Experts and ministers on drugs from the 15 ECOWAS countries met in Abuja, Nigeria on 5th September as part of an on-going effort to address the drug problem and organised crime within the region. The meeting sought to appraise and review the implementation of the current ECOWAS “Regional Action Plan on Illicit Drug Trafficking, Organised Crime and Drug Abuse within West Africa”, and to approve its successor.

Governments within the sub-region have always made efforts to address the drug problem through the adoption of various methods and strategies over the years. ECOWAS initially put in place, adopted and endorsed its Political Declaration and Regional Action Plan on drugs for 2008 to 2011, which was then extended until 2015.

Prior to the ministerial meeting, experts on the subject matter – as well as stakeholders from member states, the African Union (AU), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), INTERPOL and the European Union (EU) – deliberated on strategies to address the drug problem in West Africa, and to agree a new Regional Action Plan for 2016-2021.

The new Action Plan has seen some improvements in terms of the strategies to be adopted by Governments of the sub-region in addressing the global drug problem. For example, it specifically targets high and middle-level drug offenders, while offering alternatives to incarceration for people who use drugs – including treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration services where needed.

ECOWAS continues to demonstrate strong commitment to addressing the drug problem in the region by facilitating the availability of a wide range of evidence-based treatment options, including opioid substitution therapy. The Action Plan also calls for harm reduction services to be made available, which is a great step taken by ECOWAS. It also includes a commitment to review and collate drug policies across the region.

In addition, ECOWAS has set up the West African Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (WENDU) for the collection and collation of epidemiological data at the regional and national levels. The Network is present in all 15 ECOWAS members states, and includes a focus on drug treatment demand indicators and aggregate data on drug supply to inform policies.

The key role of civil society in the fight against drugs cannot be downplayed, not least because civil society organisations often offer services for marginalised groups that most governments are unable to provide themselves. The Action Plan recognises this, and clearly calls for strong partnerships with civil society as well as continued work with the West Africa Commission on Drugs.

In as much as ECOWAS is to be commended for these efforts and positive steps taken, there is still the need to address key issues like the need for decriminalisation (which is distinct from legalisation), proportionality in our sentencing, and government support for proven harm reduction services. These need to be strong calls made by ECOWAS, as people continue to be punished, marginalised and tormented through inhumane criminal justice responses, with lives being ruined just for the possession of small amounts of a drug. 

One other issue that has not been given enough attention in the ECOWAS Action Plan is needed to protect the basic human rights of people who use drugs. Everyone has the right to life, to health and to freedom from persecution: it is no different when it comes to people who use drugs. Yet in most West African countries, these people are considered violent and a threat to society, and are denied access to quality healthcare facilities. ECOWAS needs to urgently address the lack of quality health services available for people who use drugs, and work to make them accessible.

Finally, West African governments should also be providing alternative livelihoods for people who engage in cannabis cultivation in the region. Even though the ECOWAS Action Plan seeks to create employment avenues for people who grow cannabis as a source of livelihood, the on-going criminalisation of subsistent farmers needs to be critically reviewed.

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