A frank report cited by two former African presidents has called for the decriminalization of minor drug offenses, saying that trafficking, consumption and production is undermining development in West Africa and abetting corruption.
Picking up the momentum led by some U.S. governors, the report by a panel of African experts criticized current punitive policies which, they said, was fuelling corruption in a region where the cocaine trade alone is estimated at $1.25 billion a year – a figure which dwarfs the combined budget of several countries.
“We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offences,” Olusegun Obasanjo, the commission chairman and former president of Nigeria, told reporters in Dakar, Senegal, last week. He was joined by leaders from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mauritania, Nigeria, Cape Verde and Mali.
According to the West Africa Commission on Drugs, “West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production.
“The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks.”
“Most governments’ reaction to simply criminalize 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 Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N., who commissioned the study.
The report blamed the widespread criminalization of drug use for bloating the prison population.
Inmates are rarely reformed and in many cases end up more criminalized or sick as a result of their time inside, said the report, entitled “Not Just in Transit – Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa.”
The policy paper is the result of 18 months of research and consultations with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and several regional and national organizations.
Contributors included Senegalese psychiatrist Idrissa Ba, retired Sierra Leonean judge Justice Bankole-Thompson, Pedro Pires, a former president of Cape Verde.
Governments are urged to avoid a “militarization of drug policy” which, says the report, has been ineffective in Latin America.
“We caution that West Africa must not become a new front line in the failed ‘war on drugs’, which has neither reduced drug consumption nor put traffickers out of business,” the report said.