A Complicated Future: West African Drug Policy Reform

“West Africa has a drug problem.”
- Official statement of the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD)

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) from April 19th to 21st, 2016, was meant to be a monumental event. In fact, it was only the second time in history that the international community had come together to re-evaluate the drug control regime in this way. The first UNGASS was in 1998, when delegates proclaimed that we “should have a drug-free world by 2008”. Over a decade later, the UN openly admitted that “the war on drugs has failed”. Indeed, to have uttered hopes for a “drug-free world” at UNGASS 2016 would have earned you several disapproving looks. To revaluate the way forward, UN member states spent two years organizing under the direction of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to write an outcome document for UNGASS 2016. The outcome document, which is the new guide for international drug policy, details how countries should continue to enforce the three international drug control convention but with greater on human rights, socio-economic development, health, and the welfare of mankind. The attitudes therein represent a large break from a drug war past.

As a representative of the Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa, I applied to observe the UNGASS “round-table debates” as an NGO. Upon arrival, I discovered that the atmosphere was relaxed enough that I could sit in the symbolically empty chair of the African Union unnoticed for the week. From the African Union’s seat in the back, it became evident that the giant conference hall with its the alphabetically ordered representatives acted as a mini-ecosystem, reflective of greater patterns in the drug policy world.

The Latin Americans, for instance, carried themselves with pride. They wandered around cheerfully to greet each other, and found confidence in the large amount of Latin American civil society representatives sitting on the sides of the room. They did not hesitate to rely on Spanish when making statements, and clapped vigorously when Peruvian farmers claimed they were the true victims of stringent drug laws. They assumed a certain cohesion; you could see that they were rising out of a decade long drug war eager to prove themselves as progressive reformers. However, there was an elephant in the room as Evo Morales did his coca-leaf eating spiel. While Latin America is regaining its confidence, the drug trade hasn’t disappeared, instead a huge portion of it has moved across the ocean. Already in 2011, the Global Commission on Drugs warned that “West Africa is becoming a major transit and re-packaging hub following a strategic shift of Latin American drug syndicates towards the European market”. Worse still, the region was suddenly being flooded with new drugs, causing new social problems.

Drugs have since become an even greater problem in the region. To my dismay, not only the African Union was not present in the debates, nearly half of all West African countries were absent — including Liberia and Guinea-Bissau, who suffer heavily from trafficking. If you took a look at the Civil Society section, you could see two Africans at most out over 30 seats. However, Ghana and Nigeria made their presence in the debates very clear. The Chief Directory of the Minister of Health of Ghana and the Director General of the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency often had their microphones blinking, signalling that they were waiting to speak, as they attentively took notes. This was reflective of a greater reality: Nigeria and Ghana, along with Senegal, dominate the regional discussion as to how to address the West African drug problem. While Ghana and Senegal are pushing for more progressive policy, Nigeria advocates more limited and conservative policy.

Nonetheless, one left UNGASS feeling that the issue of West African drug policy was left largely under-addressed. Not only panellists failed to spend enough time stressing the issues facing West Africa, there was a lack of discussion as to how West Africa has responded. Indeed, West African drug policy, especially in regards to drug use and treatment, is often overlooked — even within its own countries. This may be because countries like Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria have only recently embarked in a process of drug policy reform. The circumstances provide a unique opportunity to do what the UNGASS debates fell short of doing, and ask; what will West African drug policy look like after UNGASS? Because the outcome document does not actually impose any changes, I refer to UNGASS in this question primarily as a shift in international attitudes towards drug control.

To answer this question, I will first attempt to explain why West Africa is struggling with drug trafficking and consumption. Second, I will analyse what motivated drug policy reform in Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria, and what the nature of reform currently looks like in each country. By comparing them, I will ultimately be able to draw out the limits of reform in each country, and suggest what the implications for drug policy and drug users will be. Given the influence of these three countries over the region, I hope that these conclusions will help us to identify greater trends in West Africa and position our expectations for drug policies in the region.

Defining the problem

West Africa first got pulled into the drug trade when traffickers began to target the region as a transit route to Europe for narcotics made in Latin America and Asia. The West African Commission on Drugs (WACD) suggests that the yearly value of cocaine passing through West African ports has grown to 1.2 Billion USD. However, drug seizures are so infrequent compared to the pace of the trade it is likely this statistic barely scratches the surface. WACD also makes a point of stressing that the region is “not just in transit”. Although considered illegal to produce, Cannabis sativa grows naturally across much of West Africa, and synthetic drug production units (manufacturing amphetamines and other stimulants) have also popped up across the region. These various forms of trade are not just passing through ports; they are threatening state institutions and security. Trafficking syndicates and producers benefit from political chaos and lack of legal enforcement, and contribute to corruption, money laundering, and violence. After all, contributing to weak state structures managed by elite networks that they can easily infiltrate is in their interest.

However, what WACD and UNGASS delegates consistently stressed is that an increase in trafficking has also paralleled an increase in consumption. No one knows the rate of illicit drug use, but we have reason to believe it is well in the millions. This is concerning for three main reasons. First, the criminalisation of drugs use across the region has led to an overcrowding of prisons. This is not just cutting short the lives of those imprisoned, as the Czech minister of health put it, “jails are bad for your health”. There is no evidence that they decrease the rate of consumption, and in fact, people in jails tend to share more limited amounts of needles, which increases the risk of infection. Indeed, the second problem is that injection drug users tend to have alarmingly high incidence rates of HIV and Hepatitis C. The West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI) suggests that 37,000 people die annually from diseases associated with consumption of illegal drugs. This is made worse by the third issue, which is that the rate of hard drug use has been steadily increasing across the region. Representatives from Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana explained to me that while Cannabis is, and has always been, the most common drug, in the past five years communities have had growing problems with crack, amphetamine, and injection drug use (like heroin). Before the transnational trade made them more accessible, the region had never been seriously exposed to the abuse of hard drugs.

Of course these problems didn’t come out of nowhere. The West African drug problem must be contextualized as a product of colonial legacies, globalization, and neo-colonialism. Without such a holistic understanding of the issue it is impossible to evaluate the value of drug policy reform. Unfortunately, all three phenomena illuminate how the global north has left West Africa vulnerable to the drug trade. Destabilising colonial legacies of exploitation, for one, have left West Africa with underdeveloped economies, a lack of democratic history, and weak state institutions. Of course West Africa was not given the sufficient time to restructure and recover, and instead these issues were exacerbated by globalization and the hollowing out of state institutions following the propagation of the Washington Consensus. Structural readjustments in the 1980s did empower several West African economies, but they also created two very important issues relating to the drug trade.

First of all, as Jorge Heine describes in his book “The Dark Side of Globalisation”, globalisation and transnational trade took form without effective mechanisms of transnational governance and cooperation. This allowed for the birth of transnational organized crime (TOC), which manoeuvres in the shadow of legal transnational organisation to exploit different markets. Of course TOC has the greatest impact on developing countries, which have the least capacity to resist their exploitation. In fact, individuals who find it difficult to compete in a globalised world because of problems like a lack of industrial development — a product of colonial legacies in West Africa — often turn to TOC and illicit markets to find a source of income. This brings me to my second, and most important point. As Alcinda Honwana explains, globalization has caused mass youth marginalisation in West Africa:

Young people’s transitions to adulthood have become increasingly uncertain. Economic growth in recent decades has not translated into job creation or greater equity, and a growing number of young women and men, both educated and non-educated, find themselves unemployed or underemployed. They are unable to attain the social markers of adulthood, such as a secure job, marriage and a family. Trapped between childhood and adulthood, they are living in a twilight zone, a liminal space that has now become known as “waithood”.

This state of waithood is pushing youth on streets in protest, and tempting them into alternative ways of define themselves as self-sufficient adults. She cites them being drawn to radical groups like Boko Haram, but this problem also has radical implications for the drug trade. Not only youth marginalisation promises traffickers an endless supply of “foot soldiers” to support their trade through the region, it also means there is a large population vulnerable to consumption and addiction. Recent studies looking as addiction of mice on various drugs suggests that addiction is not entirely chemical: is has at least as much to do with levels of “environmental enrichment”. Subjects exposed to high levels of stress are much more likely to be addicted to a drug than a subject which is exposed to positive stimulation like a nurturing environment. There are also many psychological human studies that indicate that a lack of “self-esteem” and “social stability” (defined as marital status and employment) contributes to the likeliness of someone becoming addicted to drugs. Clearly, young people who feel dejected and insecure are more vulnerable to addiction than those who have a secure source of income. Problematically, half the population of West Africa is under 30, which fits the profile of the average regular drug user. As the region continues to struggle with high rates of youth unemployment and “waithood”, it seems that drug use can only increase.

Taking all this into consideration, the West African drug problem resembles an odd form of neo-colonialism. Just like in colonial times, West Africa’s weak institutions are being exploited to supply the global north with their insatiable demand for narcotic drugs. In the process, the local population suffers the most from the presence of the trade. Strangely enough, the global north was also the one to push for international drug control schedules that make these drugs illegal. Laws attempting to protect wealthy countries have motivated traffickers to hide their trade in poorer regions with porous borders like West Africa. UNGASS was a formal recognition of this problem, and more than ever West Africa is free to design its own drug policy without simply being told that it must criminalize everything and stop the flow of drugs north.

Indeed, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria have recently embarked on projects of drug policy reform and we will analyse each case separately. First we will try and understand what motivated reform and the current state of reform to analyse what their drug policies might look like in coming years.


Ghana was amongst the first former colonies to gain independence in 1957, and has since enjoyed a particularly successful position in Africa. Until 2015, it has consistently been considered one of the top ten fastest growing countries in Africa, and remains home to one of the most stable and secular democracies in the entire region. It is also one of the only countries in the region where drug policy is openly discussed. This seemed to be reflected at UNGASS, where the only African Civil Society representative that consistently showed up to every debate (and even hosted one) was Maria-Goretti Ane, from Ghana. She is a consultant for West Africa at the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDCP) based in Accra, and thankfully she took the time to discuss the changes in her country with me.

Like in most West African countries, she described the current drug laws in Ghana as “very punitive, with no room for non-custodial sentencing.” A deeper look into Ghana’s Narcotics Control Law, originally written in 1990, reveals many articles that prove her claim. Section 5 states that a person shall “be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not less than five years” if they “smoke, sniff, consume, or inject” a drug of any kind. Section 2 sentences people to no less than 10 years in prison for possession of narcotic drugs of any kind in any amount. Indeed, a complete lack of proportionality of sentencing was one of her main concerns with the law. “People selling cannabis on the street corner are charged like transnational drug traffickers.”

In contrast to these harsh laws, Ghana has become the leading voice for progressive drug policy reform in West Africa. A new Narcotics Commission Bill was put before the parliament in 2015 with the support of the INCB and the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB). The Bill, which has been open to public contribution for the past year, is arguably the most progressive drug reform bill in all of Africa. In its current state, it proposes that cannabis be decriminalized, and that the law make distinctions between different drugs and forms of possession (recreational versus trafficking) and institute proportionality of sentencing. The Bill also places great emphasis on demand reduction and public health, by offering evidence-based harm reduction and rehabilitation programmes to help reintegrate drug users into society. In fact, amongst other projects, it asks that the AIDs commission start a needle exchange pilot programme, and that the Government offer special licences to doctors who want to administer methadone substitution treatments to heroin addicts. When the Bill goes before the full parliament house in late May 2016, Mrs. Ane claims, “we know that it will pass without much resistance.” Although it was difficult for me to find other sources to prove this, certain promising reforms have already been passed since UNGASS. For instance, on May 5th, 2016, the Ghanaian Supreme Court declared Section 96 (7) of Act 30 unconstitutional, rendering it null. The law had previously designated consumption and handling of narcotics as offences for which bail could not be granted. It seems that this is only the beginning of a fundamental change in the way that Ghanaian drug users will be treated before the law.

What surprised me the most, however, is the way in which my research and my interview with Mrs. Ane suggests that Ghanaian society is receptive, even enthusiastic about these changes. Mrs. Ane herself wore a pin that said, “support don’t punish” — a radical notion even in many European countries. However, these receptive conditions for reform are not the product of a population that has long been culturally accepting of drug consumption. Instead, one could more accurately describe the atmosphere for reform as having been created from the outside in. Several external factors that have uniquely been applied to Ghana have encouraged changing ideas about the ways in which drugs should be treated, and ultimately encouraged what are now the initial stages of reform.

The first factor was an element of public shame. In 2012 a vessel was seized off the shore of Ghana carrying 200 million USD worth of cocaine. A few days later law enforcement professionals involved with the seizure had allowed the cocaine to “disappear” and the bags of evidence were suddenly filled with flour. It was a public scandal, and the panic surrounding the situation caused the Minister of the Interior, Mark Wyongo, to propose a bill reforming the drug laws. “It did not see the light of day because at the time the debate on drugs was still a moral debate, and a conservative one.” However, the conversation on drug laws did not end there. In 2013 undercover Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas released a video exposing the prison conditions for non-violent convicts that shocked the country. It prompted the Director of Prisons and Mr. Wyongo to put together an on-going nationwide commission to re-evaluate the sentencing of non-violent criminals, which includes drug users and traffickers.

As perceptions of law enforcement were being challenged, another important factor stepped in: the role of Kofi Annan. Kofi Annan, himself “a son of Ghana”, has long been in favour of reforming West African drug policy. To this end, in January 2013 he convened the West African Drug Commission (WACD) to educate heads of state and citizens alike on the importance of evidence-based reform. Up until the formation of WACD, drug use was widely considered an underground activity that people did not discuss. The 2014 final report brought to light issues of consumption that civil servants had previously found difficult to discuss in public circles. To further the impact of the report, Kofi Annan personally travelled to each West African to speak to their respective Presidents and discuss the possibilities of reform. One particular statement he made was widely circulated in Ghanaian media: “Drugs are dangerous, but current narcotics policies are an even bigger threat because punishment is given a greater priority than health and human rights.” Anas’s work seemed to prove that was true.

However, these initiatives may not have been as impactful if it were not also for the leadership of many officials in the Ghanaian government who were ready to receive and promote them. Mr. Woyongo not only pushed for prison reform, as suggested he had also long been pushing for drug policy reform. Following the scandals and the formation of WACD, he seized the opportunity to again push for a reform bill which evolved into the current Narcotics Commission Bill. “He is a progressive man backed by a progressive board”, and without him it is unlikely that drug policy specialists would have had enough backing to put forth a reform bill before parliament as early as 2015. Executive Director of NACOB, Yaw Akrasi Sarpong, also contributed to the Bill, but his public statements have been particularly challenging of public perceptions of drugs. On various occasions Mr. Sarpong has gone as far as stressing the utility of legalizing Cannabis sativa. He argues that it has commercial benefits, and that the incarceration of non-violent drug users works against economic development. Indeed, NACOB often stresses that incarcerating addicts exacerbates the poverty that encourages addiction and that “only one in 18 drug users in Africa receive the treatment they need”. As was made clear at UNGASS, the new Chief Director of the Ghana’s Ministry of Health, Afisah Zakaria, also strongly advocates reforming policy to allow for decriminalization and offering medical treatment to drug users. In her position she not only has the power to ensure this happens in her country, at UNGASS she also made a point of emphasizing that other countries should do the same. Indeed, two days after UNGASS, Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hanna Tettah, made her first statement on drug policy also claiming that the international community “needs public health and not criminal measures.” Inevitably, the statements made by national leaders have the effect of shaping public opinions and what is considered acceptable. These leaders, who were further legitimized by the work of Kofi Annan and Anas, have been able to gradually transform what used to be an inappropriate topic of discussion into a formal national debate.

However, drug policy reform in Ghana, both now and in the future, certainly would not be possible without Ghanaian civil society organisations (CSOs). Indeed, CSOs have the power to imbed and popularize certain ideas and principles on a ground level in a way that top-down government policies simply can’t. When the Bill was introduced, CSOs, namely WADPN and the INCB, initiated various media campaigns to educate people on the importance of the bill. The West Africa Drug
Policy Network (WADPN), in particular, made a 25-minute video featuring past drug addicts saying “going to jail didn’t change my behaviour” and “it is cheaper to rehabilitate us than jail us”. This, as well as another video and audio made by the INCB, were featured on television and radio several times. The INCB also set up a hotline for people to ask questions about the Bill, and hosted many public events for the same purpose. Ghana has even started celebrating World Drug Day as a way to discuss reform.

Absolutely nowhere else in Africa have CSOs been so heavily and publicly involved in advocating drug policy reform. This seems to be in response to the impact of the previously named factors making Ghana the most likely place for reform. Indeed, even though WADPN and the INCB are not specific to Ghana, they have been focusing much of their work there. Although no polls have been conducted to evaluate the impact of these efforts, it is clear that the country has mobilized to try and set a positive example for the rest of the region and takes pride in that role. In preparation for UNGASS, the government, with the support of CSOs, hosted a variety of regional conferences encouraging neighbours to consider options for reform. As progress has moved forward in the country, Benin and Liberia have also declared that they would like Ghana to help them draft new drug laws once the Bill has passed.

From Kofi Annan to guiding its neighbours, it seems these external factors have contributed to a sense of duty to reform and set an example. Although it is impossible to tell which external factor has been most important in facilitating reform, it is clear that they have built on each other in a way that makes a profound change in public opinions conceivable. Yet, what amazes me is that this change in opinions, both at a state and public level, occurred in a period of four years. The sequence of events was nearly perfect. First there was a public admission of the failure of law enforcement policies, followed by international pressure for reform, and finally domestic pressure for reform. International organisations have also been quick to applaud the values present in this movement for reform. All agents supporting reform seem to understand that the West African drug problem can only be addressed from the inside out. They appreciate that there needs to be equal emphasis on demand reduction as on supply reduction to realistically be able to reduce levels of consumption and subsequently trafficking. This is in clear contrast to the drug-war trend to militarize law enforcement to attack trafficking instead of addressing the consumer.

Should the Bill pass, which still cannot be guaranteed, then West African CSOs, WACD, and the Ghanaian Government will be significantly empowered to encourage and guide reform in the region.


Nigeria, on the other hand, is following a much different path of reform, however it also faces very different conditions. Unlike Ghana and Senegal, Nigeria has experienced a series of military dictatorships, the last one lasting until 1999. Though the Nigerian Republic is also secular, politics are more heavily shaped by Muslim and Christian values. Nigeria is also unique in these set of case studies in a sense that it struggles with terrorist groups within its borders. Boko Haram, nestled in the north of the country, is proven to have received money from opportunistic deals with drug traffickers passing through their territory.

Although the director of both WACD and WACSI are Nigerian, their views are not at all reflective of Nigerian drug policy. In Nigeria, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) is responsible for every aspect of drug policy, from regulation to rehabilitation. Even for West Africa, the drug laws are particularly stringent. If someone is found to consume, import, manufacture, produce, process, plant, or grow any illegal drug, then they will face “conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than fifteen years but not exceeding twenty-five years” according to part II of the NDLEA Act. Every four years the NDLEA is also responsible for putting together a new National Drug Control Master Plan. The last one, published in 2015, outlines the next chapter of Nigerian drug policy reform to continue until 2019.

Although it does not change, or encourage a change in drug laws, it calls for more reform than any past Master Plan, citing “chaotic” policy enforcement and implementation gaps in the past as the problem. On the one hand, as former Director General of the NDLEA Roli Bode-George explained to me, it demands far greater supply-side reduction efforts. This includes heightened security and screenings in ports, increased border patrol, and even a new K-9 unit. This should be viewed as a response to increasing levels of trafficking as well as the heightened security problems throughout the country. Unfortunately, the 80-page master plan is less specific about how to address consumers, although it does state that there needs to be greater emphasis on demand reduction and rehabilitation. Specifically, it cites that “80% of states reported low levels of sensitization and prevention activities” and “there were few and inadequate treatment and continuing care facilities available in the country […] neither accessible nor affordable for the majority of drug users.” In response, it suggests that there should be “better funding” for sensitization programmes but fails to explain exactly how services for drug users could be made any better — although it implies that improvements are necessary.

The Master Plan offers a detailed analysis of some of the other problems with Nigerian drug demand reduction policies, which offers the best insight as to where we might see reform. Aside from pointing out that there are not enough rehabilitation centres, they mention that not enough of them are community based and that none have an emphasis on evidence-based treatment (unlike what is being demanded in Ghana’s Bill). The few that are made free for the public are scantly funded by the UNODC, and those that aren’t are usually faith based rehabilitation centres. Either way, rehabilitation centres in Nigeria are strictly associated with psychiatric care, detoxification, and abstinence-based treatment. Although the master plan does not explicitly mention this, these are widely considered by the INCB and addictologists as the most ineffective forms of drug treatment. Although only one public study has ever been published proving that this is the case in Nigeria in 1998, the Master Plan suggests that inefficacy of treatment remains a large problem. One treatment centre in Lagos admitted that 70% of patients actually return after completing the program. CSOs in Nigeria, such as Youth RISE, have also reported alarming rates of youth abuse of hard injection drugs such as heroin. Despite a clear need and demands from smaller CSOs like Youth RISE, the Master Plan makes no mention of harm reduction programmes, such as needle exchanges, wound care, or substitution treatment (like methadone). The distinction between rehabilitation/treatment and harm reduction in drug policy reform is key. Whereas rehabilitation is aimed at supporting people who will supposedly no longer take drugs, harm reduction is aimed at managing existing drug consumption and making it safer.

The limits of Nigerian drug reform are thus quite clear. While the master plan suggests improving prevention and treatment efforts, it does not acknowledge managing existing consumers and consumption. This is reflective of the punitive laws, which at least until 2019 will not be reformed to allow for shorter sentences for drug related crimes. Although proportionality of sentencing and harm reduction are not featured in the reforms, the government has lauded it as a balanced proposal for reducing harm and heightening security efforts. Clearly, the reform is based on improving the enforcement of existing capacity and principles, not on changing ideologies or the fundamental treatment of drug users. That being said, government officials seem to find the reform plan to be significant in that it refuses to follow the current trend towards decriminalization. At the very least, we can be sure that Nigeria finds the reform plan to be an expression of strength.

In fact, at one of the CND meetings preparing for UNGASS, a Nigerian delegate derided the draft outcome document by saying, “I refuse to live to see the day that cannabis or any other drug is decriminalized in my country.” Unlike in Ghana, the drug reform policies seem to be inspired from the inside out. Mrs. Ane attributes this punitive mentality to Nigeria’s military legacy. Many other delegates at UNGASS seemed to offer a similar opinion on Nigeria, but this generalization simply does not suffice as an explanation for the character of Nigeria’s drug policy reform. Luckily, I was able to manage an hour-long interview with Muhammed Mustapha Abdallah, who was made Chairman of the NDLEA in January, 2016 and tasked with enforcing the new Master Plan.

From the very beginning, Mr. Abdallah made very clear that he is first and foremost concerned with the security of his people and finding fair solutions to the various problems facing West Africa. However, a few of his comments really stood out. He was opposed to many proposals in the outcome document, and when I asked about equal rights for drug users, he said, “why would I give a drug addict something I am supposed to guarantee for the law abiding majority?” Indeed, much of his reasoning came back to the idea that society had lost touch with a more righteous way of living. “Today youth take all kinds of drugs. It always comes back to terms like peer pressure. Well, what happened to positive pressures in the lives of the youth? Like family and religion? Young people need to spend more time in a sheltered and loving family who disciplines them, and more time in the house of god and speaking to their preacher. Family and god and put them in the right direction. The moral fabric has been disrupted, and Nigeria needs to shift back to the fundamentals.”

In as few words as possible, Mr. Abdallah’s views can be described as social conservatism and an emphasis on religious values. Unsurprisingly, progressive CSOs demanding greater emphasis on the needs of affected you, like Youth RISE, do not find a powerful voice here. His views are reflective not only of his country’s views, but also of the mentality in many other West African countries. This is significant, because like Ghana, Nigeria has a regional leadership position that can allow it to amass its own followers. In West Africa secular governments are not a given and most people identify more closely with social conservatism. Conservative drug policies are far more popular, for they tap into deep seated fears about drug abuse, and are therefore much more cost effective if not even politically beneficial to implement. If Nigeria continues to successfully take a stand against the shift towards drug policy reform they will encourage more conservative neighbouring governments to do the same. As Mr. Abdallah suggested “most African countries sympathize with us, so I don’t think this outcome document will have a huge impact on us.”

Until at least 2019, it is very unlikely that Nigerian drug policy will at all change. If anything the sharp difference in policy between it and other countries like Ghana will encourage it to take an even more heavy handed stance against the “negative influences” and “open acceptance of drug abuse” supposedly promoted in Ghana’s new bill.


Senegal, is the county somewhat in-between. Often referenced as the country “paving the way for harm reduction in West Africa”, it also struggles to overcome protest from a more conservative population. Senegal is the oldest democracy in Africa, and in December 2014 it also became the first West African country to offer a publicly funded opioid substitution treatment programme. In addition to offering methadone substitution treatment, the programme also offers a needle exchange programme and social reintegration through therapy, dance, song, sport, and job training. The programme has since become known as CEPIAD (Dakar Integrated Treatment Centre for Persons with Addictions) and has spread to several locations in Dakar, now serving about 1,000 people a day. At its core, CEPIAD emphasizes fighting stigmatization of drug users and researching drug treatment with an emphasis on human rights. Predictably, at UNGASS several delegates made a point of celebrating CEPIAD and its work.

As one might imagine, the drug laws have a greater focus on proportionality of sentencing than in Ghana or Nigeria (although they remain quite punitive). If someone is accused of “culture, production, fabrication, and transformation of drugs of high risk” they face a sentence between 5–10 years and a fine three times the value of the drugs that are seized. However, if someone is caught consuming illicit drugs they than they face a sentence of 2–5 years, or, if they are caught consuming opioids, they are also given the option to seek treatment instead. To compensate for the limited reach of CEPIAD, in 2015 the National Network of Civil Society Drug Organisations (Réseau national des intervenants de la société civile sur les drogues (RNISCD)) was formed by NGOs offering treatment and rehabilitation services for drug users. As if that was not progressive enough, in 2016 Senegal also announced that it had trained the first four African addictologists.

At UNGASS I was fortunate enough to meet Lamine Toure, the president and founder of the largest NGO offering treatment and rehabilitation services to consumers in Senegal, Sopi Jikko. He was able to give me several valuable insights into the limitations and outlook of drug policy in Senegal, and as it turns out, not all that shines is golden.

First and foremost, Lamine helped me work around the great lack of public information on Senegalese drug policy and identify a health crisis as the main motivator for the drug policy reform that started in 2013. In 2012 the UNODC did a survey of drug use in the country, and found that while the national prevalence of HIV infection was 0.5%, it was 5% amongst drug users and 9% amongst injection drug users. Although it was not as much of a national scandal as the seized ship in Ghana, it was a great embarrassment for the government. In response to the findings, UNAIDS and the UNODC offered to help fund the start of harm reduction programmes in Senegal and the government accepted the offer. Although there is evidence that civil societies quickly mobilised to staff and support the formation of CEPIAD, reform was not carried out in consultation or as a reflection of public views.

In fact, Senegal society remains quite conservative on the topic of drugs. Lamine told me that whenever someone is behaving strangely, the typical response in Wolof is to say “Kii khanaa dafa tokh yamba?!”, which is essentially a more derogatory version of “is he on drugs or what?!” Indeed, public attitudes are often violent towards CEPIAD and RNISCD, and Lamine described that rocks often break through the windows of his rehabilitation center. It gets more complicated. On the one hand, drug reform has been too limited to produce very promising results. Drug laws remain punitive enough that Senegal still struggles with over crowding of jails. 25.6% of prisoners are in jail for either the consumption or sale of illicit drugs (which includes cannabis). Furthermore, the rate of opioid addiction has been increasing more rapidly than can be effectively treated. Treatment is currently only offered in the Dakar, but there are just as many drug users outside Dakar as in Dakar. On the other hand, Senegalese people are given the impression that drugs remain a growing problem in their country. In the northern region of Tambacounda where migrants from around West Africa come to mine gold, several methamphetamine production units have formed and migrants have become regular consumers. “People are starting to associate drug addition with migrants they believe are exploiting our country, and we have no framework to address these migrants. At the same time, drug trafficking in the country has been getting worse and we do not have the security to handle that either. Cannabis and a variety of methamphetamine products are being produced around our border with Gambia and being exported through Gambian ports.”

Senegalese drug policy reform, which started in 2014, is now effectively under threat. The Senegalese Ministry of Health plans to spread CEPIAD into other regions, and RNISCD hopes to do the same. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense is working on plans to improve birder security. However, Lamine fears that as CEPIADs expansion increasingly relies on tax revenue, there will be a backlash against all harm reduction programmes. At first glance it seems unclear whether Senegal will be able to join Ghana in a progressive leap forward and contribute its expertise to the process, or whether the progress it has achieved might be reversed. At UNGASS, however, one couldn’t help but feel like political conditionality would keep the Senegalese harm reduction programmes running. CEPIAD had been a pet project of UNAIDS, and especially following UNGASS, it seems that international organizations would be especially willing to invest in CEPIAD in spite of domestic disapproval. When the outcome document has essentially proclaimed that programmes like CEPIAD are the way forward for drug reform, to allow Senegal to backslide in this respect would be a failure for the UN and UNGASS. Certainly, Senegal is feeling the pressure to keep pushing for more progressive reform and encourage its vibrant CSOs to challenge public views.

Comparative Study — What will West African policy look like After UNGASS?

In the case of our three case studies, it is possible to predict with some certainty where they will be headed in the near future regarding policy reform.

Ghana will likely become the first African country to decriminalize drug policy, and in the wake of this reform, neighbouring countries such as Benin may also do the same. Pressured by the internationally backed movement towards reform in West Africa, countries that have already embarked on limited reform, such as Senegal, will either defend the progress they have made or continue to implement more progressive reform. In the process, two camps may emerge in West Africa. On the one hand there will be the countries enforcing popular and progressive reform, and on the other conservative countries resisting truly progressive reform. The respective political momentums in Ghana and Nigeria suggest that they may emerge as the head of these two camps.

Drug policy may seem like a marginal aspect of governance, but this rift would reflect ideologically different responses to a difficult past. Ghana, on the one hand, is trying to overcome the impact of TOCs, globalization, and the impact of the drug trade north by addressing the domestic consumer. Instead of militarization, Ghana’s Bill attempts to fight the drug trade by treating its addicts more humanely than ironically much of the global north does. This is the “rising above” strategy that so many Latin American countries are eager to prove they capable of. Clearly, out case studies suggest that a useful democratic history, a public admission of failed drug policies, and a strong civil society is the crucial base to garnering support for this kind of drug policy. Nigeria, on the other hand, adopts a more defensive response to this seeming attack from the outside. Issues of drug trade, waithood, and terrorism seem to be the product if a globalized and exploitative world. In such circumstances, patience is difficult to demand of a government, and instead Nigeria has opted to try and fight and commit to a sense of justice and honor in the hopes that it may outshine all the sources that try and undermine it. The impression I got was that Nigerian delegates felt somewhat humiliated at UNGASS and the CND, and overcoming these feelings will be a long and arduous process.

All of West Africa, however, will have to struggle to work with conservative audience as it promotes proposals for progressive reform. West Africa fundamentally remains home to a variety of religions, and lack of common access to education can make promoting especially liberal reforms difficult. As the contrast between Ghana and Nigeria shows, having national leaders in part of advocacy organisations, like WACD or WACSI simply is not enough to convince a population of reform. If Ghana and Senegal should serve as any example, the first and most important stage of reform in West Africa is an admission that punitive measures have not worked, and a greater emphasis on public health is needed. Political conditionality from international organisations is also needed as a measure of reform, but fundamentally there also needs to be progressive national leaders who are convinced that the benefit of reform will outweigh domestic cost of conservative pushback.

In spite of several obstacles, the main trend between the three main countries pushing for drug policy reform and West Africa is an attempt to balance demand and supply reduction. When we consider that just ten years ago, countries across the globe were focused almost uniquely on militarized supply reduction, this trend alone indicates progress.

The result, is that in varying degrees across West Africa, people in waithood may be punished less harshly for the symptoms of other ills. Though demand reduction, harm reduction, and proportionality of sentencing certainly will not undo the problem of waithood, they may help rehabilitate the future of a generation. Progressive reform will create positive outcomes in the countries that adopt them, and hopefully that will create a dominos effect in the countries that may remain more conflicted, such as Senegal.