Calling off drug abuse

24 April 2013 - 02:56 By Elyssa Cherney
A teenager at a rehabilitation centre in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg left his phone at home before checking in. He spends most of the day at the centre reading in his room
A teenager at a rehabilitation centre in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg left his phone at home before checking in. He spends most of the day at the centre reading in his room

Dereleen James tucks a cherry red BlackBerry Curve into her purse, though she rarely uses it to make calls. The Eldorado Park woman keeps the device to help her son recover from his drug addiction.

"As much as I thought he needed a cellphone for his safety, with him having a cellphone means having easy access to drugs," said James, who confiscated it from her 17-year-old son more than a year ago.

James said her son, whose name she does not wish to disclose, uses instant message applications like MXit, WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger to locate where his friends are doing drugs.

"His first relapse from rehab was because of his phone," she said, explaining how a picture message her son received of his friends smoking marijuana triggered cravings.

With the rise of mobile internet in South Africa, teenagers learn quicker and cheaper ways to access drugs through their phones.

While mobile internet is relatively new in South Africa, it is growing quickly, said Indra de Lanerolle, an internet trends researcher at Wits University.

"There have always been moral panics with new technologies, including radio, TV and the internet, where people worry about all sorts of social breakdowns," he said.

According to a March report by the Anti-Drug Alliance of South Africa, BlackBerry Messenger and WhatsApp are the most common communication tools among the youth.

Quintin van Kerken, CEO of the alliance, estimated that one-third of the nation's teenagers have used illegal narcotics in the past six months.

At the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence's Horizon Clinic in Boksburg, patients must leave their cellphones at home before checking in.

Many patients, who cannot be named because of confidentiality reasons, said life after rehab is more challenging with a cellphone.

A 21-year-old in the 28-day adult programme said he has already asked his mother to delete contacts from his cellphone before he returns home.

It's his second stay at the clinic in four years.

"I threw away my BlackBerry. I'm now using one of those old-school black and white phones. I no longer have a smartphone because I know how easy it is to contact dealers," he said.

Messaging is cheaper on a smartphone. Since WhatsApp uses data, messages are not individually charged.

Unlike SMSes on a prepaid plan, a flat fee at the beginning of the month grants unlimited messages.

But, said a 15-year-old doing a six-week programme, smartphones are not the only conduit to drugs.

"Even if I don't have my phone I still have my laptop. I think the biggest network of dealers was at my school," he said.

David Collins requires patients who check into his Oaklandrehabilitation centre to hand in their cellphones, but admitted it's "a catch-22 situation" because teens also "use their cellphones to communicate with friends in recovery and connect with people not doing drugs".

James' s decision to take her son's phone was not an easy one.

"I am trapped between giving him a cellphone so when he disappears I can call him or [allow] him having easy access to drugs."

Paradoxically, James recently organised an anti-drug march through BlackBerry Messenger. Her message galvanised about 1500 people into action on April 7.