Drug laws in West Africa: A review and summary

23 November 2017

Drug policies across the member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) vary markedly. Existing drug laws and approaches are rooted in the prohibitionist interpretations of the international drug conventions,
and have gone unquestioned for decades until recently. Yet as the international debate continues to progress – albeit slowly – towards more proportionate, evidence-based and humane policy responses, there is increasing interest among the region’s governments in revisiting and reviewing existing drug laws.

In 2014, the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) launched their flagship report entitled Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa. The report highlighted how West Africa has become a hub for the global drugs trade, alongside increased local production and consumption of drugs – with serious threats posed to governance, stability, economic growth and public health in the region. In the report, the WACD made a series of recommendations for the reform of drug policies – explicitly warning that “West Africa must not become a new frontline in the failed war on drugs”. The WACD report received a great deal of media and public attention across West Africa, with Commissioners embarking on a series of high-level country visits to discuss their findings.

To further inform and advance the debate around drug policies, the WACD and the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) have conducted a desk review of existing drug legislations from the 15 ECOWAS member states (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 (two countries seeking to join ECOWAS in the near future). A summary analysis of these drug laws is provided below, focusing on four key areas: penalties for drug possession or use, and alternatives to incarceration; penalties for drug supply, trafficking, production and other offences; harm reduction, public health and human rights; and international commitments and engagement.