West Africa’s failed ‘war on drugs’

COMMENT

Lagos – No matter where you look in West Africa, drug laws are failing. Despite tough sentencing guidelines and zero-tolerance policies, drug use is increasing while drug traffickers operate with impunity. As the late Kofi Annan once wrote, “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”

One of the problems with West Africa’s approach to narcotics is how the laws are applied. In my country, Nigeria, possession of any illegal drug is technically punishable by jail time — up to 25 years in some cases. But in practice, those who can afford to pay a fine or hire a lawyer are often able to avoid punishment altogether. For the most part, jail is only for poor small-time dealers, couriers, and individual users; the kingpins typically escape justice.

But the bigger challenge confronting the region is that many governments treat drug addiction as a moral failure rather than an illness. This has created an environment of fear in which governments are unwilling to import and doctors do not prescribe legitimate medications, owing to the widespread concern that some could be diverted and they could be perceived and prosecuted as drug dealers. In 2013, for example, none of the 210 000 people who died of painful AIDS-related complications in Nigeria could access morphine. Even in Ghana, which is moving toward some of the region’s most liberal drug laws, morphine use per capita is just 2% of the global average.

Taken together, it is clear that West Africa’s drug laws are doing more harm than good. We need a new approach, one that decriminalises drug use and prioritises treatment.

There are a number of steps that can be taken immediately to move West Africa in this direction. At the local level, clinics and outreach teams could provide clean syringes to people who inject drugs to prevent the transmission of blood-borne illnesses. Doctors, meanwhile, could make methadone available for those who want to quit heroin. Other harm-reduction initiatives — like counselling and disease testing — could help reduce the social, economic, and personal consequences of drug abuse.

Government-level reforms will take longer to implement, but some progress is already being made here, too. Earlier this month, the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD), which I chair, published the Model Drug Law for West Africa, an online tool designed to help regional policymakers rewrite their drug-enforcement playbooks and deliver policies to protect the health and welfare of every citizen.

One of the model law’s top recommendations is removing the threat of incarceration for people who use drugs. This would allow them to access support programs more easily, and even empower doctors and health professionals to prescribe medications for pain without fear of legal action. The model law also offers strategies to help authorities rewrite sentencing guidelines in such a way that judges have more latitude to consider mitigating factors when meting out punishment.

Of course, none of these changes can be made in isolation. Because most crime syndicates that are involved in the drug business also engage in other illegal activities — like smuggling goods, weapons, and people — law enforcement officials must focus on fighting organised crime in all its facets, including corruption and money laundering. Drug trafficking is but one source of funding for criminals, and action against all of them needs to be comprehensive.

Some governments are already making improvements to their laws. Nigeria adopted a national policy last year to streamline the production of liquid morphine, which will make it easier for doctors to prescribe the painkiller to terminal patients. In Senegal’s capital, Dakar, those addicted to heroin can now access methadone, a harm-reduction strategy proven to help rebuild drug-shattered lives. And in Ghana, lawmakers are discussing a bill that would end punishment for first-time drug offenders.

Still, much work remains; the WACD’s model drug law is only a starting point. To protect our communities, leaders must muster the political will to defend the security, health, human rights, and wellbeing of all West Africans — including those addicted to drugs. Annan was right: drugs are harmful. Our drug laws need not be.

Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, is Chair of the West Africa Commission on Drugs and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

Comment Author
Guest Author
Advertisting

Strike-off case pulls in judge

Judge Mushtak Parker is implicated in an application to strike off his former partners. He is also involved in the fight between the Western Cape high court’s judge president and his deputy

One strike and you’re out – registrar tells unions

A municipal workers’ union is the first to be sanctioned for not following the new rule when deciding whether to go on strike
Advertising

Press Releases

Dr Mathew Moyo’s journey to academic victory

The NWU's chief director for library and information services was appointed as a board member of the National Council for Library and Information Services.

UKZN pays tribute to Joseph Shabalala, Doctor of Music (honoris causa)

The university joins the global community in mourning the passing of legendary musician and founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dr Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala.

South Africa to be almost R 14-billion wealthier when SAB Zenzele BB-BBEE scheme winds down in April 2020

It’s the biggest BB-BEE FMCG payout in South Africa’s history, with a new scheme to be launched

UKZN vice-chancellor calls for perspective and creative engagement on the way forward

In addition to overcoming the deadlock between UKZN and students, a way must be found to reconcile the university's financial obligations and students' long-term needs.

Survey shows South Africans’ approval of president but not of political parties

According to the survey, 62% of South Africans think Cyril Ramaphosa is doing his job well, while 39% say no political party represents their views.

Andrew Makenete joins Africa Agri Tech as an event ambassador

Makenete has a wealth of experience in the agricultural sector

Is your company prepared for the coronavirus?

Companies should consider the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic when evaluating whether they are prepared for the coronavirus, says ContinuitySA.

Explaining the distribution of pension funds

Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act puts the ultimate decision-making responsibility in trustees' hands, says Fedgroup.