West Africa needs to look at partially decriminalising drugs, says thinktank
West African governments must treat drugs as a public health issue and consider partial decriminalisation to stop the region becoming “a new front line in the failed “war on drugs”, a panel of experts convened by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, has warned.
In a stark assessment of the corrosive effect the international drug trade is having on the area’s security and development, the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) says the region’s combination of “political instability, unemployment and corruption” is proving increasingly attractive to those trafficking cocaine and heroin from South America and Asia into Europe and the US.
The commission says weak governance, legal loopholes and thriving informal economies have been luring drug cartels to west Africa since the mid-2000s, pointing out that the UN now puts the annual value of the cocaine moved through the region at $1.25bn (£745m).
Its report – Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa – notes that the area has also become a producer and exporter of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), which are not only consumed in the region but also shipped to south-east Asia.
The commission says the growing presence of drugs and drug money risks undermining the economic and political stability achieved by west African countries that have only recently emerged from years of conflict and violence. But it also points to a rising human cost as more west Africans take drugs, exacerbating public health problems such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Given the situation, says the commission, the time has come for a radical rethink of drug policy. “We have concluded that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem,” says the report. “Drug users need help, not punishment. We believe that the consumption and possession for personal use of drugs should not be criminalised. Experience shows that criminalisation of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption.”
Cannabis is a case in point. The drug has long been grown as a cash crop, mainly for local consumption in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, and estimates from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggest much more cannabis is consumed in west Africa than cocaine, heroin or ATS. According to UNODC figures, estimated adult cannabis use in west and central Africa is 12.4%, compared with averages of 7.5% in Africa and 3.9% globally.
Such high usage is proving a drain on already scarce resources. Crop eradication efforts have failed to find quick and attractive alternatives for cannabis farmers, while police crackdowns designed to meet targets for arrests and seizures have been counterproductive. Most of those arrested for drug offences in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone tend to be small-scale cannabis dealers or users who spend a long time in pre-trial detention and often succumb to other illnesses while waiting to be sentenced or released (by paying a fine – or a bribe).
The report argues that the region’s “poor, uneducated and vulnerable” should not be penalised for taking drugs when governments and law enforcement agencies should be using their funds and legal powers to stop the traffickers and their accomplices.
“What ultimately emerges from the evidence is that the harms of criminalisation far outweigh those of decriminalisation. West Africa would remove a huge weight from an already overburdened criminal justice system if it were to decriminalise drug use and possession, expand health and social services for those with problematic use, and expend greater effort in pursuing … traffickers … and rooting out corruption from within.”
But the commission – chaired by the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and including members from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mauritania, Nigeria, Cape Verde and Mali – stresses that the problem is a global one.
Since west Africa neither produces nor consumes most of the drugs moved through it, “nations whose citizens consume large amounts of illicit drugs must play their part and seek humane ways to reduce demand for those drugs”.
Annan, who launched the WACD in January last year, has previously called for countries to explore the decriminalisation of cannabis and urged the world to admit that the war on drugs has failed.
He said that drug traffickers who moved their business to west Africa following the loss of their Caribbean transit points had been quick to establish new networks – and equally quick to corrupt societies by bribing politicians, police, customs officials and the judiciary.