Several attempts at reviewing the current Ghanaian PNDC Law 236 were made from 2006 to 2015. The latest attempt, despite a second reading of the bill in parliament, was unfortunately unsuccessful due to the 2016 parliamentary and presidential elections. Fortunately, giving the momentum and extent of the discussion on the bill before of the election, as well as the stage it had reached in the parliament, the new government has prioritised the passing of the new law. It is within this context that the Narcotic Control Board (NACOB) held a stakeholder meeting as a key component of the process.
The overall objective of the 2- days consultative meeting was to discuss the proposals contained in the bill as well as to take the views of various stakeholders to ensure that the new bill responds to national and regional realities. The meeting was held at Alisa Hotel, Accra, Ghana from the 19th to 20th July 2017.
Law reform processes in the sub region have been hindered by claims from civil society organisations and the public for being left out of the conversations although they form part of the primary beneficiary of the law. So therefore, any sustainable and efficient law should encompass the views of all entities and individuals who gain or lose in its implementation or enforcement.
By holding such a meeting, Ghana provides an excellent example to other African countries, demonstrating best practices in the law reform process. The stakeholder meeting gathered a wide range of participants made up of representatives from the Police, the judiciary service, psychiatrists, civil society groups, the international partners (USAID, Rep of US Embassy, The German Embassy, UNODC, etc) , the national law enforcement agencies, students associations, West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN – Ghana Chapter), International Drug Policy Consortium African Consultant in Ghana, Recovery Ghana Consortium and Ghana Education Service.
Before the clause by clause discussions, civil society representatives were given the opportunity to make a presentation on their position on some key aspects of the bill. The Africa Consultant for International Drug Policy Consortium and a member of the West Africa Drug Policy Network started her presentation by noting that the punitive approach to the war on drugs have caused lots of damage to society and families. She therefore called on stakeholders to see drug use as a public health issue in line with the global call for a paradigm shift from the heavily punitive approach to a humane approach as outlined in the outcome document of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) 2016.
She then went on to give an overview of the harm reduction package and how these strategies contribute to reducing the harms associated with the punitive policies. She also raised some of the human rights abuses of people who use drugs and the express need to protect their right to health and dignity in the new bill. She called on stakeholders to do away with the moral judgement against people who use drugs but see them as those who need help. She called on members present to ensure that, we consider the recommendations that member states adopted at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS 2016) by making public health and human rights the centre of our drug policies.
In conclusion, she beseeched Ghana to consider all the various schools of thoughts on the debate globally and draw inspiration from countries like Portugal and its successes and lead the way in Africa for better drug policies.
The clause by clause discussions was chaired by the Hon. Henry Quartey, Deputy Minister of Interior. After a reading of clauses under each section, participants were invited to share their views. The representative from the Attorney General Department oversaw collecting the various inputs to be incorporated to the final document for submission to the cabinet.
The bill which was analysed by the audience included commendable actions aimed at treating the problem of drug abuse as a public health issue. The bill acknowledged the need to combine demand reduction to supply reduction strategies to holistically tackle the problem of drug abuse in Ghana.
However, some sections of the bill raised some concerns which were addressed by the stakeholders calling for the following:
· Alternatives to incarceration for people who use drugs;
· Considering drug use as a public health issue;
· A clearer distinction between possession of drug for use and for trafficking;
· Explicit clause on decriminalization of drug use;
Do away with the three-strike clause because it defeats the purpose for decriminalization
· The inclusion of harm reduction initiatives to mitigate the bad effects of drug abuse;
· Inclusion of alternative livelihoods programme for communities depending on drug production as mean of subsistence;
· Proportionality in the sentence based on the quantity of drugs involved in the offence of trafficking;
· The attribution of the supervisory role of the Ghanaian rehabilitation system to the Narcotics Control Board;
· A clearer distinction between the cultivation of drugs for their personal use and for trafficking;
· A special provision to protect the rights of vulnerable groups (children, women); and
· Stiffer punishment for drug lords.
With these incorporated, the revised bill will be brought before cabinet and then sent to parliament for the Select Committee on Defence and Interior to organise a narrowed stakeholder engagement. From there, the output document will be laid to the general house for approval.
The quality of the discussions held and the wide range of participants involved significantly enriched the revised bill. This stakeholder meeting was a great opportunity to throw more light on the demand reduction aspect of the fight against drugs and promote the respect of the human rights of problematic drug users.
By Chamrid Kpadonou, Project Coordinator of the Drug Policy Reform Project at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), 2017 Fellow of the West Africa Executive course on Human Right and Drug Policy.