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Rethinking West Africa’s War On Drugs

DAKAR – By now, it has become almost a cliché to say that the war on drugs has failed. The prohibitionist approach, most fully articulated by former US President Richard Nixon, has done little to curb drug use, but it has had devastating consequences for individuals and societies worldwide. In Latin America, to cite one example, it has led to repressive state policies and the militarization of interdiction efforts at the expense of policies addressing the detrimental effects of drug use on health and social welfare.

This approach risks causing similar damage in West Africa, as the region’s own war on drugs drives an increase in state repression and human-rights abuses. In 2014, the West Africa Commission on Drugs noted that criminalizing every aspect of drug-related activity, including possession for personal use, has resulted in a host of negative consequences. Drug use has been driven underground, corruption has grown, and prisons have become massively overcrowded. And it is overwhelmingly the poor – many of whom should be helped rather than punished – who are thrown in jail, while wealthy drug users buy their way out of criminal sanctions.

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But repression has not prevented West Africa from becoming a major transit hub for cocaine, heroin, and cannabis. In March, Nigerian authorities discovered and dismantled the country’s first industrial-scale crystal-meth lab, indicating that the production, distribution, and consumption of synthetic drugs could be rapidly rising in the region. West Africa lacks reliable trend data regarding drug consumption, but there are signs that it is on the rise.

Given the severity of the crisis, West Africa cannot afford to be silent at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem. A more humane response must be adopted, one that respects human rights and treats the problem as a public-health challenge.

In January, representatives from 11 West African countries, including drug-control agents, convened in Accra at a meeting organized by the West Africa Civil Society Institute. Those present declared their support for refocusing the drug-control effort on public health and human rights, rather than criminal justice.

A similar approach is advocated in a wide variety of position papers and declarations, including the 2013 African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control, the Common African Position for the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, the Addis Ababa Declaration on Scaling up Balanced and Integrated Responses Towards Drug Control in Africa, and the Abuja Declaration adopted by the Economic Community of West African States. As the Common African Position puts it, “the main objective of drug policies should be to improve the health, safety, welfare, and socioeconomic wellbeing of people and societies.”

West African countries must use the UN special session to make a clean break with the failed approach of the past decade. The region’s leaders must push for genuine reform and not allow the status quo to be reinforced through the strengthening of existing frameworks.

For starters, we must dispel the notion that progressive drug policies will result in a laissez-faire attitude toward drug use and an increase in drug trafficking. Experience in other parts of the world has shown that alternatives to prison for nonviolent, minor drug offenses can lead to better health and law-enforcement outcomes, as drug users are steered to the services they need and police, freed from chasing low-level offenders, can pursue major traffickers.

The UN’s special session must be used to lay the foundation for the reform not just of laws and policies, but also of perceptions and attitudes. As important as policy reforms can be, their effectiveness will depend on lasting changes in societal norms and mores. A clear and unequivocal message is needed, one that enables civil society to sway policymakers not only at the international and national levels, but also at the community and local levels.

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Traditional and community leaders must be made to understand that the criminalization and incarceration of users does not end drug abuse, but merely fills prisons. And they must also be reassured that decriminalizing drug use does not eliminate all sanctions, as administrative penalties and treatment referrals can still be used to deter consumption.

If the UN special session is to realize “a society free of drug abuse,” it must do more than reaffirm previous agreements and pledges. It must be bold and progressive, by proposing the most cost-effective and humane approach to address global drug use. That can happen only if the affected countries and regions – including West Africa – speak out loudly and collectively.