Children at primary school level are smoking dagga.

Cape Town - “I don’t want to smoke dagga anymore.”

These are the chilling words of a 9-year-old Cape Town boy, who, instead of playing games with his friends, has spiralled into a life of drug use.

Winston* and Justin* live on the Cape Flats and share a love of soccer. They are also addicted to dagga.

“I started sniffing glue when I was 9-years-old,” Justin told Weekend Argus.

“My friends gave me the glue and I sniffed it.”

By the age of 10, he had started smoking cigarettes, and by 12, had graduated to dagga.

Winston recently dabbled with the drug for the first time at a nearby park after his 16-year-old friend handed him a joint.

Both boys said their older friends buy dagga on their behalf.

Although the claim they don’t want to smoke anymore, they admitted to finding it hard to say no to their older friends, for fear of being bullied or intimidated.

“They say: ‘Jy moet rook’ (You must smoke),” said Winston.

“I don’t want to say no to my friends. My friends force me to smoke,” Justin said.

The smoking has already had an impact on their health.

Winston said he felt tired and sleepy whenever he smoked dagga, and this has impacted on his passion - soccer.

The boys live in a community plagued by drugs and gang violence, but have dreams of making something of their lives.

Justin, who is 13 and still in Grade 3, said he has aspirations of becoming a lawyer, while Winston wants to be a policeman.

However, Dr Shaquir Salduker, board member of the Psychiatry Management Group, said dagga use at such a young age is harmful.

“There is convincing evidence that it can affect the young brain - up to 19 and 20 year olds - in a permanent way making them develop abnormally."

"It's especially bad in a vulnerable person who has a genetic predisposition to a brain illness."

"Overall, it's a cognitive depressant in young people and this stage of their lives, when they need to be cognitively focused on education, it is particularly harmful.”

Judy Strickland, founder of the Hope House Counselling Centre, said her organisation runs prevention programmes in schools in the city to help children make better choices.

She said it also works with families to help parents understand how their drug and alcohol use impacts on their children.

Valdi van Reenen-Le Roux, executive director of the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, said Justin and Winston were being initiated into gang culture by the older boys “without them realising it”.

“Their addiction enables the older boys to exert power over them and later they have no choice but to join the gangs and/or participate in violent acts.”

She added that many young children, especially boys, are also using drugs as a coping mechanism.

“It is a negative, destructive coping mechanism. Clients have told us they turn to drugs to deal with anger, hurt and anxiety. Traumatic bereavement coupled with an inability to deal with a violent death is also a factor they mention.”

Van Reenen-Le Roux added many were not aware their addiction is linked to trauma they may have experienced.

“Children who have witnessed domestic violence, are neglected and/or abused or witness a murder or attempted murder, can turn to drugs to numb the trauma responses.”

The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) is aware of pupils using drugs.

Jessica Shelver, spokesperson for Education MEC Debbie Schäfer, said random drug testing is also conducted at some schools.

“If the pupil has tested positive for liquor or illegal drugs, a discussion must be held with the parent so that he or she may understand the consequences,” she said.

Shelver added that the department has a number of programmes that focus on drug education.

“The WCED Safe School substance abuse project aims to capacitate schools in dealing with learners under the influence or at risk of using a substance. The training programme includes basic information on drug detection techniques, peer counselling and specialised fields of drug control."

"The key goal of the project is to capacitate the educators with the tool of drug testing to ensure that parents who experiment with substance abuse are detected early and placed in developmental programmes to address the abuse, improve the performance of the identified schools through targeted assistance and to provide appropriate support to schools."

She said that between January and June this year, 360 primary school pupils were tested, with 229 of them testing positive, of which 202 were boys and 27 were girls.

At high school level, 605 pupils were tested and 415 tested positive.

Contact the WCED hotline for counselling support and assistance on 0800 45 46 47.

Not their real names

Weekend Argus