In West Africa and around the world, the ‘war on drugs’ has proved futile and the severe sanctions meted out to people who use drugs have yielded no results. The use of drugs such as marijuana (weed) and cocaine in West Africa continues to increase by the day. According to the report of the West Africa Commission on Drugs, this has now taken on a dimension that threatens the security, governance and development of many countries in the region.

This has given birth to strategic efforts to change the status quo, and to highlight the need for a paradigm shift – one which seeks to support and not punish drug users. A workshop organised by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the West Africa Commission on Drugs and the Kofi Annan Foundation armed thirty media practitioners from all across West Africa with knowledge and understanding about balanced drug policies, harm reduction, stigma and effective reporting.

The two day workshop took place from June 3 to 4 in Accra, Ghana with financial support from USAID. Participants came from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

At the opening of the workshop, the Executive Director of WACSI, Nana Asantewaa Afadzinu, called upon the media to leverage their role as opinion formers to lead the debate and ensure that the drug policies adopted by governments do not cause more harm than good to the society. She stressed on the need for the media to engage in accurate reporting as a means of sensitising the general population, and re-iterated her organisation’s commitment to support civil society efforts towards more balanced and humane drug policies in the region.

Peter Tinti, an independent journalist representing the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, broadened the scope of participants to better understand the issues pertaining to drugs in their various countries. Through group sessions, he allowed participants to identify drug related topics that warrant investigation, and to reflect on the existing social, economic and political challenges that they pose. During the workshop, Jamie Bridge and Maria-Goretti Ane from IDPC also spoke to participants about the current drug control system, the options for a more balanced approach, the UNGASS, and the Support Don’t Punish Global Day of Action on 26th June. Participants were also able to learn from, and question, the WACD Commissioners present as well as from Christian Lokko Lion, a former drug user from Accra who kindly told his own personal story.

A great learning experience

Coming into the workshop, I was asking myself ‘why support, don’t punish – aren’t these people criminals and a danger to society?” But the workshop was a great opportunity to answer these questions, and to educate us all on the negative effects of criminalisation on people who use drugs (effects which outweigh the harms of drug use itself).

These people can and should be helped instead of giving them criminal records for the rest of their lives. For example, Maria-Goretti shared a sad experience she once had as a barrister-at-law, when she witnessed a trainee teacher who was jailed for five years for using marijuana to relieve pain caused by asthma attacks.

At this point during the workshop, I asked myself, ‘did that jail term help this young man?’ The answer is no – this young person’s future has been shattered. The saddest thing is that, in some Ghanaian prisons, detainees are able to access these substances even more easily whilst in cells. Thus, what will be the achievement of imprisoning people who use drugs and adding to the already overcrowded prisons in the country? Instead, rehabilitation or treatment should be given where it is needed to help these vulnerable individuals.

Hearing from Christian was really important. He was helped by REMAR, a rehabilitation centre in Ghana, and now works for the organisation to help other people who are experiencing problems. Criminalising people like Christian simply makes them shy away from public and hide their problems, through fear of being treated as dangerous criminals. Yet drug use and addiction are medical issues and require care and attention in dealing with them. People need support and care if they are to seek help and services to protect themselves from harm.

Our policy makers must check on their drug law enforcement practices and identify more appropriate ways to deal with this as a health issue and not a criminal one. They must also review their drug policies to enable people to seek help without fear of being imprisoned or humiliated by society, and create effective policies that will help people whose rights are being trampled upon. Drug reforms must be on the basis of existing evidence, experience and guidance, and should pursue the decriminalisation of drug use and low-level non-violent drug offences.

This requires all hands, including the civil society and the media, to enable us reach out and help vulnerable individuals. Incarceration leads to suffering and even death, and governments of West African countries need the political will to take the necessary measures to be at the forefront of developing, adopting and implementing humane policies that support and don’t punish people who use drugs.

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