Rhys Evans, Director at leading drug and alcohol testing equipment supplier, ALCO-Safe. Picture: Supplied

South Africa is struggling against the rising tide of drug use, especially among the youth of our country. 

Recent statistics are hard to come by, however, the latest report from the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU) shows that an alarming 21-28 percent of patients treated for substance abuse in 2016-7 were under the age of 20 years old - and those are merely the figures of people who have undergone treatment, not taking into account the many who never make it to this point.

An article from last year cites South Africans as among the top 10 narcotics and alcohol abusers in the world, also stating that a previous SACENDU report said that the average age of experimentation in South Africa is 12 years old. Yes, that means that children start experimenting with drugs and alcohol in primary school, already.

Though worrying, it makes ones wonder what causes lead children to experiment with drugs, and what the effects that drugs have on their health - both mental and physical, education and future. More importantly, what is being done to curb these disturbing numbers, and potentially put a stop to a practice that is detrimental to the future generations of our country?

Rhys Evans, Director at leading drug and alcohol testing equipment supplier, ALCO-Safe, says that he has seen a marked increase in the number of schools seeking drug testing equipment, since drug testing at schools became legal in 2008.

“We are increasingly approached by schools to give talks and provide drug testing equipment, for a broad spectrum of narcotics. However, the majority of these schools are private, where funds are less of an issue and parental involvement often pushes for testing to be implemented.

“At government schools, we have found testing to be considerably lower. This could stem from a number of reasons, including lack of funding, poor education around drug use for educators, scholars and parents alike, and lack of sufficient support around testing methods and rehabilitation,” says Evans. 

“Unfortunately, it’s often the schools in lower income areas that suffer the highest number of substance abuse.”


Testing aside, the causes for substance abuse seem to be similar across the board, whether private or government school and regardless of income levels.

Dr Joel Shapiro, Clinical Psychologist at Randburg’s Akeso Crescent Clinic, says that most drug use stems from an underlying emotional problem.

“The core trigger for drug use is often an emotional one. A sense of alienation, disconnectedness, loneliness and lack of normalcy arises often in the years following puberty,” says Dr. Shapiro. 

“These can stem from multiple sources, such as an unstable home environment, family worries, a lack of support from social groups or communities, a lack of acceptance among peers - perceived or real, or even a genetic predisposition towards depression.”


Many adult drug abusers, even those that undergo treatment, fail to entirely give up the habit and often relapse, going on to become hard drug users for the rest of their lives and either ending up in jail for drug related crimes, homeless, or in some form of institution. However, there are also many users who are able to rehabilitate, going on to live normal, sober lives.

 At a scholar level, however, the chances for developing full addiction appear incrementally higher, and the effects, further reaching.

Dr. Shapiro explains that, beyond detracting from learning and impeding a scholars ability to properly function in a school environment, drug abuse can also lead to other psychological problems.

“Substance abuse in a young adult often leads to tendencies of lying and secrecy, as well as antisocial behaviour beyond their circle of users. Drugs may cause an underlying genetic depression to manifest in a scholar. Overuse of substances like marijuana can lead to toxic psychosis, lack of concentration and even major depression. Marijuana renders a sedative effect, making users passive and often depressed.”

Rights and responsibilities

Evans says that drug testing at school is a controversial topic, mostly because there is a lack of knowledge around the rights of the school versus the rights of the learners, and the proper processes to follow to ensure both are protected.

“People between the ages of 12 and 18 are naturally wary of authority, and tests - random or regular - are seen as an infringement on their privacy. Testing needs to be approached with sensitivity to engender a feeling of trust, so that children are encouraged to seek help if they are tested as positive for drug use, or that they do not feel violated if they test negative,” explains Evans.

 The best process to follow, according to Evans, is to begin with raising awareness on drug use and the possible consequences, both as a result of drug use and as a result of a positive test. 

A policy needs to be outlined around what action to take for a positive test, including rehabilitative measures, support offered, and any disciplinary action. Included in this policy must be a process on parental involvement, as it is important - and legally required - to gain the approval of parents for any treatment 

Testing policies need to be clearly communicated to learners and parents, along with the reasons for implementing testing.