By Charles Kojo Vandyck and Chamrid Kpadonou
Drug trafficking has become a visible threat to governance and development in West Africa. The region is increasingly becoming a hub in the global drug trade and a transit point for narcotics from Latin America through to Europe. Organized crime syndicates are also operating in West Africa with substantial increases in local drug production especially methamphetamines.
West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs from Latin America to Europe. Local production and drug use continue to be major issues. This situation poses a threat to good governance, peace and stability, economic growth and public health in a region that has only recently emerged from decades of violent conflict.
In response to these growing threats, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD). After eighteen months of research, consultations, and visiting some of the most affected countries and communities in the region, the Commission released their flagship report in June 2014, including a series of evidence-based recommendations for drug policies across the region.
The report suggests that policies crafted to combat the phenomenon must be firmly rooted in the public health sphere. Therefore, removing criminal sanctions for drug use is one of the most effective ways to reduce drug-related harms, to facilitate access to treatment, and to free up resources for law enforcement to focus on more selective deterrence and targeting of high-value traffickers.
The report also recommended that there was the need for more systematic collaboration between West African states and civil society in the fight against drugs. However, civil society in the region lacked the necessary expertise to make a meaningful contribution to the effort.
This situation led to the creation of the West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN), which advocates for evidence-based drug policy reform that seeks to reduce harm, protect public health and human rights, and educate the public on the impact of drug trafficking and abuse in the region.
In preparation for the United Nations, General Assembly Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem that took place in April 2016, West Africa Drug Policy Network organized a series of National Multi-Sectoral meetings on drug policy reform in three target countries; Benin, Senegal and Ghana, to shape discourse among key stakeholders in these countries from relevant public-sector institutions. The national meetings culminated in a regional consultation that shaped and consolidated a West Africa position for UNGASS.
The network’s engagements have translated into action with the new Ghana Narcotics Commission Bill, which is due to be presented before parliament before the end of 2017. Under the prospective legislation, people will not face criminal sanctions for possessing drugs for personal use. If the law passes, Ghana will become the first Sub-Saharan country to decriminalize personal drug use and possession.
However, during these engagements, it became clear that there was a need to develop standards and guidelines for new drug laws within the region based on evidence to support advocacy and policy influencing efforts. It is within this context that the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) and the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) conducted a desk review of existing drug legislature from the fifteen (15) ECOWAS countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte D'Ivoire, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo), as well as Mauritania and Morocco. The report highlighted the punitive nature of the current legislation in the region and the current discrepancies with the sentencing regime in the region. For example, in Benin, drug supply, trafficking and production is punishable by 5-10 years prison sentence; however, in Mauritania drug supply is punishable by 15-30 years prison sentence and the death penalty for repeat offenses.
This mapping report served as baseline for a 2-day expert workshop on a model drug law for West Africa. The workshop was organised by the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) in collaboration with the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) with support from the Open Society Initiative in West Africa (OSIWA) and the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP). The workshop interrogated the findings of the mapping exercise and strategized on the way forward. The meeting provided an opportunity for stakeholders within the drug policy space to intervene and proactively shape a model drug law that responds to the particularities of the region. According to experts an effective model drug law should take into cognisance and leverage on current initiatives by institutions such as ECOWAS and the UNODC. It is also noteworthy to emphasize that the work already done by the WACD and ongoing reform efforts in Senegal and Ghana can be used as a foundational framework.
During the meeting, experts agreed that a regional model drug law must be responsive to the major challenges government will face as they implement reforms. The law should define an effective approach to ensure that various government ministries, departments and agencies responsible for drug control work in tandem with other non-state actors. Other issues that need to be addressed are access to essential medicines for palliative care and pain relief, access to treatment for problematic users, provisions to enable harm reduction, alternatives to criminal sanctions for possession for personal use and a proposed integration with existing frameworks and existing models, e.g. ECOWAS model law for money laundering.
It has become apparent that a comprehensive model drug law for West Africa is an important step to advancing drug policy reform efforts and sustainable development goal three (SDG-3) that seeks to ensure healthy lives and wellbeing for all. Therefore, efforts to harmonise drug laws within the region must be given the necessary support by governments and non-state actors. These efforts can only bear fruit if there is cross-border multi-sectoral support from governments and drug policy stakeholders within the region.
Charles Kojo Vandyck is Head of Capacity Development at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI).
Chamrid Kpadonou is Project Coordinator (Drug Policy) at WACSI.