Drug use is a politically expedient target for people to focus on instead of addressing the real imbalances and inequalities in our society, says an expert.

In a newsletter that reaches 700 000 medical aid members, a health insurance company presented “shocking South African drug statistics”. But Africa Check researcher, Vinayak Bhardwaj, says these aren’t strictly factual

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 newsletter this month that reaches more than 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, paints 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 its sources. But despite saying they would reply, we have not yet received a response.

Claim

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

Verdict – incorrect

This claim has a long history. The statement that about 15% of South Africans have 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 chairman of South Africa’s Central Drug Authority and pharmacology lecturer at University of Witwatersrand, David Bayever, is 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, they did not have information on the prevalence of drug use in South Africa’s population. The only figures they collected were the number of people being treated at government-funded and at 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 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 was 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 had “no idea where the assertion that 60% of the crimes nationally were related to substance abuse” came from.

He pointed out that while there was a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and interpersonal violence such as murders and assaults in South Africa, he was unaware of research that showed that certain crime was 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 UN world drug report named South Africa as one of the drug capitals of the world.”

Verdict – incorrect

The UN 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 had not received a reply at the time of publication.

Shelly said drug abuse had to be seen in context as its drivers were usually socio-economic, 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

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”.

But the spokesman for the revenue service, Sandile Memela, said the figures they kept only relate to the trade in narcotics. This was based on actual narcotic confiscations by the police and their estimate of their 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 was 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 health care costs, lost productivity, the cost of road traffic accidents and the costs of responding to crime fuelled by alcohol abuse.