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Decriminalize Marijuana in West Africa

A landmark report by the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) in June 2014, “Not Just for Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa”, emphasized decriminalizing some degree of narcotic drug use and possession for personal use, while calling for drug traffickers and their accomplices to face the full force of the law. This sensible recommendation is particularly appropriate for marijuana or cannabis, which is widely cultivated and used in West Africa. Its users, partly because they are mostly young and poor, continue to be disproportionately penalized by the criminal justice systems in the region – a serious human rights and governance problem. This violation must be urgently stopped.

Mostly young lives are unnecessarily ruined by long and unfair incarcerations, or in brutal police raids which sometimes leave suspected drug users injured or worse. This constitutes one of the most significant but neglected areas of human rights violation in the region, serving to corrupt law enforcement agencies and to undermine the relationship between the state and some of its most vulnerable – and potentially volatile – citizens.

UNGASS 2016 Marijuana or cannabis is widely consumed in West Africa, and has been for over a century. It was first banned in 1920 when it was added to the list of narcotic drugs prohibited under the Opium Ordinance of 1913. The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which consolidated all previous treaties relating to narcotics control and established a mechanism for coordinated international control of narcotic drugs, endorsed this prohibition. The convention established strict controls on the cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush (used to produce cocaine), and cannabis plant and their products, which were collectively described as “narcotic drugs”. All West African countries are parties to the 1961 Convention.

This position – the total elimination or criminalization of all recreational uses of narcotic drugs in the world – was emphasized by the United Nations General Assembly Special Session, or UNGASS, at a meeting of UN member states to assess the world’s drug control priorities in 1998. The next UNGASS meeting will take place in 2016, and several countries in West Africa have committed to attending. Going by the recent rash of anti-narcotic or substance abuse legislations (all of them imposing stiff penalties on possession and use of narcotic drugs, including marijuana), many of these countries are likely to, once again, make the futile and ultimately counter-productive commitment to eliminate narcotic drugs by more and more repressive means.

This will be a grave mistake. The landmark 2011 report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy concluded that after decades of trying it this very expensive and corrosive effort has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. The imposition of legal regimes of punishment of drug users and dealers, as well as the use of armed or unarmed state security agents to destroy narcotic crops in producing countries and to intercept trafficked substances, have neither prevented the availability of the drugs, nor curbed their use anywhere.

Failed Law and Order Approach Since the 2005 report, “Crime and Development in Africa,” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), international attention has tended to focus on West Africa’s role as a transit point for such high-valued drugs as cocaine and heroin. Current United Nations estimates puts the value of cocaine transited from South America via West Africa at $1.8 billion.

However, while the evidence suggests that both cocaine and heroin are increasingly used, marijuana or cannabis remains the drug of choice in West Africa, especially among young and poorer people. The United Nations estimates prevalence of cannabis use in the adult population in West Africa at 12.4%, compared with the global average (3.9 per cent). UNODC’s World Drug Report 2015 notes an increase in cannabis cultivation and use in Africa, despite the fact that it continues to be the most-seized drug worldwide, both in terms of the number of seizure cases and actual quantities intercepted.

Young and poor unemployed people tend to be generally looked upon with some degree of suspicion and fear by the ruling elite. This may be the reason why in the minds of some health professionals and in the popular imagination (in particular in Nollywood films), there is a strong link between cannabis use and mental illness, and often cannabis use and violent conduct by young people. UNODC’s 2013 report casts significant doubt on this, arguing that it is far from clear whether this link is real or causal in nature, and why such an association seems more prevalent in West Africa than in the rest of the world.

The American social psychologist Robert MacCoun and criminologist Peter Reuter argued in a paper published by the British Journal of Psychiatry in February 2001 that the physiological or behavioral harms related to the use of marijuana are mild. Certainly the costs related to the medical harm that it could cause are negligible when compared to the enforcement costs relating to its penalization. Public health issues, however, appear to be subordinated to the imperatives of law enforcement. Even amidst the Ebola Virus Disease crisis in 2014, the Sierra Leone police arrested dozens of people for marijuana possession and use, and confiscated 2898 kilograms of it. From January-April 2015, the government convicted 40 people for marijuana possession and use, and confiscated 1438 kilograms of marijuana. The total number of those arrested during that short period was 85, all but three of them young Sierra Leoneans. In Nigeria, where the UN estimates marijuana use as (at 14.3 per cent of 15 to 64 year olds) above the West African average, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) has been extravagant about its gallant war on drugs. It launched ‘Operation Weed Eaters’ in 2014 to destroy marijuana farms, in the course of which it announced discovering a 57-hectare growing some 676,800 kilograms of marijuana with a street value of tens of millions of dollars. It also reported arresting 4,511 suspected narcotic traffickers and seizing 45,875 kilograms of marijuana between January and June 2014, according to reports published in the Nigerian media. Nigerian law imposes some of the stiffest penalties for drug-related offenses, including possession and use of marijuana.

Marijuana: a traditional drug

It seems to me that a legitimate case can be made that marijuana, like cola nut, is one of the traditional drugs of West Africa, for it is rather well-integrated in the region’s culture, particularly its youth culture. It has been extensively used in West Africa for over 160 years – contrary to the widespread belief in popular circles which tend to trace its use to African soldiers returning from World War II. An insightful article by the Ghanaian academic Emmanuel Akyeampong in the journal African Affairs in 2005 correctly posited that Sierra Leone started growing and using marijuana long before other West African states, though he does not date the phenomenon. His research documented arrests and convictions for marijuana in colonial Sierra Leone in the 1920s, as well as evidence of Sierra Leoneans arrested for smuggling marijuana to other British-ruled West African states in the 1930s, before World War II. Colonial Sierra Leone was, in more ways than one, the gateway to English-speaking West Africa.

In the course of my own research, I came across a document dating to the 1850s which showed that marijuana was being cultivated and consumed in Sierra Leone at least from the 1840s. R.O Clarke, the British government Surgeon in colonial Sierra Leone in the 1840s, noted the extensive use of marijuana by Liberated Africans and Creoles “who frequently meet at each other’s houses, to enjoy the luxury and soothing influence of Diamba” (which is still the common name for marijuana in Sierra Leone). He wrote that the drug was brought to Sierra Leone by enslaved Africans from the Congo who were captured on the high seas and freed by the British in Sierra Leone, becoming Liberated Africans. In all likelihood, marijuana, also known at the time as Congo Tobacco (in acknowledgement of its provenance) spread to the rest of West Africa from Sierra Leone. This would indicate that marijuana is native to Central Africa and Angola: it was also from these regions that the drug was taken to Brazil by slaves in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Clarke observed that the moderate use of marijuana leads to no harm – “One pipe charged with this powerful drug…is enough to produce in four persons the most delightful exaltation without injury, and it is much esteemed…as a remedy for cough, pains in the chest and stomach.” Overuse, however, could lead to “intense and maddening headache, accompanied with stupor…and the latter consequence generally lasts for twelve hours” – again, fairly mild effects. Clearly, the surgeon did not observe use of marijuana leading to mental illness, as this was a particular health focus in the colony which was receiving tens of thousands of traumatized freed slaves during the period of Clarke’s residency. The British had, for this purpose, built West Africa’s first psychiatric hospital, Kissy Lunatic Asylum, in Sierra Leone in 1817.

I do not suggest decriminalization as complete legalization. Certainly, smuggling of marijuana, particularly by state security agents, ought to be discouraged and punished. The concern relates to small scale possession and private use, which ought not to be penalized, but which appears to be the chief focus of law enforcement efforts in West Africa.

Convicts emerge from overcrowded prisons often as hardened criminals who become serious security threats to their countries and who are frequently introduced to use of harder drugs while in custody. Governments spend a lot of time and money destroying cannabis farms, leading to serious social and economic problems at the community levels where the plants are destroyed, but otherwise not affecting the availability of the drug. Easy to cultivate, and evidently more rewarding than other cash crops, marijuana farms emerge shortly after being destroyed.

UNGASS 2016: Decision Time

The 2016 Special Session of UNGASS on the World Drug Problem will offer an opportunity for review process of the international treaty relating to narcotic drugs. It will be important for West African states to adopt the recommendations made by the West Africa Commission on Drugs report, mentioned above.

Convened by Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations in January 2013, the commission was chaired by former President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. It noted: “We have concluded that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem. Drug users need help, not punishment. We believe that the consumption and possession for personal use of drugs should not be criminalized. Experience shows that criminalization of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption.”

Drug trafficking in West Africa remains a problem that should be vigorously tackled. All law enforcement efforts relating to drugs should be concentrated there, not diffused to focus on poor and vulnerable people who need help, not persecution or stigmatization.

Dr. Lansana Gberie is a specialist on African peace and security issues. He is consultant for Open Society Institute for West Africa on matters relating to UNGASS. 



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