West Africa ‘should decriminalise’ low-level drug offences

West Africa should consider decriminalising low-level and non-violent drug offences, according to a report from the West Africa Commission on Drugs. The drug trade in the region is now not only a threat to public health but is undermining institutions and damaging development efforts, says Not just in transit: drugs, the state and society in West Africa.

Although the region has been experiencing a period of optimism, with growing economies, increased democracy and fewer civil wars, this is at risk from the ‘destructive new threat’ of the drug trade, the commission states. ‘With local collusion, international drug cartels are undermining our countries and communities and devastating lives.’

The area is no longer simply a transit zone for drugs bound for Europe, it says, but a ‘significant zone of consumption and production’ in its own right. At an estimated $1.25bn, the scale of the cocaine trade alone ‘dwarfs the combined state budgets’ of many countries in the region, it adds, and while the region has a long history of cannabis production, mainly for local
consumption, it is now also becoming a producer and exporter of synthetic drugs.

‘The drugs trade is currently valued at hundreds of millions of dollars in West Africa, a region where the majority of the countries are still among the poorest in the world,’ the document states. ‘The growth in drug trafficking comes as the region is emerging from years of political conflict and, in some countries, prolonged violence.’ The legacy of this instability is state institutions and criminal justice systems that are vulnerable to infiltration and corruption by organised crime, it says.

Drug use needs to be regarded ‘primarily as a public health problem’, argues the report, which is the result of 18 months of collaboration with regional, national and international organisations including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Although traffickers and their accomplices should face the ‘full force of the law’, drug users themselves need help rather than punishment, it argues. ‘We believe that the consumption and possession for personal use of drugs should not be criminalised,’ it states. ‘The law should
not be applied disproportionately to the poor, the uneducated and the vulnerable, while the powerful and well-connected slip through the enforcement net.’

‘Most governments’ reaction to simply criminalise drug use without thinking about prevention or access to
treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems,’ said ex UN secretarygeneral
Kofi Annan, who initiated the commission. Full report at www.wacommissionondrugs.org

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