Home » Side event: New trends in the illicit drug markets in Africa

Side event: New trends in the illicit drug markets in Africa

Organized by the Institute for Security Studies

Jason Eligh, Senior Expert, Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime: Good morning everyone, it’s my pleasure to be part of this side event here at this year’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs. And it’s my pleasure also to have the opportunity to present to you and discuss with you today data that is the result of partnerships with 1000s of people who use drugs across Eastern and Southern Africa and I hope in the next 10 minutes or so, I’m able to offer some insight into the dynamics of these markets across the region.

I’d like to begin with this presentation, and you’ll see that the subtitle of the presentation is getting beyond the grey. My first argument that I’d like to put to you, is that we tend to overestimate what we think we know about drug markets in the region. If we are to develop effective drug policies, if we are to develop effective drug programmes and support programmes, it’s important that we understand exactly the dynamics at play in the markets that are being addressed by these, we need to understand some very simple things in that how many people are using drugs in a particular market? What kinds of drugs are they using? How are they moving? What are the dynamics involved, what are the structures involved that are supporting the market? How is it that markets are continuing to exist in certain places, being sustained over a number of years, and in many cases being resilient in the face of quite stringent prohibition efforts.

Now the World Drug Report for those of you who don’t know, is the Bible as it were, for the international drug policy community and in particular for surveillance, around what is occurring with respect to drug use, globally. It’s a document that comes out once a year and about a year of work goes in by the people within the United Nations who put this document together. Now one interesting feature that you’ll see if you examine the data, and the graphics that often come out of this document. And I circled them here, is that Africa as a continent as a whole, tends often to be coloured in grey, and grey, in this sense denotes no data, or unknown situation, any kind of opioid use and any kind of stimulant use across the continent, and you can see, by way of Africa and in our region in particular Eastern and Southern Africa, there’s an awful lot of grey, there’s an awful lot we don’t really know what’s going on here. If we dig a little bit deeper, and we look at more detailed data in respect to countries and drug use, you can see that from the data sheets available, only about half of the countries have information that’s available on any drug for any year in time so that’s any sort of information that exists. Further still, if we wanted to look at information around drug pricing or purity, and again for any drug over any period of time, you can also see that there’s an awful lot of grey. Now I’m not saying this as a way of trying to criticise the UN in the document that it pulls together it’s an extraordinary effort to try and draw together all of this information, and to do this on an annual basis from every country around the world. However, one of the limiting features of this document is the fact that the primary data’s annual reports questionnaire, and the nature of that data depends a great deal on the voluntary completion of these questionnaires by countries around the world. The majority of countries in the continent tend not to complete this questionnaire, and therefore, data from these countries tend not to make it into Vienna, and therefore, into the report as a whole. In other cases, there is perhaps not necessarily the resources possible, or in some cases the desire to pull this together and to push it forward to Vienna. Now this is important because the global policy framework and the foundation upon which Global Drug Policy is grounded in Vienna through the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and Drug situation around the world. And if our knowledge at that level is limited by the fact that a large amount of data that really we ought to have in front of us if we’re drawing these policies is not available, then our ability to develop evidence based, well informed policy to respond to these threats or to respond to the situation as it is in these parts of the world is also extremely limited.

I’d like to now move into last year and a half, across eastern and southern Africa, in terms of trying to understand better what is going on there, particularly with regard to synthetic drugs but also more generally looking at other substances like heroin and cocaine. This is just a quick outline of the sources of the information that I’ll be talking about. And you can see that we’re looking at nearly 3000 people who’ve participated as partners with us in this research. We’ve also had a large number of interviews in the hundreds with people who distribute drugs, both at a lower level and those who are important at a higher level. We’ve had interviews also with law enforcement security officers as well as other experts in the field as a way of trying to First, gather the information that doesn’t exist and secondly understand really what does it mean, and what is diverse, the myth that that Africa itself is largely just a transit zone, that that is a periphery, to the global movement of drugs around the world, that it’s a way station between producing countries and consumer nations in the EU or America or elsewhere. Africa has a very vibrant market for illicit substances, not just in terms of their movement through markets but in terms of also their consumption. This is a map that shows very basic, very simplistically the movement of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine to the continent through the region, and also through the region and beyond that if we were to drill down a little bit further and look at methamphetamine, in particular, probably the most common synthetic substance, we could see that in fact the movement becomes a lot more detailed, there’s a lot of border flow between markets and also within markets. So it’s not as simplistic as this is a continent of or a region of people who largely smoke cannabis, with the odd person who may use some heroin or a bit of cocaine, but they’re the minority, and nobody objects to a situation where there’s actually a large volume of drugs moving through the markets, feeding these markets. Now, if we were to look a bit more in depth at the situation. And this is a map here that looks at the prices. In this case for crystal meth across countries of the region, and also provides some comparative values for you with some countries in the EU and elsewhere, so that you can see that in this case the price for crystal methamphetamine in euros per gram ranges from around 17 euros per gram in South Africa, to a high of around 71 in Tanzania, and various points in between. You can also see the flow of methamphetamine from Afghanistan. This is one of the newest features that is has occurred within the last year in southern Africa in particular, is the high volume of its flow from South Asia, along preexisting heroin routes, and in many cases, alongside heroin in the same vessels, for container ships to the eastern coast to the continent, and then overland primarily to South Africa, but also by possibly to several other locations there. And you can see the price ordered, and in many cases, the methamphetamine is ordered, for example by phone from Cape Town to someone in South Asia, and it’s then delivered through pre existing channels and flows, and you can see that a price of a kilo of crystal meth in Cape Town, for example is around 11,000 euros. So it’s quite a significant financial increase to move it from A to B. So the further away, and the more restrictive market that you can get into, the higher price that you can command for your product. Now, this is an estimate of people who use crystal methamphetamine. So these are six countries on this map, you’ll see here where we’ve had some come up with some preliminary estimates. And you can see that there’s a significant number of people who use methamphetamine, in particular, in South Africa. But a growing number in other emerging markets going up the eastern coast and then further than that. You can also see that there’s significant production, not only in South Africa, but also in Mozambique, and in the case of the region, significant production coming out of Nigeria and West Africa, that is also feeding the region. So it’s a region that has had a long history with synthetic drugs that predates methamphetamine. One final point on that is methamphetamine being consumed per year across those six countries involved. That’s an awful lot, just to put to put a point on that. That’s an awful lot of methamphetamine, and it’s an awful lot of methamphetamine that is not appearing in seizures or other interdiction efforts. And it’s quite significant. This is a table that examines methamphetamine in wastewater effluent, so it looks at the volume of meth in a particular geographic region, as measured through sewage systems. It’s quite a good way of understanding better what is being consumed in an area, and it’s something that’s used by the EU as well the EMCDDA which is the drug monitoring body there. And you can see the Cape Town has one of the highest numbers, measured in places where this is just research has been done. And it’s not just methamphetamine that is a challenge in the region. It’s a region that that has a wide array, and a growing number of synthetic substances that are commodities within its various domestic that have been taken as part of the research that has been ongoing, and you can see in the top left are barrels of oil that were seized in a particular country. Oil is a primary precursor for the production of MDMA, or ecstasy. And there’s quite a growing volume of MDMA being produced in southern Africa now by local groups, with the purpose of supplying local markets. Beneath that you’ll see an image of crystal methamphetamine. That is arrived in southern Africa from Afghanistan. And you can note the size of the crystals and the, the cleanness and relative purity of it. Methadone as well is a synthetic version that is produced in the region.

So, with a diversity of products we have a diversity of price points. These are the price. In South Africa, that the markets themselves. We’re not talking about one substance, perhaps, feeding a small marketplace we’re talking about a grocery list of synthetic substances that are available in many of these markets and becoming increasingly more available across the region, and moving further away from the coastal points. I conclude by just acknowledging the many minds who’ve contributed to this bit of research that I’ve had the opportunity to present to you today, and direct you also to our website for, for a lot more in depth information on some of the things I’ve talked about today. Thank you very much.

Richard Chelin, Senior Researcher, ENACT:Good morning to everyone. For me the key aspect is I will provide a specific case study, a type of synthetic drug which is not commonly found in other countries in Africa, predominantly seen in Europe and America, but which has the potential to be a game changer. Should it entrenched itself into the market, and that drug is not the type of synthetic drugs, which is your NPS your new psychoactive substances, but more specifically will be the case of synthetic cannabinoids story. The story is about David, not his real name. David and I were classmates in primary school, And we actually literally grew up together. Every day after school I would spend time at his house, and vice versa. He was a very smart, young child at that time, and his dream was always to be a mechanical engineer, mostly because of his love for toy cars and bicycles and secondary school, my parents emigrated to South Africa, from Mauritius and in a way, I lost contact with David, but almost two decades later, I went back to Mauritius to visit friends and families spend time and while I was there I wanted to catch up with David. Try looking for him but I couldn’t find him. I later learned that David had passed away, resulting in cardiac arrest and he left behind his wife and two children. So, getting to know what happened, it turns out that after high school. He started taking drugs were like experimenting with drugs. And it was around that time that synthetic drugs started to hit the, more specifically synthetic cannabinoid. He tried it, and that was the turning point in his life as a side hustle to make some money. In addition to his work he was working as a cook in a restaurant. It was a new thing on the block and everybody was so excited about the drugs, he could sell it that his former colleagues as university, former classmates at school, and their siblings and friends who were still in high school. It was easy way to make money. And at that time, law enforcement, were not aware of the drug anyway. And David was caught, and he spent a couple of months in prison. When he came out, he lost his job. His wife divorced him, and he lost the full custody of his kids. Unable to find employment, David went back to what he knew – dealing in NPS, but this time we started consuming more than ever before and eventually that proved to be the downfall. And there are many David’s and in different genders, both in Mauritius and around the world and on the continent. But however, David is a perfect illustration of the health and social impact that drugs, synthetic drugs more specifically NPS have on the island, and how organised criminals care very little about the harms of the drugs that they are selling, manufacturing and distributing to users. So, going back to Mauritius. When people hear of Mauritius, one as a beacon of hope for Africa, primarily due to its economic boom and governance and rightly so, with proven to be over the past decades to be one of the top countries in the governance aspects in the continent. However, behind this shining light of the Indian Ocean and Africa, it also has a dark side. Mauritius history of drugs dates back to the abolition of slavery back in 1934. Back in the 70s that would alter the course of Mauritius illicit drug market and culture. The challenge of drug abuse. Since then, continue to escalate to alarming levels. So that Mauritius became the country with the highest prevalence of opioid use in 2010, especially heroin. In a bid to stem the problem, the government decided to adopt a more holistic public health approach and moving away from punitive on drugs approach that proved to be successful. Until 2013 When the discovery of the first case of synthetic drugs was at the progress. Within two years, law enforcement discovered 11 types of synthetic cannabinoids on the island. According to law enforcement officials, when this synthetic cannabinoid first appeared in an attractive packets label, not for human consumption, similar to your spice and k2. However, as it became more difficult and expensive to import already made and packaged products, criminal syndicates started importing precursor chemicals directly from China or India, and to a lesser extent, South Korea to manufacture it themselves. And several features characterise the uniqueness of the NPS market in Mauritius. Just one gramme of this powder can create 300 grams worth of synthetic cannabinoid products. Hence it’s lower cost and derive quite a great profit from it. And there are various modes through which you can receive the precursor chemicals through post, through the Internet, whether it be online or through the dark web. There have been people using WhatsApp, or even telegram to bring the product onto the island, but mostly it comes through Korea, as in different products. So, in 2020 I did a study to find out more about the problem on the island it was becoming quite concerning. From the time I grew up, heroin was a big issue, but it was quite surprising. During the search and after the researcher discovered that it’s quite a big criminal market. Dealers and synthetic drugs are the same as those who dealt in the hard drugs. So, diversifying their markets in a way, but also it created opportunities for new syndicates or new individuals to venture into the market. That was because it was easy-  the ingredients were easier to manufacture, and to obtain, and they had a lot of clients especially young people who wanted to try that. And also there’s no hierarchical structure like in your heroin trade or your methods of settlement. Anyone can order the chemical, mix it on producing and selling. And this resulted in what I usually term legislation of the drug market. In basic terms we no longer have a hierarchical model where you have the kingpin on top, And then you have the manufacturers right clients. As simple as that. you’ve removed a lot of middle person in the market. This democratisation has resulted in criminal syndicates manufacturing their own concoction. In backroom and garages, not using any of the synthetic cannabinoid chemicals but rather using various toxic substances which result in more public health concern. So what responses were there to the problem. Since they discovered the drug back in 2013, seizures measures are not always the indication of positive results but nonetheless, there was concern for seizures are precursor chemicals. In addition to already manufactured one. One person was also on an awareness programme to children at school, and communities, which was very very comprehensive one of the most comprehensive drug policies and terms of strategy on the continent, includes aspects of demand reduction, supply reduction, harm reduction, legislation framework, among others. However, one of the key issues that pops out with such a comprehensive, or as it is there any comprehensive policy is, how do you collaborate effectively. By the time when I was still there back in 2020, there seemed to be no specific treatment to address NPS overdosing or poisoning. But eventually, I think as time went on, they started to realise that there are some methods that are being used. NGOs have stepped in to provide harm reduction services and to also help with cases of people addicted to synthetic drugs. While some mostly predominantly methadone to deal with the issues, there’s been conflicting results. Some would say methadone works, others will say doesn’t. But nonetheless, there have been lots of efforts in trying to address that issue. Also another issue that comes out is also that some some people say that synthetic drugs bring a lesser sentence than heroin or cocaine.

So some of the recommendations that come out of the study or is one of them would be creating more awareness around synthetic drug issues, which is currently taking place, but there is a need for greater collaboration between law enforcement and civil society organisations in innovative ways to continue promoting the awareness and advocacy programmes. The other one would be obviously the drug master plan which was designed and implemented from 2019 to 2023. One of the recommendation will be to create a collaboration among the different departments. However, there has been little known about the progress of the strategy, although it may have been implemented in 2019. What is known about the implementation. Possibly because it’s so broad and so wide that it is a bit more than impossible for government to implement every single aspects, the one recommendation would be that specific departments focus on specific recommendations and implementation plans, for instance, law enforcement could focus on supply reduction, addressing the organised criminal market, the syndicates, and all of that departments, while demand reduction, where civil society could take the lead in harm reduction where they could take the lead in implementing that because they’ve got more experience and have decades of experience in doing the work, while it doesn’t mean that civil society will take over, but it’s more joint collaboration by taking the lead on implementing these future they experienced. The legislation could either take the form of an individual listing of NPS substances, or an NPS specific legislation, which, depending on the context the region and the way of the markets would be dependent on which one would be more suitable. And the last one was quite a controversial issue is that the issue of decriminalisation where many people believe that if you decriminalise and for instance that would result in the reduction of consumption of synthetic drugs and heroin, for instance, while it’s still conflicting there’s not been no study done on it, but the direction in which the current government or the current authorities are taking which been the traditional approach is that it is quite far from the picture, that there will be no time soon that decriminalisation would be an actual be taken in consideration. We’ve seen that Mauritius presents a perfect case study that if you ignore it and only concentrate on a specific aspect of the market. In the case of Mauritius of NPS mirages serves as a prime example for other countries to be on the lookout to be aware that, given the various illicit markets that exist in Africa I like chasing rights created pointed out, there wouldn’t want to be in the case of malicious where you, you become a reactive rather than corrective. So I think for me, the 1 key aspect that come out would be to be on the proactive state, and prevent a situation that happened in Mauritius.

Thank you Richard for your presentation. It’s always helpful for us to reflect on the effects, both on the health and the social aspects of these synthetic drugs and individuals.


The problem had always been there of member states and countries not submitting data. What can UNODC do to encourage member countries to always submit data?

The ISS, UNODC and ENACT do encourage member countries to always submit data, because data analysis of data is so important. The first is that there are a lot of countries in the region, that don’t really take the understanding of their domestic drug markets as seriously, perhaps as they should, in places that prohibit illicit drugs, and they have campaigns to crack down on drugs, and they imprison and in many cases don’t even provide services for people who use drugs who, as you probably know, are often among the most marginalised and vulnerable in a lot of these communities, so that the first is whether or not a particular government thinks they’ll want to collect data on it and learn more about it. The second issue is that most of the countries in the region have no idea what is going on in their own in their own backyards. They think they know. So they think by the presence of a seizure, for example, that this tells them a lot about what’s going on in the market but seizures are misleading and in terms of its ability to tell you really anything about what’s going on a seizure is a glimpse of a particular substance at a particular point in time, a particular place. The presence of a seizure doesn’t necessarily mean that the substance that’s being seized is being used in that area. The absence of a seizure, as well, of a particular substance doesn’t mean that there’s none. So, an over reliance upon seizures, and maybe upon arresting people on the streets is providing them a skewed, understanding of what is happening in their country. And there’s really no push or desire to understand it better. Part of the reason why we embarked upon the research that we’ve been doing. And we’ve been doing it also with a number of government entities. So we looked at three things in each of these countries, how many people are using, what are they using, how much and how are they using it. There’s not a country on the continent that has a reliable evidence based, drug user size estimate. There are a few that exists, there are consensus estimates, but they are the minority, they are the exception and not the rule. So if we don’t have any data then how can we begin then to actually fill in an ARQ and report these information.

Concerning the production of synthetic cannabinoids in Mauritius. If you are able to do research on the production and consumption, did you manage to understand how they distribute, either within the country, or to other countries?

It is usually the same dealers would be in heroin that deal with synthetic cannabinoids, just another, means for them to make money. Another type of drug which can be attractive, but also you’ve seen new type of dealers coming on board which to specifically on was filled with synthetic cannabinoid only because it’s easy to obtain, and also less consequences when you get caught. So who are the users will move to synthetic because of the more you get a higher high, if I may put it that way on synthetic. And then, heroin, we’ve seen a lot of synthetic cannabinoids being sold to the youth at schools and communities. We’ve seen them in pubs and communities. So, a younger generation, being sold to the younger generation, younger people, and then becoming quite concerning.

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