Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Reforming Drug Policy Thinking in West Africa

By Dan CohanpourPublished November 8, 2013

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As the drug trade grows in the region, West African governments must steer away from retroactive methods of drug policy that emphasize incarceration rather than education, prevention, and rehabilitation. Additionally, these governments should boost support of border patrol posts as well as train and monitor local police authorities in order to curb any criminal activity on the borders, mitigate trafficking at its source, and improve ineffective and often corrupt policing.
By Dan Cohanpour, Published 11/8/13

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 60 tons of cocaine and 400 kg of heroin are trafficked through West Africa each year, rapidly transforming the region into a key transfer point for cocaine and heroin from areas such as Latin America. As the drug trade grows in the region, West African governments must steer away from retroactive methods of drug policy that emphasize incarceration rather than education, prevention, and rehabilitation. Additionally, these governments should boost support of border patrol posts as well as train and monitor local police authorities in order to curb any criminal activity on the borders, mitigate trafficking at its source, and improve ineffective and often corrupt policing.

African Union (AU) Commissioner Jean-Pierre Ezin, one of the key officials behind AU drug policy programs, noted that some African nations have been "quietly implementing evidence-based programs that deal with the harms of drug use and drug prohibition." The first recent African push, however, was the new 2013 AU Plan of Action on Drug Control, which challenges AU member states to implement alternatives to incarceration for minor drug offenses. 

The situation in West Africa, however, is very different than that in other African regions because of terrorist organizations and wider criminal networks as well as the potential for economic growth through natural resources. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) acknowledged in a recent report that "drug trafficking is an enemy of the state and the rule of law, existing as a parallel power that rivals the legal system and we are compelled to fight it."

The trade in cocaine in Guinea-Bissau, for example, is about $2 billion of profit a year, which is almost two times the nation's GDP. . As reported by the International Security Division at Stiftung Wissenchaftund Politik, both "the crisis in Mali and the 2012 coup in Guinea-Bissau" are connected to the drugs trade.

West African governments do little to deter young people from joining these drug and terrorist criminal networks¸ and instead many West African governments focus on constant incarceration. However, different techniques and initiatives must be implemented in order to mitigate cyclical trends but to also ensure that drug networks do not expand. There is potential for targeted strategies in order to divert young people from becoming involved in criminal trafficking networks as well as reprimanding drug consumers and drug traffickers.

In order to lessen worrying trends such as these, it is crucial to begin diverting young people from joining drug trafficking networks and address both government-propagated and citizenry-led issues in West Africa. In many cases, police administrators and local government officers working on federal border security in a variety of African nations — seen more prominently in Mali— have been ineffective and often compliant with drug traffickers when dealing with imports of cocaine and heroin. It is important to monitor and boost support of border patrol posts in order to curb any criminal activity on the borders and mitigate trafficking at its source.

It is also important to train and monitor local police authorities. In Guinea Bissau, for example, authorities have initiated comprehensive programs in local police training in order to curb illicit activity and reenforce previously taught skills in basic security training. This is important to expand to the entire sub-region in an effort to hopefully lessen the amount of police activity in drug trafficking. Another issue is that there is little positive incentive for drug traffickers and consumers to steer away from this cyclical environment. Developing national support networks and supporting youth-centered career development efforts are key in engaging with citizens otherwise prone to the drug world in West Africa.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and other external agencies, there is a "limited number of trained manpower, treatment and rehabilitation facilities" in West Africa. Possibly the most important step moving forward is to support rehabilitation programs in West Africa. In order to treat drug consumers and traffickers more consistently, West African governments must support rehabilitation programs and medical facilities in prisons. For example, African nation Egypt has a diversion system in place which treats drug users and only incarcerates them after facilitated treatment has failed. AU member states' goverments must establish or further establish a wider range of treatment options or treatment methods to address various rehabilitation needs of addicts and drug consumers.

In terms of moving forward, it should be stressed to West African nations, and to a larger extent the international community, to steer away from retroactive methods of drug policy that emphasize incarceration rather than education, prevention, and rehabilitation. Incarceration only works to a certain extent, and in order to stunt the growth of the drug economy and change society in the long-term, it is important to focus on alternative methods of deterrence.