The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) has called on African member states to avoid making the mistakes of other regions, particularly Latin America, by thinking that they can eradicate drug markets through an arms race with drug traffickers or by meting out harsh punishments on people who use drugs.

“A drugs-free world is never possible”, Ms Maria-Goretti Ane, IDPC’s consultant for Africa, stated during the first meeting of the African Union (AU) Specialized Technical Committee (STC) on Health, Population and Drug Control – which took place from April 12th – 17th in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The harsh sanctions applied to people who use drugs create suffering and actively undermine efforts to restore a safer and healthier society – and also impede the availability of essential medicines, such as opiate-based painkillers, to those in need.

Mr Gunashekar Rengaswamy from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said, “Many Africans are suffering without being able to access pain relieving medications due to legislative restrictions placed on them… About 93 per cent of our populations are suffering from cancer, HIV or tuberculosis; women in labour are dying without being able to have access to pain relieving medication which is a gross violation to their fundamental human rights”.

He therefore urged governments of African countries to review national laws, and to put in place mechanisms to prevent the diversion of controlled medicines into illicit channels.

The STC meeting sought to sensitized ministers and experts on the nexus between drugs and health. It lay down a five-year strategic framework on drug control, with specific focus on drug use prevention and treatment standards. This platform also gave an opportunity to establish national and regional drug observatories, and to discuss a common African position for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem, to be held in April 2016 in New York.

Addressing participants at the conference, the drug control expert from South Africa highlighted the necessity of the conference. She noted that the conference was being held at a time when illicit drug use and trade poses a veritable threat the security of states, social and economic development on the continent.

She pointed out an urgent issue that requires the keen attention and response from decision makers across Africa: “There is a need to recognise drug use as a public health problem”, she said. She recommended that member states must roll out interventions targeting vulnerable groups.

Ministers were specifically urged to treat drug use as a public health issue rather than as a criminal justice matter while confronting political and governance weaknesses with traffickers and some corrupt officials.

The meeting brought together experts on health, population and drugs control, United Nations partner agencies, media, academics and civil society organisations working in the field of health, population and drugs control and ministers from the following AU member states: Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea Conakry, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, the Sharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan Swaziland, Togo, Tunisia , Zambia and Zimbabwe. In addition to these member states were AU officials, Regional Economic Communities, UN agencies, international governmental and non-governmental organisations, and other cooperating partners.

During the meeting, IDPC reiterated the need for Africa to be very active in the global debate, and to have a common voice at the UNGASS and beyond. Africa cannot afford to miss this opportunity to take stock of the negative consequences of the current system and to ensure that the drug control treaties remain ‘fit-for-purpose’ in the coming decades. However, the debate around a common Africa position – supported by IDPC – could not be concluded at the meeting itself with several countries asking for more time to review and comment on the draft. A final document should be available in the summer.

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