In 1999 the national government introduced its National Drug Master Plan. The five key areas it planned to tackle were crime, youth, a commitment to health and welfare, research, and international involvement. While there is no doubt that arresting a drug lord is an important step in curtailing supplies of narcotics, it is not the main answer.
When the 1999 plan failed to achieve its objectives, a review was conducted and the 2013-2017 National Drug Master Plan was released. The main changes it sought to introduce were the following:
1. Devising solutions from the bottom up rather than from the top
2. Shifting from a national to a community approach to devising strategy (from a one size fits all to a community-specific solution)
3. Shifting from supply reduction to primary prevention in an integrated strategy
4. Developing and applying evidence-based solutions wherever possible
5. Introducing a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) approach to the formulation of the results to be achieved, i.e. impact, outcomes, outputs and targets
6. Aligning the NDMP and national and provincial department drug master plans with an M&E approach
7. Applying research and development to meet the predicted needs and future changes in the field of substance abuse
8. Reporting in terms of M&E needs instead of activities carried out; and extending the reporting base beyond the CDA and its supporting infrastructure by including non-CDA sources and linked databases.
Has the new plan brought about any significant change? From what I see, the problem of drug abuse remains as sinister as ever. The starting point, in my view, is recognising the fact that drug abuse by an individual quickly becomes a very serious brain disease. Narcotics alter the way in which the brain works. This alteration is often pronounced and prolonged and leads to anti-social and criminal behaviour.
Researchers using brain imaging scans of addicts have drawn attention to physical changes in the part of the brain involving learning, the making of decisions and the use of judgment. Once these are impaired severely, the individual is no longer in control of his / her behaviour.
Another important part of the brain that is affected is that which deals with pleasure. The initial feeling of getting high and feeling pleasure subsides with repeated use of a drug or drugs. At that point, a pathological pursuit of rewards occurs and addiction sets in. This can happen very quickly or over a period of time.
If more people understood the problem with getting hooked on drugs and the effect it has on the structure and functioning of the brain, more young people would become hesitant experimenting with drugs. Our brains are wired to make us repeat the activity that gave us the initial euphoria, again and again, leading to it becoming a habit. Drugs make the brain produce extra dopamine and in this way, people are induced into a false belief that taking drugs will lead to endless pleasure and is preferable to something else that is healthier and long-lasting. This is a grave error.
The US Nation Institute on Drug Abuse concludes that drugs “hijack” that part of the brain that deals with reward and pleasure. Uncontrollable cravings for the euphoria initially experienced and the drug that provided it will lead to an individual returning to the use of that drug and in the process losing self-control. Those who misuse and abuse drugs “feel flat, without motivation, lifeless, and/or depressed.” The drive to take drugs becomes a vicious cycle. Worse still, the addict will need to take larger amounts of the drug in a hopeless attempt to recapture the high that was first experienced.
There is an alternative to using drugs to get pleasure. This requires learning how to enhance the release of dopamine in the brain through games, social activities, exercise, singing, dancing, acting, laughing, listening to music, enjoying jokes, solving puzzles, listening to stories, reading, meditating, walking, hiking, cooking, eating, and intimacy amongst other things.
Teaching young people to find pleasure through mental processes and physical and aesthetic activities, which they are in full control of, is infinitely better than allowing their brains to be “hijacked”. Getting addicted to drugs will inevitably and tragically mess up their lives and those of their loved ones as well.
It will be an interesting experiment for educators to be trained to use laughter as a teaching tool that is routinely used and to encourage children to learn to laugh loud and long. When children have a better sense of self and learn how to seek enjoyment and pleasure from healthy activities they may very well desist from experimenting with drugs for a high and getting “brain-hijacked” for good in the process.
The government must seek the path less trodden to achieve the success that has been eluding it for two decades.
Farouk Cassim served as COPE’s Senior Parliamentary Researcher for a period of 6 years and played an integral part in the development of policies.