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Ghana’s Drug Policy: Time for Reform?


In Ghana, drug abuse is treated as moral weakness, character corruption  and personal inadequacy. Society moralizes, stigmatizes, judges and then discards you. It is that approach that is being challenged, debated and scrutinized as part of a week-long series on Class 91.3 FM radio in Accra. June 26th was the United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. It’s also the 5th year that the #SupportDontPunish campaign continues to advocate for a global shift away from a drug abuse policy of law and order and towards one of public health.

That journey is fraught here in Ghana.

We attach spiritual and moral value to the world of drug abuse victims. Compassion is replaced by admonition that better knowing Jesus would cure the addiction, and straighten what is considered immoral character. That approach harms rather than helps or heals. It also fails the global body of research that reveals public health is a more effective approach.

I listened as three former drug abusers – Walter Ansooh, Christian Lokko and Timothy  Bentum– walked listeners through their personal journeys on Class FM radio. Each man has battled, struggled, labored with addiction. Each has suffered costs and consequences. Each has dealt with police brutality, multiple arrests and had to face the ire of family.  They have spent nights in  jail. For some, their families have paid to avoid court and long sentences. A long steep descent into drug addiction lost each of them years, friends and family. Relationships were bruised, parents were deeply hurt and children felt betrayed and abandoned.

They spoke of cycles of pain and mistrust, of promises made followed by relapse. Their story reflects those of millions struggling and battling drug addiction. Each got clean. They are now recovering drug abusers.  Each of them argues that Ghana needs to move away from a punitive approach to drug abuse.

In Ghana, there is of course a gender issue too. During this week of discussions, I have been struck by listening to mostly men make their way to recovery, get married, become fathers and re-enter society as success stories. I am happy that their journey led them back to health.  I am struck that I am yet to hear the story or voice of one woman drug abuser.

Each of the men spoke of stealing, selling family goods to get drugs money.  I imagine with women there may become issues of sexual transactions for goods. And Ghana is a nation that measures its morality by what happens between the legs of girls and women.

Here, it seems  men are allowed to recover, women may stay ruined. That too must change and is part of the moralizing that hurts rather than heals.

In Ghana, civic society groups, some academicians and a growing gathering of activists invite us to reconsider our nation’s approach to drugs, and join the growing global approach. The call? Decriminalize and destigmatize.

One major challenge is that in Ghana – just as in America – what is bad policy has made for good politics. From Bill Clinton’s 3 strikes and you’re out, to Reaganomics which decimated Black and Brown communities in America, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs has been a war on Black and brown people. Hip hop mogul Jay Z with film-maker Dream Hampton, cartoonist Molly Crabapple and Asha Bandele of New York’s Drug Policy Alliance created an award winning video that labeled America’s War on Drugs ‘an epic fail.’ In Ghana, politicians play on society’s fears and religion to entrench the law and order approach.

There are some clear differences between Ghana and America.

In Ghana, we moralize and criminalize drug use, in America, they racialize and criminalize it. If you’re black, you get jail time. If you’re white, you get health care. Stark as though that seems, such is the function of race in America. But moralizing drug abuse is as damaging as racializing it. Both result in Black folk languishing in jail for incredibly long periods of time. In Ghana, corruption provides an out for monied drug abusers. Pay a bribe, avoid court. That makes law and order part of the punitive approach here too.  Also, while drug abusers face inordinately long sentences, traffickers – due to their connections – often escape the law.

Neither option serves society, the family struggling with their loved ones. The jails profit, as do the traffickers, and let’s not forget the politicians. I am not suggesting – nor indeed are any of the civic organizations advocating reform – that there isn’t a law and order element to the illicit use of drugs. It is simply that law enforcement should apply to traffickers and suppliers – not users.

In America, marijuana has been legalized in many states. Colorado was the first. However, that legalization has also been racialized. In some states where the drug is legal, Black men and women still end up being criminalized. Indeed, in January 2016, Fortune magazine ran a cover story with the headline ‘Marijuana Inc’ and an image of a white suited male smoking a spliff. The story explored the rapidly expanding business opportunities from decriminalization. However, like much else in America – this is not an equal opportunity business.

Here in Ghana, so many confuse decriminalization with legalization. That confusion prompts a doubling down on the law and order approach. Decriminalization does not mean zero consequences. What it does mean  is replacing long jail sentences with recovery help.  

Don’t all families of drug abusers simply want their loved ones to stop? To get help? To come home? To rejoin society and to not just barely function but flourish?

So, maybe the fear is Ghana may go in the same direction as America. That Ghanaians are walking a path towards legalization. That fear is groundless. The multiple challenges of eradicating the morality judgments and investing money into public health facilities in order to better serve victims and their families make the road to reform a tough one.

In America, there has also been the connection between voting legislation and Nixon’s 1972 war on drugs declaration. The latter came soon after African Americans bloody campaign to gain voting rights. That battle was won with passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. What is the connection? Drug convictions remove your right to vote, and African American activists have long articulated the need to connect the dots between conviction rates of Black men and women, race and voting rights when it comes to the politics of drug use and abuse in America.

In Ghana, current legislation leans towards the punitive. A new Bill is under consideration, and it has a more public health oriented approach. However, moving the Bill through the Parliamentary stages so it can be ratified and become law is a slow business here.  Ghana has a new government, that government has multiple issues to address and resolve. With a depreciated economy, spiraling unemployment,major programmes like free SHS, the Planting for Food and Jobs campaign, issues of law and order – drug abuse may not be priority on politicians agenda.  

The road to reforming policy and passing fresh legislation that actually roots health as opposed to exploiting poverty, and criminalizing disease is still a journey.

But journey we must. Is it time for reform to become reality? Are we overdue for compassionate conversations about drug abuse rather than moralizing and stigmatizing ones? Has the criminal justice system failed Ghana?

Yes. Time for change.

#CLASSFMdrugsweek on Class 91.3FM is a week long discussion series from Monday 26th June to Friday 30th June from 7.30am to 8.30am. It is produced by EAA Media Productions in partnership with Class 91.3FM, West Africa Drug Policy Network – Ghana Chapter (WADPN), West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)

The author, Esther Armah is a British-born playwright, radio host and political commentator. She currently hosts The Spin, a talk show, for the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

This article was initially published on the Business & Financial Times

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