Home » What Next for Drug Policies in Africa in the Run-Up to the UNGASS?

What Next for Drug Policies in Africa in the Run-Up to the UNGASS?

Ambassador Olawale Maiyegun – Director of Social Affairs, Africa Union
In 2012, the AU agreed a Plan of Action on Drugs 2013-2017, which promotes a balanced approach to the issue across Africa. In 2014, African Ministers of Drug Control met again, under the heading “Drugs Kill. But Bad Drug Policies Kill More”. The meeting made a series of recommendations – including the need to agree a common African position for the UNGASS in 2016, and to scale-up evidence-based and human rights-based services for people who use drugs, improve public drug treatment programmes, to leverage national funding for these services, to improve research and build capacity, and to move from a predominantly sanction-orientated approach to one which focuses on public health.

The West Africa Commission on Drugs then played their video, available here.

President Olusegun Obasanjo – Chair of the West Africa Commission on Drugs
The conclusions of the African Ministers of Drug Control are similar to those of the West African Commission on Drugs. Drugs do not just pass through a country – they are not ‘Just in Transit’ as the Commission’s reportstates – they are widely used and produced, and lead to widespread problems and links with other criminal activities and groups such as Boko Haram. There is an urgent need to step-up our efforts to ensure a cross-border response. Interdiction is improving, but remains hindered by capacity issues and the interference of the well-connected who compete for the spoils from drug trafficking. Yet the links between drug trafficking and terrorism are not ideological, but criminal opportunism – so militarising the response to drugs would simply make the situation worse.

The Commission abhors the drug traffickers and their accomplices who should feel the full force of the law. But law enforcement should not focus on the small fish, the drug users. In Nigeria, for example, a drug user can go to jail for 15 years – where there is no rehabilitation, no treatment. The little fish get caught, while the big fish swim free – we do not arrest those running the criminal network, but their foot soldiers on the ground.

Drugs have become increasingly available, and the region is simply not ready to deal with this and with drug-related harms. Our responses – to stigmatise and lock people up – are inadequate. Even the USA has now realised this. Drug users need help rather than punishment, so we need to put more resources into treatment and harm reduction programmes. We need to reform drug laws and to rebalance. The Commission recommends the decriminalisation of drug use and low-level drug offences. There is no single answer, and no one-size-fits-all solution. Countries must address their own situations and needs. These are the most important findings from the West Africa Commission on Drugs, but apply to other parts of Africa as well.

Current drug policies are not working. If we try certain things and they don’t work, and then we continue the same way and expect different outcomes – then something must be wrong. Today we face a stark choice – we can continue business as usual and see our institutions undermined by drug money, see our young exposed to disease and epidemics, and see decades of development compromised. Or we can find the courage to change policies that no longer fit reality. There must be no more sleeping on this issue and claiming it is not a problem – we must own the problem, and own the solutions.

The Africa Union Plan of Action is a big step in the right direction – it calls for greater treatment and access to pain medication. It is also strong on the human rights protections of people who use drugs. We have the tools needed – so are we going to have the courage to do what needs to be done. This requires a strong and coordinated effort, with the support of the whole world. We know what works and what does not work. We have our own experiences and those of other regions. It is time to adopt and adapt success stories from across the globe, and time for a smarter approach to drug policy. We commend our report to you all.

Kadre Desire Ouedraogo – President of ECOWAS
West Africa has become a key area, and ECOWAS is now implementing its first Plan of Action (2008-2015) and has begun to prepare its new Plan from 2016-2020. This is one of many mechanisms to address drugs in West Africa. Expresses gratitude to the West African Commission for their report and recommendations, which they will incorporate into their next Plan of Action.

–          Links between ECOWAS and other regions (East and South Africa)?
–          From Uganda – feels that one position is being forwarded: decriminalisation. What other views, not in support of decriminalisation, are being supported? Most of the African population are young people, so what message are we likely to send to young people. I am not in favour of criminalisation, but we need to be careful about the balance and messages.

President Obasanjo (to Uganda): Our message is ‘balance’, and we are also relying on evidence over the last 50 years and in other parts of the world. The evidence has found that just dealing with the criminal aspect of drugs does not work. I was in prison for three and a half years, and so I saw these boys, schoolboys caught and put in prison for using drugs. No treatment or rehabilitation, and a greater market for drugs than outside of prison! So he comes out a bigger drug addict that when he went in. We have to look for other ways to deal with this. At the same time, the big barons who make millions of dollars get away with it, as they can buy and corrupt the system. Balance is crucial between criminal justice (which cannot be eliminated), and public health. It will take time to get this balance right.

When they launched the report, they faced many questions about the word decriminalisation. Maybe depenalisation is a better word?

H E Ouedraogo (to other question): We organise regular meetings between regional groupings to compare strategies, exchange information and learn lessons from each other. We also have regular retreats between the AU and these regional groupings to harmonise approaches – to make sure that we are moving together and in coordination.

Question from Nathalie Rose (PILS, Mauritius): The Commission’s recommendations do not seem aligned with the Africa Group position that was presented yesterday (link?). How can you influence this, to bring it more in line.

President Obasanjo: Our report has been publically launched and submitted to ECOWAS, and we hope to address the ECOWAS Summit soon. We are promoting it, and it is important that civil society also promotes this.

George (Kenya): Treatment is not the only option, and prevention should also be a focus. The grassroots organisations working with young people also need to be protected from the ‘big fish’.

President Obasanjo: The question always comes up – ‘what do we do to protect the children?’ I agree that prevention is important. When we put young boys into prison or remand homes, we are not protecting them. Parents, the community and the schools all have responsibility to protect children. If all three of those things fail, we have to leave it into the hands of god!

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