Illicit drug use in South Africa: Findings from a 2008 national population-based survey

Karl Peltzer, Shandir Ramlagan


Objective. The aim of this secondary analysis of the South African National HIV, Incidence, Behaviour and Communication (SABSSM) 2008 survey is to provide current data on illicit drug use that could assist in the development and implementation of effective substance abuse policies and intervention programmes aimed at these populations in South Africa.

Method. A multistage random population sample of 15 828 people age ≥15 (56.3% women) was included in the survey. Illicit drug use was assessed by 2 sections of the Alcohol, Smoking and Substance use Involvement Screening Test (ASSIST). Frequency analyses for different age groups, geolocality, educational level, income, and population group were calculated, as were odds ratios for these variables regarding combined illicit drug use.

Results. Current cannabis use was reported by 3.3% of the population sample – 6.1% of the men and 1.2% of the women – and the use of combined all-other illicit drugs (cocaine, amphetamines, inhalants, sedatives, hallucinogens, opiates) was reported by 1.8% of the participants. Coloured men (14.3%) were most likely, and Indian or Asian women (0.6%) least likely, to be cannabis users. Illicit drug use (combined) among men was associated with the 20 - 34 year age group and the coloured and white population groups, and among women in the younger age groups, the coloured and white population groups, and low and higher income.

Conclusion. An increase of cannabis and other illicit drug prevalence rates was observed from 2005 (2.1%) to 2008 (3.3%) in the population sample. Multilevel interventions are required to target illicit drug users, in addition to creating awareness in the general population of the problems associated with illicit drug use. There is a need to address illicit drug use in national and provincial policy planning and intervention efforts and, in terms of treatment, a need to ensure that treatment practitioners are adequately trained to address illicit drug use. Future prospective studies are necessary to assess the impact of illicit drug use.


Illicit drug use; Epidemiology; Social determinants; Population-based survey, South Africa, 2008

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Submitted: 08 November 2009
Published: 01 March 2010

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South African Journal of Psychiatry    |    ISSN: 1608-9685 (PRINT)    |    ISSN: 2078-6786 (ONLINE)