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Ghana: The Journey to Decriminalization: Why it is Important for Ghana

There is a significant academic debate about decriminalization of marijuana in the country, and this has received some degree of political and public support.

Some have argued that decriminalization will open a floodgate for drug use in the country, while others (like myself), do not agree and see it instead as the best way to reduce drug use in the country. In practice, repressive drug laws have neither succeeded in reducing drug consumption nor put traffickers out of their lucrative business. Instead, these laws have only driven and expanded the trade underground.

What is the current drug policy regime in Ghana?

The current drug policy in Ghana is very repressive in nature. It is a control approach that has failed to consider the health and wellbeing of those who use drugs. It makes no room for people who need lifesaving harm reduction programs such as needle and syringe distribution and opioid substitution treatments. What this kind of regime has done over the years is to marginalize the majority of our citizens.

Studies have also shown that the criminalization of people who use drugs is often more detrimental to their health than the drug use itself and that this approach does not lower rates of drug use.

Moreover, some reports show that the criminal justice response contributes to a climate of stigmatization of, and discrimination against, people who use drugs, which makes it less likely that they will receive impartial treatment from police and the judicial system.

Addressing consumption through criminal justice institutions ultimately infringes on various fundamental rights of people who use drugs, including the rights to health, information, personal autonomy and self-determination.

Ghana’s current drug law also lacks proportionality in the sentencing of drug offenses. For instance, possession and trafficking both attract a minimum of 10 years in prison. You can see clearly that there is no distinction in the severity of the offenses. Many countries around the world have already taken steps to amend and update their drug laws – more in line with the ‘Support Don’t Punish’ approach that civil society is advocating for. 

Why must we decriminalize drug use?

Over time, there has been an increase in drug consumption in the country. New arrivals of synthetic drugs, which are often even more dangerous, have also been on the rise. For example, HIV and hepatitis C infections have increased among people who inject drugs across West Africa. This has mainly been attributed to the sharing of needles.

Early this year, the International Narcotics Control Board presented its 2015 report in the country, and the report indicated that only 1 out of 18 people who use drugs have access to treatment, although the prevention and treatment of drug abuse are parts of the main provisions of the international drug control conventions.

The Report further highlights cannabis use in Ghana as the highest and in Africa as a whole, while heroin comes second, with annual prevalence use remaining as high as 7.5 per cent among the population 15- 64 years. The figure is particularly high in West and Central Africa, recording 12.4 per cent.

These statistics clearly show that repressive methods are not working, and the collateral damage that comes with the application of these laws are devastating,  hence the need to adopt approaches that are evidence-based, more humane, and have been proven to work over the years.

The word decriminalization has received a very negative response from society, partly because of ignorance or deliberate confusion of the discussion. Decriminalization applies to the purchase, possession, and consumption of all drugs for personal use. It must be noted that, under a decriminalization model, drug possession for personal use remains illegal and prohibited – but the actions taken in response to this offense do not necessarily lead to criminal sanctions.

In fact, a more effective alternative to punishment can be social protection and detoxification services, health care, treatment of dependence and reintegration into society. Under this module, police resources can be channeled towards stopping more serious crimes, rather than being wasted on harassing people who use drugs. It is also crucial to remember that drug supply, trafficking, and production remain criminal actions under this approach.

By decriminalizing a drug, you are protecting young people from the harms of disproportionate and unjustifiable criminalization and harassment, as well as making it more likely that they will be able to seek help and treatment as they will no longer fear arrest or persecution.

Children are often, rightly, placed at the forefront of political justifications for the ‘war on drugs’. But the reality is that children’s rights have been increasingly violated through the current approaches and the levels of drug control measures while drug use and drug-related harms among children have continued to rise.

We need to reform the criminalization provisions in our law books for the use and possession for personal use of drugs. The longer they remain, the more we give law enforcement all the power to decide how it’s going to be enforced. What that does is it creates inconsistency among enforcement practices, and it contributes to the ongoing systemic injustices around enforcement of our drug laws.

In 2001, Portugal passed a ground-breaking law when it decriminalized low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs. More than a decade later, the results of the Portuguese experience demonstrates that drug decriminalization – alongside a deliberate shift in public funding from law enforcement and into treatment and harm reduction services – can significantly improve public safety and health.

There were fears that Portugal might become a drug free-for-all, but that simply didn’t happen. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that the number of drug-related problems has decreased including petty stealing among drug users”.

What we need to remember is that, under a decriminalization framework, drug use and possession remain prohibited. What it simply does is that criminal penalties are removed, and other sanctions (such as fines or treatment requirements) are imposed, if at all. Crucially, incarceration is no longer imposed for drug possession or use, and lives are no longer ruined with criminal records.

We should all support this reform because Criminalization does not address the root causes of the problem. People who use drugs do not need jail to solve their problems – they need help and support, care and compassion, and not punishment.

As we celebrate June 26th, the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse, the Global Support Don’t Punish campaign aims to raise awareness of the harms being caused by the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We call on our governments to leave behind harmful politics, ideology, and prejudices, and to prioritize the health and welfare of the affected populations, their families, and communities. Arresting and prosecuting these offenses is expensive for our criminal justice system. It traps too many young Ghanaians in the criminal justice system for minor, non-violent offenses.

The time to act is now!

Maria-Goretti Ane Loglo – IDPC Consultant for Africa and a member of the West Africa Drug Policy Network Ghana Chapter

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