Repressive drug policy regime is counterproductive: A message to West African States

The West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN) is currently working with various partners to help change the repressive drug policy regime in West Africa for evidence-based drug response that is responsive to human rights, public health and sustainable development objectives. This is to enable them to effectively address the growing threats that drug trade poses to public health, governance and stability in the region. Dominant prohibitionist drug laws that are enforcement-led and abstinence-based only seem to exacerbate these threats rather than ameliorate them. Criminalizing all aspects of the drug trade, particularly personal use and possession of the drug, has neither ceased large-scale trafficking nor the widespread availability of drugs anywhere in the region. On the contrary, it has had adverse immeasurable effects particularly on young, poor, and other vulnerable nonviolent drug offenders.


Strangely, there is a general belief that these prohibitive laws are in “high conformity” with UN Drug Control Conventions. That is not entirely true. There are several instances where these laws do not conform, in the least, with these conventions. I have mentioned a few here together with their corresponding weaknesses as I call on all West African states to end this repressive regime.


The common belief of ”high conformity”

UN Drug Control Conventions are undisputedly the touchstones for national drug-control laws, but the belief by West African States that their drug policy regimes are in “high conformity” with the Convention is questionable. For instance, the preamble of the 1961 Single Convention emphasizes the indispensability of medical use of narcotic drugs and the need for member-states to make them available and accessible to those who need them. Article 4 (c) of the said Convention further encourages member-states to allow the production, trade, use and possession of such drugs, including cannabis which is overwhelmingly cultivated across the region, exclusively for medical and scientific purposes. Yet, there is scarcely any country in the region with a drug policy or law that is in conformity with these provisions, except Ghana where a bill was recently passed into law to license the production of cannabis with not more than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, exclusively for medicinal and industrial purposes?


Furthermore, notwithstanding that Article 38 of Single Convention requires parties “to give special attention to and take all practicable measures to prevent drug abuse and for the early identification, treatment, education, after-care, rehabilitation and social reintegration of problematic drug users and addicts”, drug treatment and rehabilitation still remains illegal and punishable by law in most countries in the region. This probably explains why there are barely any harm reduction facilities in the region, except for a few countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali and Burkina Faso, where some form of drug treatment and rehabilitation programmes are administered.


National drug laws of most West African states impose criminal sanctions for personal use and possession of drugs. This is not in conformity with any of the UN Drug Control Conventions, contrary to what some have suggested. This unanimity of approach by States in the region may have been unwittingly influenced by the equivocal penal provision in Article 36 of 1961 UN Single Convention. While Paragraph 1 recommends punishment and possible imprisonment for all and more “serious” offences, including unauthorized possession of drugs, it also provides for treatment and rehabilitation for drug dependence. Paragraph 2 of the article referred to above entreats parties to provide alternatives to conviction or punishment for personal use and possession. It further emphasizes the need for treatment, education, after-care, rehabilitation and social reintegration, even where users have been convicted and sentenced to some form of punishment.


This may sound paradoxical, but paragraph 2 of page 402 of the Commentary on the 1961 UN Single Convention on Drugs clarifies that “parties should not consider unauthorized possession of drugs for personal use as “serious” offence as Article 36, paragraph 1 suggests. It recommends that the offence should not attract punishment of any nature, including deprivation of liberty. It also gives parties the discretion to “impose minor penalties such as fines or censure” for personal use and possession of drugs. Unfortunately, this is not the case in West Africa. As a matter of fact, nonviolent drug related offences, including personal use and possession of drugs, forms a greater proportion of drug-related arrests across the region. According to the Media Resources’ 2020 Report: “Enforcement of Drug Laws by Global Commission on Drugs”, 16.6% of the global imprisonment population (10.35 million) and 83% of all drug-related offences which make up for 20% of the (10.35 million), are minor nonviolent drug offenders.


Demerits of repressive drug policy regime


Despite growing evidence of its ineffectiveness and adverse human rights implications, public health and economic consequences, repressive drug policing is the standard practice in West Africa. Criminalization of personal use and possession of drugs causes extensive harm to individuals and communities across the region. The long-term consequences can separate families, limit young people’s access to job opportunities and to social and health care services; and expose them stigma and discrimination for a lifetime.

Drug treatment and rehabilitation services are criminalized under repressive drug policy regimes, which suggests that prison is the ultimate destination for drug convicted offenders, including those who may need such services such as persons suffering from dependence. The traditional justification for incarceration is based on its assumed effect on deterrence and rehabilitation. With the state of our prison conditions, we all know that merely keeping drug users in prison neither rehabilitates them nor guarantee deterrence either in prison or afterwards. It rather deprives them of special attention, hence worsening their dependence problem and exposing them to health-related complications.


It is baffling that governments of West Africa are reluctant to adhere to UNODC/WHO recommendation to consider drug dependence primarily as a health problem rather than a criminal behaviour, and to ensure they are treated outside the criminal justice settings.

Beyond deprivation of treatment and rehabilitation, repressive drug law enforcement exposes people who use drugs to enormous human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, prolonged pre-trial detention and denial of access to life-saving care and prevention intervention. Repressive drug policing also increases the risk of drug overdose and injecting drug user’s exposure to Hepatitis and HIV infection through sharing of injecting drug equipment and hurriedly injecting drugs without the strength for fear of police.


Repressive drug policing presents distinguishable threats to community safety and security. Most urban communities in West Africa with suspected drug related activities are besieged in the name of illicit drug control. Militarized police raid or resistance by criminal networks in protection of their drug market from police raid fosters violence, fear and sense of insecurity among community residents. The media in Sierra Leone and Ghana have recorded instances where police raids have led to the destruction of crops and loss of lives and property. The continued criminalization of personal use and possession of drugs undermines the overarching objectives of the Convention, which is to promote the health and welfare of mankind, among others.


Call to end the repressive drug regime


(WADPN) calls on West African states governments to end the repressive drug regime and adopt an evidence-based drug response policy that is human rights, public health and sustainable development-oriented. At the heart of this call is the West Africa Commission on Drugs’ recommendation that “drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem, and the personal use and possession of drugs should be decriminalized”. The decriminalization of drugs does not equate to a free-for-all drug use era as many have wrongly feared. Rather, it will simply change the way West Africa deals with the problem of dependence from both a legal and treatment perspective. Based on the context, different countries have adopted different models of decriminalization and evidence shows that they have been effective so far.


West African countries that are considering, or are already in the process of reforming their drug laws, should consider referencing the Model Drug Law of West Africa which is an effective tool for policymakers to respond to the needs of drug policy reforms. “It incorporates the obligations of the three UN treaties in its legislative provisions and commentary. It also takes into account the outcomes and commitments from the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem, the ECOWAS Drug Action Plan to Address Illicit Drug Trafficking, Organized Crime and Drug Abuse in West Africa (2016-2020), as well as, the existing evidence of effectiveness, the need for greater harmonization of drug laws in the region, and the current gaps in the legislation”. Governments should also consider ensuring that treatment and rehabilitation services are available, accessible, affordable, evidence-based and diversified as recommended by Commission on Narcotic Drugs.


WADPN looks forward to leveraging its expertise, available resources and existing partnership with governments, policy makers and drug control agencies across the region to make the call for evidence-based drug policy reform a reality.


By: Prince Bull-Luseni

Executive Director – WADPN

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West Africa Drug Policy Network

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Phone: +233 (0) 302 550 216

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