Illicit Drug Markets in South Africa: A Review

Bruce Johnson

Johnson, Bruce, D., National Developement and Research Institutes, United States; Mohlala, G. South Africa; K. Peltzer HSRC, South Africa

South Africa is by far the largest market for illicit drugs entering the Southern African region. Little is known about how the retail markets function and are priced for cannabis, heroin, cocaine powder, methamphetamine, and Mandrax (methaquolone). A review of several data sources published by agencies (police, treatment, public health), isolated research projects, and United Nations/United States documents provide important hints about the general aspects of illegal drug markets in South Africa. Drug trafficking and abuse have escalated since the end of Apartheid (1992). The extreme income inequalities between the different broad ethnic segments affect drug affordability and thus consumer choice. South Africa is one of the world’s largest producers of cannabis and the largest international consumer of Mandrax. Heroin, cocaine powder, crack, and methamphetamine (called tik) is less common, but growing. The Apartheid legacy resulted in the illicit drug market being highly segmented along racial and cultural lines. The distribution mechanisms include street, quasi-public, residential, and delivery. Illegal drug prices have remained relatively stable or possibly declined in local currency. Depreciation of the South African rand means that price of both heroin and cocaine effectively fell by more than 75 percent between 1992 and 2001. The lowest level retail unit of cannabis (zol) contains less than a gram of marijuana, like a United States joint. The zol is inexpensive, and is cheaper than a (taxed) tobacco cigarette in South Africa. Drug distributors also attempt to expand the market for other drugs by mixing cannabis with heroin, cocaine, crack, Mandrax, methamphetamine, and other drugs. Illegal drug markets are becoming well formed in the post-Apartheid era and further complicate all other social problems (poverty, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, etc.). Greatly improved information about how illegal drug markets operate in South Africa is badly needed to provide a basis for containing their spread.

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North America
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United States
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