On Friday, 20th March, the Parliament of Ghana passed the Narcotics Control Commission Bill into law. This brought great excitement to many who have been following the legislative process since 2015, when the Bill was first introduced. Many civil society organizations (CSOs) in Ghana laud the Government for this significant moment in the history of drug policy reform in the country. The new law makes huge inroads towards more humane drug policy, and will pave way for other good examples to emerge in the sub-region.

An alternative to incarceration for people who use drugs

One of the stated purposes of Ghana’s new drug law is to treat drug use and dependence as a public health issue. The new law has converted the prison term for drug possession for personal use into a fine of between 200-500 penalty units (translating to GHC 2,400 – 6,000). This does not mean that drug use has been legalised, as portrayed by some media outlets. It means that instead of sending people to prison for up to 10 years for simple possession of drugs for personal use, they will offer alternatives to incarceration. This is in line with current programs and policies to decongest our prisons, notably the Justice for All program, instituted in 2007.

Under the old law, too many people were being put behind bars simply for possession of 1 or 2 rolls of marijuana or any other drug for personal use – yet the consumption of all kinds of drugs appeared to continue increasing. The evidence is that disproportionately repressive approaches to drug control, and particularly to drug use, have not succeeded in eradicating drug markets and related harms. Instead, these policies ‘have led to serious unintended consequences and often disproportionately impact upon the poor and marginalised, while creating a rich and powerful criminal market that undermines the security of states.’

The fundamental goal of drug policies, therefore, ‘should be to improve the health, safety, security and socio-economic well-being of people by reducing drug use, drug-related harms, illicit trafficking and associated crimes.’ In line with this, there has been a global shift towards evidenced-based policies instead of focusing on the failed 'war on drugs'.

As a country, these pragmatic steps are also completely in line with our obligations under the three international drug control conventions, as well as other UN resolutions and commitments to address drug use and possession, including the UNGASS Outcome Document, agreed to by the international community in 2016.

The Bill gives hope back to people who have been neglected by society, and have been continually punished and demonised instead of provided support as needed.

Since the passage of the law, there have been a lot of misconceptions in the media and civil society circles that drug use has now been legalized. This is definitely not the case! Drug use, as well as supply, production and trafficking, remain offences under the new Bill; same as before. The difference in approach is rather on how authorities respond to drug use: fines, rather than imprisonment.

Ghana is not alone in this move. Numerous countries have adopted this approach, and indeed gone further into less punitive responses to all drug use, with a great deal of success.

The new law will also allow, for the first time, the implementation of lifesaving harm reduction services for people who use drugs, which will help curb the transmission of bloodborne viruses (such as HIV and hepatitis B and C), overdose deaths and drug dependence.

These steps are clearly in line with Sustainable Development Goal 3: Health and well-being for all, which won’t be achieved if we continue to leave people who use drugs behind when they may need health services.

By offering alternatives to incarceration for people who use drugs, Ghana’s criminal justice system will be less congested, our prisons will be less overcrowded and our law enforcement agencies will be able to focus on those at the helm of the drugs trade, rather than predominantly young, poor and vulnerable groups.

Changes in relation to cannabis and hemp for industrial, medical and research purposes

Another key area that has been of great interest, and that has also led to confusion in the media, is the incorporation of some special provisions relating to cannabis. The new Bill will regulate the production of cannabis products that contain very small amounts (less than 0.3%) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) —a key compound associated with the cannabis “high”— for industrial, medical and research purposes.

This step mirrors current global discussions. In 2019, the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drugs Dependence (ECDD) delivered the results of a detailed review of the evidence around cannabis. One of the recommendations is about removing cannabis from ‘Schedule IV’ of the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a move that acknowledges that the drug has ‘substantial therapeutic advantages’ for the treatment of pain and other medical conditions, such as epilepsy and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis.

Those who fear that this will open a floodgate for illicit drug use are catastrophising, ignoring the evidence from over 30 countries where thousands of patients benefit from medical access.

Many are also questioning if Ghana is not breaching its international obligations by taking such steps, but let me be clear that the international conventions are designed at their core to ensure the availability of controlled drugs for medical and scientific purposes, while preventing their diversion for illicit purposes.

Further to this, the new law also permits the cultivation of non-psychoactive cannabis plants (hemp) for industrial purposes. This is a great step in the right direction as many of us have argued that we cannot achieve SDG 1 to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’ by 2030 if we do not provide our people, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, with means to access economic resources, basic services, land ownership, etc.

In this regard, the law offers an opportunity to respond to the needs for sustainable livelihoods of our rural farmers, particularly young people who have relied on cannabis farming to survive. In implementing the law, authorities must favour the transition towards formality of those historically pushed to the margins.

Recalibrating the role of the Narcotics Control Board

The new Bill also seeks to make the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB) an autonomous body that can oversee all drug-related issues.

The Board is currently under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence and Interior, and heavily relies on the Prosecuting Unit of the Ghana Police Service and the Attorney General Department to prosecute cases on drugs.

The Bill gives NACOB the status of a Commission, equipping the Board with a legal department to carry out prosecutions and granting the Board with powers to formulate policies to flesh out the bill.

The expectation is that the Narcotics Control Commission will be more autonomous, preventing interference by the governing political power. This remains to be seen.

A West African approach to drug policy [reform]

This new Bill represents an important example for drug policy reform advocacy in West Africa. Historically, drug policies have been imported to our region. And it is under these imported rules that we have seen drug production and trafficking skyrocket; which offers further evidence that ‘tough-on-drugs’ laws do not work.

Ghana’s example shows civil society and government can engage in dialogue to realign our countries’ priorities, to ensure participation, to advance sustainable development and to seek a brighter future for our youth.

Ghanaians should be enthusiastic and optimistic about this new drug law. It is not perfect; and results from complex debates and compromise. But our Parliament has shown leadership in getting this reform over the line.

I call on other West African governments to demonstrate the political will to follow on Ghana’s footsteps and do all within their power to break the cycles of poverty, vulnerability and criminalisation.

The “war on drug” revealed itself to be a war on people, creating obstacles for the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals, violating human rights, undermining public health. And I am so glad that Ghana has turned its back on it and begun to move away from this failed approach.