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Two recent surveys show that South Africans across the country are increasingly becoming concerned about drug abuse.

While these surveys might suggest a growing epidemic of drug abuse, experts say it is far more complicated than that.

In late September, the Institute for Race Relations introduced its Criterion Report, which found that 23% of voters listed drugs and drugs abuse above crime and insecurity as a priority for the government to address.

This was the second highest priority on the list, just below jobs and unemployment.

Then, a month later, the Gauteng City Region Observatory released its Quality of Life Survey, which revealed that, besides the usual concerns about crime and unemployment, a new threat had pushed itself into the top three priorities - the impact of drugs and alcohol on communities.

The survey’s coloured respondents were most concerned with drug and alcohol abuse. This survey appeared shortly after protests broke out in Eldorado Park over the prevalence of drugs and gang related crimes in their area.

“When society becomes fragmented or is under stress, drugs become the quintessential scapegoat for blaming all societal ills,” says drug expert Dr Simon Howell.

“Why is crime so high? It must be drug addicts. Why can’t we succeed? It must drug addicts.”

Both surveys were released at a time when South Africa was in a recession and unemployment stood at 27%.

“There is a lot of stress in our society; we have political instability.

“People, I guess, need to self medicate and drugs are an easy way to make money,” says Professor Charles Parry, a substance abuse epidemiologist.

However, while drugs might be the bogeyman that communities blame for their misfortunes, the surveys seem to reveal a growing trend.

The Criterion reported that 4% of city dwellers reported drugs as being the top issue for government to address. That figure climbed to 26% in townships and 29% in rural areas.

“Drugs are becoming more visible; people are injecting more,” explains Shaun Shelly, a drug specialist.

“And in the rural setting where you used to not have the availability of drugs apart from cannabis, now you have availability because people are moving back and forth.”

The town of Paternoster, in the Western Cape, is an example of a country town that recently developed a drug problem. According to Howell: “It was a fishing dorpie but because of quota systems and environmental issues, everyone ended up sitting around doing nothing. Then along comes tik and that created an atomic bomb in that place.”

However, the real problem is that no one knows just how big a drug scourge South Africa is facing.

“There just aren’t any figures. We need better indicators, then we can track data and maybe we will get to know if things are improving, or getting worse,” says Parry.

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