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Marijuana is a traditional drug in West Africa, and it remains the drug of choice of the region’s young and poor. Legalising it in the region will be an economic boost to its farmers, as well as freeing law enforcement resources currently dedicated to suppressing its production, sale and consumption.

UNGASS 2016, a three-day meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in April, is the most anticipated in the history of international drug control regimes, mostly because it is has attracted intense civil society interest. For the first time in history, a critical mass seems to have coalesced to advocate a radical change in the current repressive approach to narcotic drugs so that the focus is more on public health concerns and less on criminal sanctions.

This may seem like a simple, reasonable and uncontroversial demand when it is, in fact, anything but. Drug policy reform, like any reform effort, has its passionate advocates, who extol the great public good this will lead to as well as its resistors, who fear the pitfalls of change. These individuals are mainly those who have invested enormously in building up the status quo. The prohibitionist approach to drugs may not be perfect, they argue, but it is better than opening a floodgate, which reform will lead to.

Unfortunately, the balance of power seems to favour the latter view. For this reason, UNGASS 2016 may well turn out to be an anticlimax. A Zero-draft document – a “short, substantive, concise and action-orientated outcome document comprising a set of operational recommendations” – was produced last year for negotiation. A final outcome document will be produced by 16th March 2016, to be approved by the General Assembly in April 2016. The contours of a final agreement become clearer each day: the expectation among civil society and some countries that UNGASS may consider reforming the legal framework for global drug control so that countries may be encouraged to eschew the current heavy focus on criminal justice in favour of a more public health-oriented may be largely disappointed, says a new policy report produced by the United Nations University entitled “What Comes After the War on Drugs?” The report states that Member States are likely to reaffirm the existing (prohibitionist) drug control regime, coupled with a call for flexibility in implementation of that regime. However, flexibility can cut both ways, that is, it could mean a new more humane approach towards implementing the existing drug control regime for some countries, while others will “likely treat an agreement on flexibility as an acceptable response to their calls for respect for state sovereignty in setting domestic drug policy, including the use of strong punitive approaches,” the report argues.

In fact, I understand that the term ‘harm reduction’ – a fetish among reform advocates but something which some governments believe will not only encourage drug dependency but will legitimise it – is unlikely to appear in the final outcome document. This is in large part because Russia does not want it to. Decriminalisation of marijuana may be suggested, but with lots of qualifications.

That will be a victory of sorts, though reform advocates now generally regard decriminalisation of marijuana as a pretty low bar: many, including this writer, would go the whole hog, to legalise it. Even so, whatever the outcome document states, the challenge of implementation – which would involve changing well-entrenched policies, laws, and bureaucratic cultures – will remain. It is a challenge which civil society must face beyond UNGASS.

This is the point I have made at every opportunity for the past six months while working with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) as a consultant on UNGASS. The debate relating to drug policy reform is very new in West Africa, and it is often met with puzzlement from officials. It is not that drug trafficking and drug consumption are not acknowledged by officials as growing problems – though in some countries officials are automatically defensive when these issues are raised. The point is that some of the worst fears – initially fanned by UN officials (from 2005) – about the region facing a takeover by drug barons who would turn it into a narco-backwater have come nowhere close to realisation, despite the appalling experience of Guinea-Bissau.

No official in the region now seriously argues that West Africa is merely a transit point for the drugs; there is unanimity among policy makers in the region that narcotic drugs like cocaine and heroin are increasingly consumed in the region. They would argue, however, that since they are not produced in West Africa, all effort must be dedicated towards preventing their influx into the region, either for further shipment to Europe and North America, or for consumption. Told about a critical issue like harm reduction, the kneejerk response of many officials is to argue that in the West African context, the most important emphasis must be supply reduction.

The challenge, according to these officials, is to make sure the drugs don’t come to their countries for any reason. Officials generally downplay the fact that some West African countries have been known to manufacture and export (principally to South East Asia) amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), and that this has triggered their use and dependency, especially by young people. Such enterprises, they argue, are easy to detect, isolate and destroy – proof of it being that they are not widespread.

What this jaunty approach does not explain is why, even with their repressive policies and hundreds of people being locked up each year, consumption of all kinds of drugs appears to be on the increase.

West African officials are often wary of discussing the experiences of other regions with respect to drug policy. I have not met a single official who seriously fears that the ravages of the failed global war on drugs in Latin America might be replicated in West Africa, or that the harm reduction experiments in Portugal (or for that matter the controlled legalisation of marijuana in the Netherlands) is plausible in any West African country. Our cultural and economic contexts are different, they argue. When the war on drugs is discussed at all, the image it evokes is of hooded and heavily armed soldiers presiding over the incineration of drugs or engaged in gun battles with cartels in Mexico or Colombia. In fact, similar, though less dramatic, raids by security agents are routinely carried out all over West Africa – the result of counter narcotic policies adopted since the mid-2000s in reaction to a number of major interceptions of cocaine in transit to Europe from Latin America. The targets of such raids, however, are not “kingpins” but mainly impoverished young people who smoke or sell marijuana and other narcotic drugs in their ghettoes and homes. Hundreds of these young men and women languished in detention without trial for months, sometimes for years – an enormous travesty and violation, as well as loss to the countries perpetrating such violence.

Marijuana is a traditional drug in West Africa, and it remains the drug of choice of the region’s young and poor – as it is for world’s 250 million narcotic drug users. It also accounts for nearly half of the $300 billion that the global illegal narcotic drug market is worth. Legalising it in West Africa will be an economic boost to its farmers, as well as freeing law enforcement resources currently dedicated to suppressing its production, sale and consumption. The role of governments, however, will remain important, as it is with cigarettes and alcohol, in taxing it, and in making sure that it is not advertised or marketed to children.

Interestingly, African leaders appear to understand the problems associated with repressive policies towards narcotic drugs. The African Union “Common African Position on UNGASS 2016”, agreed in Addis Ababa in April 2015, is forthright. Drug policies which focus entirely or disproportionately in law enforcement, incarceration, punishment and repression have not succeeded in eradicating supply, demand and harm caused by illicit drugs on the continent, it stated. 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 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.”

This eminently sensible position was endorsed by all West African states. However, as is often the case, efforts are not being made in the region to integrate this progressive position into state policies, including legislations and health programmes. Only Senegal has a rudimentary harm reduction programme.

Here, in other words, is an important pitch for drug policy reform advocates: get your governments to make the African Union Common African Position the basis for national policies relating to narcotic drugs. This is likely to be the post-UNGASS 2016 challenge.

* Dr. Lansana Gberie is Senior Researcher with the Africa Conflict Prevention Programme of Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa. He was Senior Research Fellow at the Kofi Annan International peacekeeping Traning Centre in Accra, Ghana, and Head of the Liberia Program of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). He is an academic and writer and was a consultant for OSIWA on UNGASS 2016.


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