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WHAT IS UNGASS: How Important is it in the conversation on drug policy reform in Ghana?

In April 2016, the member states of the United Nations will gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. This will be close to 18 years since the last UNGASS on drugs took place in 1998.

For over 50 years, we have never had this much momentum being created by governments who express utter displeasure in the current approach to addressing the global drug problem. These current approaches – often referred to as the “war on drugs” – have not only stigmatized people who use drugs, but have also led to misguided and bad policy making in Africa and around the world.

The UNGASS provides an opportunity to rethink what Ghana, as a nation, has been doing for the past 24 years. Contemporary global circumstances have changed, and the world drug policy also has to change to address current and newly emerging issues. As a result, the UNGASS has been described by Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, as “an excellent opportunity for a wide range of open debate that considers all options”.

In the last UNGASS on drugs in 1998, world leaders pledged to have a drug free world by 2009: a goal that is, to put it politely, unrealistic, but one that has also contributed enormously to the criminalization of people who use drugs. This has contributed to HIV and hepatitis epidemics and the gross violations of fundamental human rights.

The prohibition-led regime has not only marginalized the majority of our citizens, but it has also left many without access to essential pain relief medications such as morphine and other opiates which have been tagged as harmful drugs.

Today, countries must regard the UNGASS as an opportunity to have an open debate to extensively discuss policy issues as they pertain to the current drug problems we face in the world. We need to acknowledge and make visible the negative economic and social consequences of the “war on drugs”.

UNGASS offers us an opportunity to discuss whether it is still relevant to tackle the global drug problem from one perspective – punishment and the punitive approach –rather than from a comprehensive approach that takes into account development, public health, justice, human rights and all other relevant human and social factors.

Background of the 2016 UNGASS

In September 2012  at a UN General Assembly meeting, the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia issued a formal statement emphasizing the need to reassess our current responses to the global drug problem. They called on the UN to exercise its leadership by conducting a profound reflection to analyze all available options, and to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to groups involved in organized crime.

The three Presidents indicated that current drug policies are not producing the expected results and as such, cannot continue without modifications. Based on their initiative, it was announced that an UNGASS would be convened in early 2016.  Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia are amongst the countries that have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs. Millions of people have lost their lives in the drug fight, thousands of their youth are languishing in jails for minor drug offenses, and many have been rendered homeless or outcast from society.

This is important because they are arguably the countries that have felt the fullest force of the global war on drugs. More importantly, this comes at a time when the world is recording the highest ever interest in an appeal for drug policy reforms.

Why does this matter to Ghanaians?

Over the years, there has been an increase in drug consumption. New arrivals of synthetic drugs, which are often even more dangerous, have also been on the rise. This has increased the collateral damage. For example, HIV and hepatitis C infections have increased among people who inject drugs in sub-Saharan Africa. Out of 3 tested positive for HIV/Hepatitis C. This has mainly been attributed to the sharing of needles. According to the 2007 World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime also showed that 21.5% of Ghanaian, aged from 15 to 64, smoked marijuana or used another cannabis product.

The report continued that Ghanaian used marijuana more than five times the world average, thereby making Ghana the leader of African countries and third in the world in cannabis or marijuana. The report further indicated that Ghana ranked third in the world on marijuana use, behind Papua New Guinea and Micronesia with 29 per cent each.

For us as a people and nation, if our government wants to reform drug policies, it has to engage with the drug control system in the UN. So, UNGASS provides an opportunity for our government to bring to the global arena what we need to address in our country and sub-region. We need to build a global consensus on what we seek to address, how we want to address it, and the role of international and national stakeholders in the process.

We need to be interested in this conversation because whatever happens at the global level affects what goes on at the national level. There is, therefore, the need to identify the national problems that are key, and how we can best address them. These include:

The need for quality health care: Access to some pain relief medications are restricted within our health system. For example, morphine and other opiate pain relief medicines are not available in our health facilities due to the complex distribution mechanisms mandated due to their international controls. In recent years, China and other member states have also been pushing for greater controls on ketamine – an anesthetic medicine used in emergency settings across Africa. The prohibition approach should not hinder the availability of essential medicines for palliative care and pain relief in Ghana.

An inconsiderate judiciary: A vast number of our youth are going to prison for minor, non-violent drug offenses. We continue to slap a vast majority of our youth with heavy jail sentences for just possessing one marijuana ‘joint’. For the possession of half a gram of marijuana for personal use, an individual can be sentenced to a five year jail term (or even longer if they also fail to pay the fine of 12,000 Ghana cedis proposed in the new draft Bill). What our government needs to do is to re-invest its money in drug education, drug treatment, harm reduction services, and jobs for our kids – rather than continuing to pay huge sums of public money on mass incarceration and more jails.

Ghana’s drug laws have failed to impact on elevated levels of national drug use. Resorting to harsher punishments has proven not to work over the years. Evidence tells us that there is no correlation between the level of punishment in a country and the levels of drug use.

Alternatively, we could introduce alternatives to incarceration to help address the drug issue in the country. Above all, some of the enormous sums of money that are pushed into drug law enforcement efforts could be diverted into the health sector to address some of the public health issues that arise from drug use.

Our laws on drugs lack proportionality, and we need to have a non-custodial sentencing policy for non-violent drug offenses.

Prisons as inadequate ‘correctional’ facilities for people who use drugs: In Ghana, our prison system has been heavily criticized by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on a visit to our country’s prisons, raised deep concerns about overcrowding and other human rights violations. The Special Rapporteur stated that “The extreme level of overcrowding extends to those on remand, the convicted and the condemned and results in some serious violations: inadequate nutrition, insufficient access to medical care, poor sanitation, personal insecurity and the absence of rehabilitation services”.

One of the recommendations of the UN report was to ‘reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for lesser, non-violent offenses’.

Unfortunately, the proposed Bill that seeks to replace the current narcotics Law, PNDC Law 236, clearly is contrary to the Special Rapporteur’ recommendations and will contribute to worsening the crises in Ghana’s prison system.

UNGASS 2016 and beyond

UNGASS 2016 is an opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the “war on drugs” and rather prioritize health, human rights, and safety and the well-being of humanity.

The “war on drugs” was declared over 50 years ago, but has not only inflicted pain and suffering on vulnerable people, it has also brought suffering, marginalization of the poor and exacerbated drug use problems themselves.

The current drug policy has proven to be a massive and messy failure. The global “war on drugs” has led to more serious health implications, massive incarceration, and lucrative criminal markets which have fuelled violence in countries like Mexico, Columbia, among others.

Ghana must therefore not follow this path to doom. Our policy makers who have been handed the responsibility to work for the common good of all Ghanaians must ensure that we seize the opportunity that UNGASS presents to all. They must take the necessary measures to ensure that we have a renewed drug policy in the country that is more humane, and that also frees up law enforcement efforts to focus on the “big fish” who profit from this criminal industry. One that provides constitutional frameworks for our government to put in place institutions and better facilities that will provide adequate support for people using drugs in the country. This is to ensure that people who use drugs are treated with care, compassion and respect, and are supported to deal with their issues, rather than having their problems exacerbated by criminalisation.

In the IDPC health briefing paper on drug policy in Africa, it discusses the “Continental Minimum Quality Standards” developed by the African Union for Treatment of Drug Dependence. It states that, drug dependence is a complex but treatable health condition, and that effective treatment must attend to the needs of the individual. Treatment systems should therefore provide a menu of options to suit individual characteristics, needs and circumstances – including detoxification programmes, opioid substitution therapy (such as methadone programmes) and stimulant substitution treatments, psycho-social treatment and counselling, social support and rehabilitation[1]

By Maria-Goretti Ane, IDPC Consultant for Africa



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