10/02/2017 13:02 SAST | Updated 10/02/2017 15:14 SAST

The Solution Is Safer Drug Use, Not Arrested Drug Users, Say Health Workers

TB/HIV Care Association
In January three health workers in Tshwane were arrested for distributing sterile water to drug users who inject drugs. The case was struck from the roll.

The body of Thokazani Hadebe lay on the pavement on the corner of Milne and Point Road, Durban, for the better part of a day before it was removed — a chilling reminder of the dangers of injecting drugs.

According to a friend, Hadebe had come out of prison the day before and that same night he purchased a R75 unit of stone (heroin), mixed it with 20ml of water, and injected it. This was after taking mandrax and drinking alcohol. Hadebe passed out and it was only much later that someone realised he wasn't just sleeping.

His death is just one of many among injecting drug users in Durban who have died over the past year from either overdosing or drug-related afflictions and diseases. Hadebe's death points to the great need for the harm reduction services.

One NGO running monthly educational meetings for people who inject drugs is the TB/HIV Care Association (TB/HIV Care). It teaches safe injecting practises and how to avoid overdoses. The service is offered in several cities.

Police arrest health workers

However, negative attitudes and a "war on drugs mentality" in communities and among certain law enforcement officers pose a problem. In January, three health workers in Tshwane were arrested for distributing sterile water to drug users who inject drugs. The case was removed from the roll.

TB/HIV Care has a thick dossier of incidents where harm reduction efforts have met with opposition in the three cities where the NGO operates.

In Durban, one of the most frequently encountered problems has been that of police confiscating needles and sometimes arresting the user – even for possession of an unused needle. Many users say they do not carry their needles with them for fear of arrest.

Darius Fourie, 26, recently spent ten days in Westville prison awaiting trial, before getting a suspended sentence for "drug possession". He was arrested in the shelter where he stays with a new, unused needle and a clean "cooker" (an item used to mix heroin with water and heat it up). He says police regularly raid the shelter when they need to make up their quota of arrests for the month. They go straight to the room where he stays with other users.

Robert Taylor, 46, says he was searched on the beachfront by police looking for drugs, but when they found nothing, they confiscated his needles. On another occasion, he claims a police officer threatened to send his needles away for analysis and that he would sit in prison until the results came back.

"This was just to shut me up because I was questioning why they had arrested me when they found no drugs on me. They used the needles as leverage to get me to admit to possession of dagga. I was sentenced to ten days in prison," he says.