of drug abuse in South Africa.

South Africa has no regular representative surveys on substance abuse. There has only been one nationally representative epidemiological study of alcohol, drug and psychiatric disorders, carried out between 2002 and 2004 and mainly to diagnose mental disorders in adults.

The study provided figures of lifetime prevalence for any substance use disorders, including alcohol. It showed that 13.3% of adult South Africans met the criteria for a substance use disorder, including alcohol, at some time in their life.

“Without alcohol, that figure dropped to around 4.5%,” Shaun Shelley, a research expert in the addiction division of the department of mental health and psychiatry at the University of Cape Town, told Africa Check.

Over a 12 month period, the figure was 5.8% (including alcohol disorders) and about 1.5% for drugs alone.

Claim

“According to South African Police Service figures, 60% of crimes nationally were related to substance abuse.”

Verdict

unproven

An analyst of crime, violence and crowd behaviour, Dr Chris de Kock, told Africa Check that it is impossible to determine scientifically if the perpetrator of every crime was under the influence of substances at the time of arrest or committed the crime in order to buy the substances. That is because the investigating officer is not required to establish if alcohol and drugs played a role.

The head of the governance, crime and justice division of the Institute for Security Studies, Gareth Newham, told Africa Check he has “no idea where the assertion that 60% of the crimes nationally were related to substance abuse” comes from.

He pointed out that while there is a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and interpersonal violence such as murders and assaults in South Africa, he was unaware of research that shows that certain crime is the result of the use of various types of drugs.

He further cautioned against making such claims. “Each drug affects the user differently and to make blanket statements that are not based on empirical evidence is not useful.”

Claim

“The recently released United Nations world drug report named South Africa as one of the drug capitals of the world.”

Verdict

incorrect

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crimes publishes the World Drug Report every year. The most recent one does not make any such mention of South Africa, though.

Researcher Shaun Shelly told Africa Check that he has never seen such a statement in any of the UN office for drug and crimes’ recent research reports. We contacted the UN office to confirm this but have not received a reply at the time of publication.

Shelly said drug abuse must be seen in context as its drivers are usually socioeconomic, and often driven by policies, such as criminalisation.

“Drug use is really a symptom, not a primary cause of many of South Africa’s issues, but it is a politically expedient target for people to focus on instead of addressing the real imbalances and inequalities in our society,” he said.

Claim

“Drug abuse is costing South Africa R20 billion a year.”

Verdict

unproven
A member of the Cape Town metro police holds marijuana seized in Manenburg outside Cape Town in August 2013. Photo: AFP/RODGER BOSCH
A member of the Cape Town metro police holds marijuana seized in Manenburg outside Cape Town in August 2013. Photo: AFP/RODGER BOSCH

This claim dates back to the central drug authority’s National Drug Master Plan for 2006-2011, but it did not contain a reference.

In the National Drug Master Plan for 2013-2017, the authority stated that figures from the South African Revenue Service show that the “known direct cost of illicit drug use in 2005 was roughly R101 000 million”. (R100 billion.)

But the spokesman for the revenue service, Sandile Memela, said the figures they keep only relate to the trade in narcotics. This is based on actual narcotic confiscations by the police and their estimate of its street value. Memela told us that according to their record, the police confiscated narcotics to the value R265 million in 697 busts across the country in 2015.

Memela said the figures “should not be misconstrued as an indication of the actual trade in illegal narcotics”.

Calculating the cost of substance abuse and independence is an “inexact science”, Professor Charles Parry, a substance abuse policy analyst at the alcohol, tobacco and other drug unit of the Medical Research Council, told Africa Check.

He pointed us to a South African Medical Journal study estimating the tangible costs of alcohol harm at R37.9 billion in 2009. This included healthcare costs, lost productivity, the cost of road traffic accidents and the costs of responding to crime fuelled by alcohol abuse.

 

Additional reading

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Comment on this report

Comments 7
  1. By David Barber

    I have been using these stats myself as they come from “reliable sources”. However seeing as you pretty much disprove these stats, what are the stats then. Because as a substance abuse expert we can clearly see that SA is in a bad state re drug abuse. How can we obtain up to date reliable stats. Who is willing to pay for and reliably measure the current substance abuse issue in our country?

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  2. By Jody

    Good day, I need to agree with David. If you have disproved the “facts” then what indeed are the “Facts” i too am a addictions expert and use these stats as they are listed on reputable information sites. Being on the street everyday i can tell you the problem is big enough that i have never questioned these stats and IN FACT have thought that the issue is worse. Looking at the consumption of Liquor, illicit street drugs and prescription medication (the socially acceptable addiction) i suspect that 15% is pretty spot on………… If not modest

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  3. By Charles Parry

    In 2000 we found that 45% of persons arrested for a variety of crimes in Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban tested positive for a variety of illicit drugs. Drugs (and alcohol) are related to a large proportion of crimes in a variety of ways … people commit crimes to feed drug habits, some take drugs to give them courage to commit crimes, some crimes are related to systemic issues related to the drug trade and some crimes are defined by substance use, e.g. drunk driving. This work was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alchol Abuse (2003)

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  4. By Jaco

    I am no expert. But I have lived in a few mining towns and even small towns not close to metropoles hard drugs( excluding dagga) are easily available. Amongst school leavers, kids from good homes and young people in good jobs. 15% if its heavy proplem. Higher for problem en much higher for users. And this is only my experience in white middle class comunities. And I certainly think its a climing figure.

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  5. By Grant Mellett

    As a former herion, crack, ecstasy, meth,lsd, mushroom, mandrax and still a cannabis user. I cannot confirm these findings but have to say that in my experience these sound severely underestimated. I also went to both private and public schools and found that most experts on drug use have kids getting high at home! (This is not a stated fact relax!) the fact of the mattet is what you know about will at best probably only be about 25% of the existing problem, in a very generous estimation. Did these surveys take into acount food addiction(as this has a chemical response on the brain, if misused or used as a way to get a ‘high’ is this not a drug). 100% of South Africans use drugs, these may be prescribed, herbal or spiritual concoctions, natural or man made. All of us choose to alter our consciousness at different times and in different ways, stop discriminating against use and differnt types of drugs, start finding ways to tax and use drug use! The stats no longer matter, go outside in any town in South Africa and spend a hour seeking out drugs, then you will see how obtainable it is, hence if it is easily obtainable there is very likely a high demand being that certain drugs are illegal.

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  6. By David Roppo

    Drug and alcohol addiction is rife in nearly every country and society around the globe. I am particularly worried about our teens and young adults since the are the future. If we are going to significantly reduce teen drug and alcohol abuse, we must educate parents about the influence they have, and the role they must play, to Foster addiction-free kids

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  7. By Marcel Gil

    In reading the article and responses above, and through personal experience, I would like to suggest a possible source of error in reporting such statistics as facts. Most importantly, statistics must always be taken in context. The view of South Africa’s drug problem sampled from a prison population versus an upmarket subburban population versus averaging the two will give very different results. Secondly, what are you defining as “problem” or “addiction”? If a teen goes to a night club and uses an ecstacy tablet on three occassions in one year, do you include him in the drug problem statistic or not? Does he need to use it every weekend to be included? Does he need to steal to support his habit to be included in the statistic?

    Do not beleive that I am downplaying the subatance abuse problem in South Africa, it is most certainly a problem for many South Africans and their families and communities. In my work, I have found that due to the complexity of statistics (some of which I have touched on above), I have more or less come to ignore the statistics. It is irrelevant whether 10, 12 or 15% of South African’s have a drug addiction, my concern is that there are South African’s which need help and even if that means only 1% – that is already serious enough.

    There is an interesting book titled “How to Lie with Statistics” which if you read will drive my point home. Always be critical of statistics.

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