LAGOS, Nigeria — The West African Commission on Drugs recently released a high-level report stating that the criminalization of personal drug use is not working. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo emphasized that while cartels should be tackled, low-level drug offenses for drugs in West Africa should be decriminalized and instead focused on as a public health issue.
Instead of providing deterrence, the report argues that current drug policies provoke corruption and increased levels of violence.
Drug trafficking and personal consumption has been a major problem in West Africa since the turn of the century. Recently, West Africa has proven to be an effective new route for drug cartels who have been using the region to transit cocaine.
The cocaine originates primarily in Latin American countries and then makes its way to West Africa before it is funneled to consumers in the U.S. and Europe.
A new report commissioned by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan estimates that $1.2 billion in annual cocaine is filtered through West Africa. This number alone is higher than the total of foreign direct investment in the region.
The widespread presence of cartels is undeniably a big issue for West Africa. In 2009, the crash landing of a Boeing 727 full of cocaine in Mali was attributed to the dangers of the drug trade.
Given these events, the report advocates for devoting increasing amounts of energy and funding into stopping the major cartels rather than targeting individual users.
Additionally, the commission believes the problem is beyond simply a reallocation of resources such as devoting efforts into cartels rather than individuals. The commission has addressed the issue from a human rights perspective as well, stating that jail time does the prisoners more harm than good.
Obasanjo and his colleagues emphasize that drug use should be regarded primarily as a public health issue. The report states, “Drug users need help, not punishment.”
In some cases, individuals charged with drug possession for personal use are sentenced to 10-15 years in prison, where they live in appalling conditions including overpopulation. Inmates are rarely reformed and, in many cases, are increasingly criminal or sick upon their release— often more so than when they were first imprisoned.
In countries where court proceedings are slow, the commission describes people being forced to stay in a pre-trial detention for long periods of time, sometimes only released after paying a bribe.
In Guinea, offenses for personal drug use can be punished with either a fine or imprisonment. This gives the better-off drug traffickers the advantage of an escape, as they are able to pay the fine while other poor and vulnerable drug users cannot afford it.
This backwards system encourages corruption, according to the report. Recommendations on decriminalization were in part influenced by the Organization of American States which suggested that sentences be reduced for individual users — particularly for the use of cannabis.
“We abhor the traffickers and their accomplices, who must face the full force of the law,” states the report. “But the law should not be applied disproportionately to the poor, the uneducated and the vulnerable, while the powerful and the well-connected slip through the enforcement net.”