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West Africa: The New Stage for Global Drug Policy Reform


West Africa has a growing and worrying drug problem. Yet much of global drug policy has focused on reducing drug supply in South American countries like Colombia, and the heavy use of law enforcement against street dealers and users. The image of the global drug trade has been reduced to those of cartels and organized crime in Latin America. The fact that West Africa has become a transit route for the trafficking of illicit drugs between South America and Europe, and a growing number of consumers can be found in the region is not on the world’s radar. Even in Latin America, countries like Venezuela and Brazil, which are not cocaine producers but are major players in the cocaine supply chain because they serve as smuggling hubs, are overlooked in regional and global drug policy formulation.

Although West African leaders are the newest player at the global drug policy table, they need to make their voices heard in the global drug policy debate for the simple fact that what happens outside of the region has large ripple effects within the region. However, the problem goes beyond our leaders allowing our seaports and airports to be used as transit routes. Drug cartels have joined multilateral donors in charting the “democratic” paths of some states. Most infamously, Colombian drug traffickers financed the re-election campaign of President João Bernardo Vieira in Guinea-Bissau in 2005. The country’s subsequent dissension into a narco-state, in which high-level government and military officials were directly involved in drug trafficking to support what has become the main economic activity of the State, perfectly illustrates how drug cartels can influence politics, security and the economy of a West African nation.

Weak states are at particular risk of falling prey to such takeover. Both trafficking and consumption can be tied to either weak or corrupt state institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement agencies that are so heavily relied on to execute aggressive drug policies centered on criminalization of all types of drug offences. Too much money has been wasted on the national-level law enforcement approach. While the emphasis on criminalization should be reduced, it should not be shelved completely. Instead, it should be refocused through a coordinated regional approach and balanced with other strategies, such as harm reduction. Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) developed a four-year regional action plan to combat illicit drug trafficking, organized crime and drug abuse in the region in 2008. The status of implementation of the regional action plan remains unclear. Although the action plan was extended until the end of 2014, there is no sign that Member States have considered reviewing and revising it to take into consideration lessons learned prior to and since its expiration.

Unfortunately, the same openness of borders that facilitate intra-regional commerce and regional social integration in West Africa also creates an enticing invitation for drug traffickers. As ECOWAS Member States consolidate and implement policies to ensure free movement of persons and goods in the region, it is important that these measures promote commerce and integration while closing loopholes that allow for movement of illicit drugs through the region. According to its newly adopted Sahel Regional Action Plan for 2015-2020, the European Union (EU) plans to invest 10 million Euros in supporting ECOWAS’s action to increase the capacity of criminal justice and law enforcement officials to effectively investigate, prosecute and adjudicate organized crimes and drug trafficking-related cases through enhanced regional cooperation along West Africa’s Cocaine Route. It will take more than ad hoc and stopgap measures put in place by each country to curb the illicit trafficking of drugs in the region. Lack of independence and the corruption of national judiciaries makes national level prosecutions of the “big fish” more of a dream than a reality.

The focus of drug policy for West African countries should be centered on law enforcement targeting large regional and international smugglers, alongside corrupt high-level officials, rather than focusing on the small-scale players (producers, street dealers, and consumers), and on reducing the harms associated with drug abuse. As a greater supply of drugs enters the region, local production and consumption are on the rise. Local production of amphetamine-type stimulants have already been documented in Nigeria and Liberia. The number of drug consumers in West Africa is estimated at over 2.5 million. States cannot focus only on the criminal and legal aspect of drug policy, but must also place emphasis on public health services to address the harms that result from drug abuse. They work hand in hand. Decriminalization of drug use requires increased health services, particularly focused on substance abuse.

As such, drug policy reform presents both challenges and opportunities. However, what may appear to be working against West African States can as well work in their favor.

Health systems in many countries in the region, particularly in the wake of the Ebola crisis, need strengthening. This moment provides the perfect opportunity for developing health systems that comprehensively address a range of health problems, from infectious diseases to drug abuse. Costs associated with reducing the harms associated with drug abuse, such as investing in syringe exchange programs that reduce the risk of transmission of HIV from injection drug use, have a more positive impact in the long-term than those of imprisonment. The social costs of reintegration of drug users in harm reduction programs are also positive. Training health professionals with expertise in drug abuse will provide continuing returns for a society, rather than locking individuals down in psychiatric hospitals. The employment of treatment centers and health workers, who had been temporarily recruited for the fight against Ebola, is an approach that can also be used within an expanded and improved health care system.

Countries like Senegal must not only be vocal in the global drug policy debate, but also lead the regional effort. Senegal, in piloting the region’s first harm reduction program, has the opportunity to not only share lessons from its experience, but also to shape the regional and global approach towards harm reduction.

As we observed the Global Day Against Illicit Trafficking and Abuse of Drugs on June 26 and approach the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016, perhaps the greatest lesson that West African leaders can learn from their Latin American counterparts is that they must become players in their own right in the global drug policy arena rather than being passive bystanders. Allowing countries in the global North to dictate and finance a “war on drugs” in Latin America failed miserably to effectively curb the global drug trade. If attempted in West Africa, the same result is inevitable.

Eleanor Thompson, OSIWA’s Associate Advocacy Officer. Follow Eleanor on Twitter  @EleanorThomps

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