After reading the recent report from the West African Commission on Drugs (WACD) urging West African countries to decriminalise/ legalise narcotic drugs it dawned on me that most of the recommendations outlined lack proper analysis concerning the territory it is reporting on.
Throughout the report carefully selected data and statistics from territories, foreign and distant from the West African sub-region are provided. This data has little, if any, socio-cultural and geopolitical similarities to the sub-region. As such, the relevance of such data and statistics as foundations for a fundamental reversal in narcotic drug policies is highly doubtful.
We all know the threats posed by narcotic drug use globally. We should bear in mind that even though narcotic drug use is a global problem, solutions to that problem need to be sensitive to the social and cultural settings they are being implemented in. For West African countries it is certainly important to learn from other countries, to take part in experiences made in other parts of the world and this way find ways to tackle the problem at home.
The call, I think, for decriminalization/legalization of drugs in the sub-region is harmful.
Given the facts that countries in West Africa, like my own country Ghana, still lack well functioning public health sectors and social welfare systems, that political institutions are still volatile and susceptible to corruption; given the fact that abject poverty still is the bedrock for conflict, crime and social inequality and under-developmentand; given the fact that governments are under financed and epidemics of communicable (tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/ Aids) and non-communicable diseases are looming – I think from these facts clearly point into one direction for West African countries: they have to choose cost-effective and ugh-impact measures to prevent the problem of harm from narcotic drugs to rise to similar heights.
The long term consequences of the use of narcotic drugs are non-productive individuals, broken families and fragile communities. We know, for instance, that marijuana use can make the user passive and non-productive in the society, and that it impairs brain development. The issue of treatment and rehabilitation programs, which the report suggested as basically the only solution, is not even cost-effective and high-impact for the governments of these countries as they have do not even the resources for such programs, and so we see the report proposes copy-paste programs from the West without considering the nature of the struggles in West Africa.
I think that treatment and rehabilitation are important because I believe that every narcotic drugs addict can manage to become free from his/ her addiction and deserves opportunities to find his/ her way back into society.
But especially in the West African context it is crucial to remember that demand prevention and reduction measures, that preventive education and public enlightenment programs about the consequences of harmful substances are several times more cost effective than interdiction, treatment and rehabilitation strategies as tools for tackling the narcotic drug problem. For every Dollar spend on prevention, governments save 10 Dollars in treatment and rehabilitation.
Open dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of policies targeting the prevention and reduction of harm from narcotic drugs as well as their cost-effectiveness should be the first step forward. The report issued by WACD does not contribute to this debate, unfortunately. I am disappointed in Kofi Annan, that he gives his name to projects advancing special interests instead of the common good of the people in West Africa.
The next step is to advocate for evidence-based strategies to promote public health, safety, independent information and the well-being of society. That’s what West Africa needs.
For further reading:
WFAD release in reaction to WACD report