By Sanna Camara
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, and Nigerian head of State Olusegun Obasanjo have broken the silence over the much contentious but little said drug legalization in the west Africa sub region, calling for the decriminalization and other reforms of drug legislations in the sub region.
As convener and Chairman of the Kofi Annan Commission respectively, the two are arguing that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem. “Drug users need help, not punishment. We believe that the consumption and possession for personal use of drugs should not be criminalised. Experience shows that criminalisation of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption,” a joint statement they issued as a declaration, published over the weekend said.
“Deeply concerned by the growing threats of drug trafficking and consumption in West Africa”, Kofi Annan, Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) in January 2013. The Commission’s objectives are to mobilise public awareness and political commitment around the challenges posed by drug trafficking; develop evidence-based policy recommendations; and promote regional and local capacity and ownership to manage these challenges.
Civil wars have receded, our economies are growing
They believe that West Africa can look forward with optimism. “Civil wars have receded, democracy has gained ground and our economies are growing. But a destructive new threat is jeopardizing this progress: with local collusion, international drug cartels are undermining our countries and communities, and devastating lives,” the Comission said.
Interviews conducted in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone found that people arrested for drug offences – often within the framework of operations aimed at meeting targets for arrests and seizures – tend to be small-scale dealers in, or users of, cannabis who spend long periods of time in pre-trial detention, often falling victim to other illnesses before being sentenced or released upon payment of a fine (or as is more often the case, a bribe).
Drug traffickers avoid prison sentence by paying a fine
In countries such as Guinea, where there is no dedicated drug law, the option to either fine or imprison those found guilty of drug related crimes provides a means for drug traffickers to avoid a prison sentence by paying a fine, and also fuels corruption within the judiciary as it favours a situation where the option of fines is frequently applied regardless of the gravity of the case. Such practice also means that the more vulnerable members of society, for whom the law prescribes the same legal punishment, are the ones who usually incur prison sentences since they are unable to pay the fine.
Decriminalisation refers to those circumstances when low-level drug offences (such as drug use and/or possession, production and cultivation for personal use) are no longer dealt with through criminal sanctions. Under this model, sanctions may be administrative (such as fines, referral to treatment or educational courses) or may be abolished completely. While decriminalisation means that the use and possession for personal use of drugs is no longer part of the sphere of criminal law, high-level drug offences (such as trafficking, mass production and large-scale supply) remain illegal.
Reclassify, decriminalise, or legalise drugs in criminal law
In acknowledgement of these realities, a growing body of scientific enquiry, including government commissioned studies, has led to important efforts to reclassify, decriminalise, or legalise drugs in criminal law. A recent report notes how mounting evidence of the devastating consequences for individuals associated with criminalizing drug use – stigmatisation, mass incarceration, impact on employment, public health harm – have led a number of countries to decriminalize drug possession and use.
In 2013, in a major report on drug policy, the Organisation of American States tabled the idea of experimenting with alternative legal regimes, particularly for cannabis. In addition, two US states have legalized all uses of cannabis and twenty states allow sale and use of cannabis for medical purposes.
Switzerland decriminalised cannabis offenses in 2013
Along with Switzerland, which decriminalised all minor cannabis offenses in 2013 and now treats them as administrative infractions akin to traffic violations, several European countries refrain from applying criminal sanctions to minor cannabis offenses. In December 2013, the parliament of Morocco held a public hearing on legalisation of cannabis for some purposes, a question with enormous economic consequences in this important producer country
What ultimately emerges from the evidence is that the harms of criminalisation far outweigh
those of decriminalisation. West Africa would remove a huge weight from an already overburdened criminal justice system if it were to decriminalise drug use and possession, expand health and social services for those with problematic use and expend greater effort in pursuing those traffickers whose “pernicious behaviour”86 has a much deeper impact on society, and rooting out corruption from within. More specifically, freed up resources can be channeled to more promising law enforcement alternatives such as “focused-deterrence strategies, selective targeting, and sequential interdiction efforts.”