Drug trafficking is fast becoming the most serious problem in West Africa. The sub-region has seen an increase in drug trafficking, production and consumption which continues to ruin many lives. There has also been an exponential increase in corruption and impunity which mainly favours drug barons in the region. This also has an adverse effect on citizens who possess or consume very small quantities of drugs.

As a whole, the proliferation of the drug trade in West Africa significantly undermines people’s well being and create a major road block to development efforts.

Source: West Africa Commission on Drugs

The yearly value of cocaine transiting through West Africa is estimated by the United Nations to be worth US$ 1.25 billion, which is higher than the national budgets of many West African countries including Liberia, Cape Verde , Sierra Leone, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. This humongous amount which are direct proceeds of drug trafficking, production and consumption within the sub-region has a deadly effect on governance and sustainable development .

According to West Africa Commission Drugs (WACD) 2014 report, West Africa is not only a transit zone of drugs from Latin America to Europe. Synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine, are increasingly being produced in West Africa for the Asian market. Furthermore, in some countries a strong protection economy for drug kingpins has emerged, allowing them to operate with impunity.

Organised crime syndicates exist at all levels of society in West Africa and pose a threat to good governance, peace and stability, economic growth and public health in West Africa, a region that has only recently emerged from decades of violent conflict. Drug trafficking is becoming a new threat for the “development” of West Africa.

Narcotics narratives are often portrayed as a security issue with more focus on law enforcement through the criminal justice system without a deliberate link to development. The response to drug issues is similar in West Africa, focusing on punishment with the aim of eradicating the supply of illegal drugs and creating a “drugs free world” – this can best be described as an illusion. The criminal justice response has failed.

According to statistics, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in trying to eradicate illicit drugs, the industry is bigger than ever with a growing number of drug users each day. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2015, it is estimated that a total of 246 million people, or 1 out of 20 people between the age of 15 and 64 years, used an illicit drug in 2013. This represents an increase of 3 million over the previous year.

The current drug policy control approaches in West Africa and beyond are negatively affecting public health, economy, the rule of law, human rights, gender and social development.

Drugs and public health

The primary objective of the international drug control conventions is to protect the health and welfare of mankind. Unfortunately, in practice, the drug free illusion has led to too much focus on criminal justice, law enforcement, instead of public health and the protection of human rights.

In West Africa, the situation is worsening and public health is compromised with an increase prevalence of HIV among people who use drugs and lack of access to essential medicines for palliative care primarily for pain relief and the treatment of cancer patients. Statistics from UNODC’s 2013 World Drug Report state that the prevalence rate of cannabis use in West and Central Africa combined (12.4%) is higher than Africa and the global average, 7.5% and 3.9% respectively.

According to the Ghana’s Minister of Foreign affairs during her statement at the 2016 United General Assembly Specially Session (UNGASS) on drugs, “ it is estimated that nearly 90% of cancer and AIDS patients in Ghana cannot be treated adequately on the current level of morphine supply’’. The current shortage of morphine in the Ghana hospitals has affected treatment given to the majority of cancer and AIDS patients.

The World Health Organization, UNODC and UNAIDS have developed a ‘comprehensive package’ of harm reduction services to reduce the health risks associated with drug use, such as HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and overdose among others. These policy guidelines and programmes have been proven to be cost-effective and have been endorsed by the African Union in its Common Africa Position (CAP) in which the AU called for a commitment to harm reduction programmes, including facilitating access to healthcare in prisons and promoting alternative non-custodial sentencing mechanisms for minor non-violent drug-related offences.

Unfortunately, in West Africa and Africa at large, due to the repressive laws and related law enforcement policies and practices these programmes are yet to take full force. Currently, Senegal is the only country in West Africa implementing a harm reduction programme even though the laws are still very punitive. As a result, less than 1% of people who inject drugs in Africa have little access to needle and syringe programmes or opioid substitution therapy.

Unlike the visible presence of antiretroviral treatment available in the sub-region, hepatitis C remains a great threat in West Africa. The danger of hepatitis C can be seen in potentially serious health problems for those infected, with the possibility of liver failure, liver cancer, and premature death.

In West Africa when a drug user is arrested, under the current regime such a person  has to be incarcerated if found guilty without being given the opportunity to seek help for his or her problematic drug use when needed.

Over the years this approach of sending drug users to prison has only exarcerbated their problem because the prisons settings are often characterised by overcrowding, inadequate ventilation and limited medical facilities for treatment, all of which contribute to the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis among prisoners.

According to the UNODC World Drug Report for 2015, the incidence rates of tuberculosis in prisons could be 8-35 times higher than among the general population for some countries. Combined infections of HIV and tuberculosis are particularly serious, with each infection speeding up the progress of the other.

Drugs and the economy

West African countries, as elsewhere all over the world, tend to focus on eradicating supply with little attention to the demand side. Policy makers have failed to appreciate that, demand drives supply. No matter the stringent methods adopted, drug users will always discover new ways of satisfying their cravings for drugs.

An illustration of this is the balloon effect which was the cause of stringent measures put in place by the United States to impede drugs from Latina America to reach their coast. This led to the opening of  new routes through West Africa.

West Africa is now a major hub in global drug trafficking. According to the UN, the yearly value of cocaine transiting through West Africa is estimated to be US$ 1.25 billion. For a region with a high rate of youth unemployment, this could lead to the implosion of social cohesion and an increase in crime.

In addition, this huge money can easily fund rebellion or terrorism to overthrow democratic elected government. For example, many analyses have been able to establish an interconnection between terrorist threat in the sub-region (precisely Mali) and drug trafficking.

Furthermore, the drug market encourages money laundering affecting the formal economy, and in turn discourages investment in affected regions.

According to United Nations Development Programme report from June 2015, on ‘Addressing the Development Dimensions of Drug Policy, “The existence of a large illicit sector in the economy can also distort economic data and, in turn, macroeconomic and structural analysis and policymaking”.

Drugs, human rights and gender

Societal stigma makes drug users vulnerable to abuse either from law enforcement, their family and society as a whole. These violations include rape, arbitrary detention, unfair trial, torture, ill-treatment, lack of access to basic health care among others. Due to the harsh sentencing policy and fear of being arrested or reported, drug users are discouraged from seeking treatment and other health services, exacerbating their situation of vulnerability and increasing risk behaviour.

Women, in particular, appear to face barriers to treatment. According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2015 while one out of three drug users globally is a woman, only one out of five drug users in treatment is a woman. Women who inject drugs are also often more vulnerable to HIV than their male counterparts. In Senegal, HIV among Female Who Inject Drugs (21.1 percent) is three times higher than among Male Who Inject Drugs (7.5 per cent). In Nigeria HIV among Female Who Inject Drugs (21.0 per cent) is seven times higher than among Male Who Inject Drugs (3.1 per cent). In addition, women who use drugs often fail to access harm reduction services – even when those are available – because of the high stigma associated with their use, and the lack of gender-sensitive services available to address their specific needs.

Links to sustainable development 

Drug issues cannot be considered separately from a development paradigm. The international drug control bodies, as well as West African countries, should shift their drug control approach and try as much as possible to embrace a holistic perspective of the issue in light of the debates that took place at and around the UNGASS on drugs in 2016, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon in September 2015.

The measurement of success in drug control should no longer rely on the number of people arrested or amounts of drugs seized. The huge amounts of money invested in law enforcements by West African government to operate prisons could be realigned to strengthen the health sector and fund development projects and programmes to address the drug problem.

Governments need to explore and focus on solutions that promote public health, human rights and citizen engagement and participation. West African governments should integrate drug policy and human development in their development programmes.

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