Working At Cross-Purposes - The Problem Of Tackling Drugs In Zambia

In May, over 300 people were arrested in the notorious Lusaka slum of Chibolya. Chibolya, rife with violence and a haven for drug abusers, has been a thorn in the side of the city for generations. Speaking to the Lusaka Times, the Lusaka Province Commissioner of Police spoke of his dedication to eradicating drugs entirely from Chibolya. “We want sanity in this city”, he stated. Big words. However, while such large scale police operations are undoubtedly necessary if Zambia’s growing drug problem is to be dealt with, it is perhaps concerning that the other aspects of a successful anti-drugs program – rehabilitation, adequate healthcare, and education – appear to be absent.

Needle Sharing and AIDS

Zambia’s drug problem is well-established, and rising steadily. This is naturally of serious concern for those with an interest in Zambian health. Drug abuse causes a plethora of serious health problems, both mental and physical, as a direct result of the substances themselves. Perhaps even more concerning is the indirect health consequences of drug abuse. As ‘Avert’ grimly points out, “Zambia…has one of the world’s most devastating HIV and AIDS epidemics”, and the spread of injectable narcotics can only exacerbate the crisis. Needle sharing amongst drug addicts is widely thought to be the second most common method of HIV transmission – rising rapidly to first most common in areas where injectable drug abuse is rampant. Programs like needle exchanges which have had some success at lessening needle sharing, and innovations like the syringes with colored plungers produced by Exchange Supplies (designed to “reduce accidental sharing”) are unlikely to be welcomed in Zambia. Law enforcement officials tend to be more concerned with cutting down criminal activity than they are with public health, and would undoubtedly see such health-based initiatives as facilitating drug use. 


Environmental Issues

The poor conditions and nutritional deficiencies which are common in places like Chibolya certainly do not help the problem. The University of Utah describe environmental factors as one of the key triggers for drug abuse, citing poor environmental conditions as among the depressing factors which may induce people to turn to drugs in the first place. Furthermore, they state that “if a person’s community has a favorable attitude towards drug use, firearms and crime, their risk is increased”. Certainly this appears to describe well the situation in Chibolya and places of its ilk. While the police periodically undertake somewhat heavy-handed raids in these areas and arrest many of the people they find there for drug offences, the overall culture of these slums remains unaffected. Indeed, often it becomes even more firmly ingrained as people begin to perceive themselves as in a war against the police – an ‘us vs them’ situation which causes them to cleave even more vociferously to their way of life (and the drug use inherent therein). Nor is there much hope for those who attempt to get clean. Given the environmental factors already present, the odds are stacked against them. Even the poor nutritional standards within places like Chibolya can influence their success – Rehabs.com note that recovering addicts with substandard diets have “a greater risk of relapse”.


Rehab and The Law

What options are available to those wishing to get clean, despite the hardships it entails? Well, not many. Part of the problem is that drug charges carry severe penalties under Zambian law. Trafficking, possessing, manufacturing, and selling illegal drugs are all prohibited and carry lengthy jail terms if a conviction is obtained – but, unlike in many nations, taking the drugs without possession or other misdemeanor also carries a jail term in Zambia. According to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, “Any person who, without lawful authority, takes a narcotic drug or psychotropic substance by smoking, injecting into his body, sniffing, chewing, drinking or otherwise administering such drug or substance shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years”. Indeed, even conspiracy to take drugs without actually taking them, or solicitation of drugs constitute a crime. In effect, this means that drug users are reluctant to come forward in search of help for fear of arrest – or of betraying the community from which they obtained the drugs. In 2011, the BBC reported upon Chibolya’s drug problem. “What Zambian would go there for fear of being criminalized?”, one interviewee said when they asked about rehab facilities.


A Glimmer Of Hope?

It does seem, however, that there is light at the end of this particularly dark and depressing tunnel. The Drug Enforcement Commission – until now focused firmly upon a militant war against drugs in Zambia – does seem to be turning its attention to rehabilitation and anti-drugs education initiatives. According to their website, they are “currently constructing a rehabilitation centre to be used by drug dependent persons”. Could this perhaps indicate a growing realization that, for the drug problem to be truly and comprehensively tackled, efforts need to be made to wean existing drug addicts off the substances? Is this an acknowledgment that the entire culture of drugs needs to be addressed, that the problem needs to be tackled in its entirety – not merely subjected to heavy-handed police raids and criminal proceedings? Let us hope so.

Articles contributed by Jen Glover. Posted on 16 August, 2014