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west africa drug bust Cellou Binani/AFP/Getty Images

West Africa’s Failed War on Drugs

The region's drug laws are in desperate need of reform. To reduce the harm caused by the illegal drug trade while maintaining access to essential medicines and services, governments must stop punishing addicts.

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.

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