13 August 2008

Everything about drugs

Read our guide to dagga, Ecstasy, crack, and other substances abused in SA, what they look like, the signs and symptoms associated with each, and possible treatment.

It is relatively easy to bring drugs into the country. Slimming tablets, pain killers, cigarettes and cough mixture can be just as dangerous as cocaine or ecstacy.

Substance abuse in South Africa

The statistics for substance abuse in South Africa are staggeringly high.

Alcohol consumption is extremely high in South Africa. The MRC reports that there is a liquor outlet for every 190 persons in the country.

South Africans consume well over 5 billion litres of alcohol per year, according to a study by the MRC. It is tempting to simply divide this amongst the adult population of South Africa, but research conducted by the MRC, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) all point to the fact that the consumption of alcohol is not evenly distributed amongst the adult population.

The overall prevalence of alcohol misuse is likely to be as much as 30% among certain groups and as low as 5% in others and is dependent on factors such as age, gender, socio-economic status and degree of urbanisation, according to the MRC report on substance abuse in South Africa. It also states that 70 percent of the absolute alcohol consumed in South Africa is malt or sorghum beer.

Fifty percent of people who die from unnatural causes have blood alcohol levels above the legal limit.

But alcohol is not the only abused substance in South Africa. The use of narcotics, such as Mandrax and dagga is also extremely high. Abuse of substances such as cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy seems to be on the increase. Border controls are not strict enough. Large consignments of illegal drugs from the East, South America and other African countries are entering the country.

The Organisation Doctors for Life, reports that five percent of sentenced prisoners have been convicted for drug-related offences. Crack cocaine use is increasing rapidly in Cape Town, whereas heroin is becoming very prevalent in the Gauteng area. LSD use is on the increase in the Port Elizabeth area.

The HSRC reported that just under half of all male prisoners reported taking alcohol and/or drugs immediately before or after committing the offence for which they were imprisoned.

Drug abuse trends in SA

Studies by the MRC reveal the extent and nature of drug abuse in South Africa:

  • Ecstasy, LSD and Speed is more commonly used by younger persons as is the inhaling of solvents.
  • Dagga, Mandrax and glue are mainly used by people in disadvantaged communities, while cocaine and Ecstasy is more commonly used by middle and upper class people.
  • Dagga, Mandrax, alcohol and crack are frequently used by sex workers.
  • Excluding alcohol, the most common ingestion of drugs in South Africa is via smoking.
  • Local research has found rates of foetal alcohol syndrome in excess of 30 per 1000 in certain high risk communities, at least three times higher than the highest rates reported in high risk communities in the USA.

The MRC estimates that the crime committed in order to support drug users’ habits is in excess of R10 billion per year.

What is addiction?

This is a hotly debated issue. Generally, when people speak of addiction, what they are referring to is a person’s continued use of a drug despite the fact that it is harmful to their health and their general ability to function adequately.

When someone has been taking an opiate on a regular basis, the brain adapts to this and changes its circuitry. When the opiate is no longer taken, inhibited neurons start functioning again. This causes an imbalance of chemicals in the brain which interacts with the nervous system to produce classic withdrawal symptoms.

The reasons for the abuse of any type of drug are:

  • Habit
  • To alter mood states
  • To improve health
  • To cope with personal, social or interpersonal situations
  • For enjoyment, taste, according to the MRC.

Different types of substances

Basically three types of substances are abused:

  • Opiates: This group includes heroin, morphine and opium. They mimic the brain’s feel-good hormones, called endorphins, and all bring about a state of peaceful euphoria.
  • Amphetamines: They stimulate the nervous system. Cocaine, nicotine, Ecstasy and speed fall into this group. These are the so-called ‘uppers’.
  • The downers, namely alcohol and barbiturates. These are nervous system depressants. Alcohol is legal, but can produce very similar effects to mind-altering substances. Alcohol detoxification can be quite dramatic. In severe cases can resemble detoxification from heroin.


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