A high-level commission launched by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has determined that drug use in West Africa should be decriminalized and treated as a matter of public health, signaling an encouraging shift in opinion.
“The harms of criminalization far outweigh those of decriminalization,” the West Africa Commission on Drugs wrote in a report released Thursday. “The simple use or consumption of any illicit drug by an individual should not be considered a crime.”
The commission’s stance is a far cry from the tone of a special session of the UN General Assembly on the “world drug problem” that Annan presided over in 1998. Contrary to the aim of that session, the commission hopes to avoid a militarized war on drugs that the region’s governments simply can’t afford.
'An interpretation of the UN drug conventions that criminalizes every aspect of drug-related activity' can 'nurture corruption within the criminal justice system.'
Pierre Lapaque, the UN Office on Drug and Crime’s representative for West and Central Africa, told VICE News that UNODC didn’t agree with the commission’s stance on decriminalization.
“This is not UNODC’s approach,” he said. “A number of experts think decriminalization can increase consumption.”
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However, a decade after Portugal decriminalized drug use in the manner the commission suggests, the number of deaths from overdoses had decreased and the use of hard drugs was lower than in most of Europe.
West Africa is extensively involved in trafficking and, more recently, drug production. This has exacerbated endemic corruption and resulted in a spiraling rate of drug addiction.
In Nigeria, high-profile raids of meth labs and seizures of precursor chemicals have raised the specter of a more wide-scale distribution network originating in West Africa that sends amphetamine eastward and receives Asian heroin in return.
“An interpretation of the UN drug conventions that criminalizes every aspect of drug-related activity” can “nurture corruption within the criminal justice system,” the commission noted.
Despite Nigeria’s tough laws, the country of 170 million only imprisons an estimated 56,000 people — a rate 20 times less than the United States.
Yet countless Nigerians are arrested, frequently for cannabis possession, only to be released after paying a bribe. Those that remain in jail tend to be small-time dealers, drug mules, and users who are not politically connected or wealthy.
“When you don’t pay police adequately, then getting them to stop taking bribes is impossible” Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program, told VICE News.
For the last decade, South American cartels have increasingly transported drugs through West Africa to make up for the loss of Caribbean routes. The UN estimates that $1.25 billion in cocaine passes through the region every year.
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Traffickers have begun paying local handlers with product, and those drugs have ended up on the streets of cities like Lagos, Abidjan, and Conakry, feeding a growing number of addicts.
Cocaine use in West Africa is now nearly double the global average.
Addiction to hard drugs is likely higher than the recorded rate. Data is rarely collected. When it is, addicts often report dependency on cannabis, which is less stigmatized than harder substances but probably not their real problem.
Cannabis has been grown in Africa for centuries. The UN estimates that 12.4 percent of West Africans smoke weed, triple the global rate. It’s often grown alongside subsistence crops, making eradication hazardous to farmers’ livelihoods, whether legal or illegal.
The weed is mostly consumed locally, and its sale is quite different in character from the trafficking of cocaine, heroin, and synthetic drugs.
However, the strict interpretation of UN drug conventions by most African countries considers illicit drug use to be unacceptable whatever its form and, in various instances, equivalent to trafficking.
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Only one country in the region, Senegal, has implemented harm reduction services. The commission found that the absence of needle-exchange programs and opioid-replacement therapies like methadone was partly “due to the erroneous, outdated yet widespread belief that harm reduction strategies increase drug use and that only complete abstinence is acceptable.”
Up to three million Africans are estimated to inject drugs intravenously, and 11.8 percent of them are believed to carry HIV. Non-governmental organizations have focused primarily on providing anti-retrovirals and condoms to lessen transmission while neglecting drug users.
Western countries have grown two-faced on drug policy in recent years, softening their legal stances in favor of domestic decriminalization while at the same time requiring developing countries to ratchet up their anti-drug efforts.
The US decertification of Nigeria in 1996 for what it deemed noncompliance with drug conventions still weighs on the minds of the country’s policymakers. The effects were devastating: US aid was blocked, direct flights between the US and Nigeria were embargoed, and it became extremely difficult to obtain visas, even for politicians. The country’s ability to borrow from international lending institutions was sorely compromised.
Nigeria’s military government began to wage its own war on drugs within a year, and arrests quickly doubled.
“The decertification meant so much to Nigerians in terms of how you were treated and relations with other governments,” Isidore Bot, a psychology professor at Nigeria’s University of Uyo and an advisor to the commission, told VICE News. “Those were bad days.”
Drug trafficking still significantly imperils West Africa’s frail democratic institutions.
Guinea-Bissau is considered a narco-state, where elections have in the past been funded by cartels. The State Department has noted that “government officials at all levels are complicit.”
In recent decades, high-level officials and their relatives have been implicated in drug trafficking in nearly every country in West Africa. In Ghana, a member of parliament was convicted by a New York jury for heroin trafficking; in Sierra Leone, the cousin of a former minister was arrested for flying 700 kilos of cocaine into Freetown on a Cessna painted with the Red Cross’ emblem; in the Gambia, where surging drug proceeds has caused the currency to spike, a former Inspector General of Police was found guilty last year of trafficking; in Nigeria, a politician was arrested after swallowing more than a kilo of heroin at a Lagos airport. The list goes on.
Nigerians appear to be particularly enmeshed in the international drug trade. Of all the foreigners arrested for cocaine trafficking in Switzerland in 2011, over half were Nigerian.
Nigeria’s government, beset by corruption, has been unable to stop militants like Boko Haram from gaining ground. Despite presumed links between traffickers and terrorists, the commission found that the relationship was more “opportunistic than ideological.”
But as the US steps up military assistance to fight terrorists in the region, there is concern that the war on drugs might be folded into the war on terror and further militarized.
“Such circumstances could increase the political leverage and popular appeal of groups that traffic drugs,” the commission reported, “potentially spurring more violence.”
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford