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Bold West African Drug Policy Proposal Should Be Taken Up, And Taken Further

18/06/2014 14:13 BST | Updated 17/08/2014 10:59 BST

Gathering pace in the past years, global drug policy reform momentum has now also reached West Africa.

Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) launched its report Not just in Transit. Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa . WACD, an independent blue-ribbon commission initiated in 2013 by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and chaired by Nigeria's former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, follows in the footsteps of similar Latin American and other groups around the globe that had previously called for reforming the existing, prohibition-oriented international drug control regime and ending the 'war on drugs'.

It is high time that West Africans spoke up.

Deeply unsettling in its findings on the impacts of the illicit trafficking and the use of drugs on the region's states and societies, which started to emerge as major issues a decade ago, the report makes bold recommendations on how to address them. The proposals merit serious attention in the run-up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016. They should also be considered in earnest by the wider international drug, development and security policy communities.

The illicit drug trade is exacerbating existing state and governance weaknesses in West Africa

Acutely aware of the vulnerability of many of the region's fragile and impoverished countries to transnational drug-trafficking, WACD's assessment of the seriousness of the situation is informed by robust evidence.

The report sends the strong and, according to the latest research, correct message that several West African nations are today hubs for the activities of transnational trafficking networks. The illicit trade in cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs (such as amphetamine-type stimulants) is exacerbating already pronounced state and governance weaknesses, and policy-makers, both in and outside of West Africa, are not responding to growing drug use-related health problems with sufficient commitment and urgency.

The commissioners are also spot on in emphasizing that violence and terrorist activity in the region has not increased on account of drug-trafficking but that this could change in future (without, however, giving credence to the scaremongers among the international and regional security policy communities who commonly overstate the likelihood of this scenario).

And they are not shy to put the finger on politically highly sensitive issues, highlighting the involvement of some West African elites in facilitating - and profiting from - drug-trafficking; and the responsibility of the governments of both drug producer and end-user countries, South American and European, respectively to do more to stem the flow of, and demand for, illicit drugs.

Decriminalizing aspects of production, trade and use of drugs is a precondition for tackling West Africa's drug problem

In the report, WACD urges to:

1. treat drug use as a public health issue

2. confront the political and governance challenges that incite corruption within governments, the security services and the judiciary

3. strengthen law enforcement for more selective deterrence, focusing on high-level targets

4. avoid the militarization of drug policy and related counter-trafficking measures, of the kind that some Latin American countries have applied at great cost without reducing supply.

The key point that the decriminalization of certain aspects of the production, trade and use of illicit drugs is a precondition for coping more effectively and in more humane ways with West Africa's 'drug problem' resonates with an emerging consensus among the global drug policy reform community. The importance of this message, as well as the warning not to militarize drug control strategies and re-focus law enforcement on high-end traffickers and not on small, low-level smugglers, cannot be overstated.

But there are also other messages in the report that ought not to be overlooked.

Of particular significance here is WACD's emphasis on the relationship between drug-trafficking and the state and governance in West Africa. The report frames this problem by focusing on the impact of drug-trafficking and the opportunities for corruption it generates on elections and political parties in West Africa. While this is certainly a key issue, drug-trafficking and other illicit transnational commerce have negative consequences that reach well beyond electoral politics and formal political systems.

New report makes recommendations on how to respond to illicit globalisation

A recently-published report by the Institute of Development Studies argues that the major task at hand is to devise strategies that effectively enable and support West Africa's states to manage the opportunities afforded to them, and the pressures resulting from, processes of illicit globalisation. This should be done in such a way that the incentives for national elites and their patronage-dependent constituencies to engage in trafficking are reduced; and the incentives to build more accountable, legitimate and effective public institutions are increased.

Protecting elections from criminal interference by way of, for instance, the funding of campaigns with proceeds from trafficking and other illicit trades (such as the sale of stolen Nigerian oil) is important. But so are, in the fragile institutional context of West Africa, measures to mitigate the impact of trafficking on (informal) political marketplaces and (covert) elite bargains and rein in a broad array of different forms of illegality.

Law enforcement-focused drug policies that are presently being rolled out across the region with international support are not well-suited to help achieve these goals. Ignoring the political economy of drug-trafficking in West Africa they risk having negative unintended consequences.

More than mere symptoms of state fragility, transnational drug-trafficking and other illicit commerce are part of broader processes of illicit globalisation. They generate qualitatively new challenges for West Africa that call for broader governance reforms at the national, regional and global levels.