It may be a mere coincidence or a deliberate move but the judiciary in Sierra Leeone seem to be taking drastic measures in an attempt to intensify the war on drugs. In 2016, a magistrate sentenced a young man to seven months imprisonment and instructed him to pay a fine of seven hundred thousand Leones to the court sub judicial treasury for the illegal possession of 24 parcels of leaves suspected to be cannabis, contrary to the Pharmacy and Drug Act of 2001. This year, a High Court has ordered 11 young people to pay one million Leones (Le1, 000,000) $130 US each, for being caught with 37kg of cannabis (Diamba) contrary to the Pharmacy and Drug Act of 2001.
On 26 June, 2018 on the International Drug Abuse and Illegal Drug Trafficking day, an incident occurred where a Rastafarian high priest was arrested whilst going to the temple to worship. She was later charged with illegal possession of cannabis. All pleas by the high priest and members of the Rastafarian religion that the cannabis was only for spiritual purposes fell on deaf ears. In court, the police failed to produce the evidence, the Magistrate acquitted the High Priest and the matter was dismissed. It is quite unfortunate, that the authorities in Sierra Leone are refusing to accept the fact that cannabis is largely cultivated by individuals from diverse backgrounds in the society.
The war against drugs neglects the need to consider drug addiction as a health issue, largely because of individuals who belong to the school of thought that punitive measures must be put in place and that we must look at the entire drug abuse issue through the lens of criminal justice. It is an open secret that our National Correction Center has taken in inmates ten times the capacity than it was built for.
These drug war mongers are so desperate to reverse gains that the Sierra Leone Chapter of WADPN has made it their duty to call for paradigm shift – from a criminal justice approach to a mental health approach and revising our drug policies to integrate issues of health, drug dependence treatments, harm reduction, human rights, gender, HIV/AIDS among others.
Currently any unusual behavior exhibited by people, especially, the youth is assumed that patient is a drug addict when taken to the hospital without any thorough medical assessment or proof.
I experienced this myself when quite recently a cousin of mine was rushed to the hospital because he was behaving in an unusual manner. Upon arrival, the doctor and some of the health workers without medical examining him, concluded that he had abused cannabis. My uncle challenged their unprofessional behavior and moved his son to a private hospital; where thorough medical examination showed that the young man was suffering from malaria.
Imagine how many people have been stigmatised for cannabis use in such an unprofessional manner and left unattended or have been misdiagnosed. The only psychiatric consultant in Sierra Leone is also sadly calling for more punitive sanctions against those using cannabis. This is due to his wrong perception that all abnormal behavior and pretty crimes committed in various communities across the country are caused cannabis use. This misconception is fanning the flames of war against problematic cannabis sativa.
Let us safe guard the future of the youth by implementing policies that will address their health issue rather than measures that lead to incarceration, punitive and crude discipline. Join the Sierra Leone Chapter of WADPN and the rest of the world to encourage our various countries to adopt drug policies which are underpinned by public health and citizens’ security, anchored in evidence based harm reduction approaches and backed by laws or practices that have human rights compliant.
Saa Matthias D BENDU: National Coordinator Development Initiative and Hope for the Vulnerable. The Sierra Leone Chapter of West Africa Drug Policy Network