How Drug Trafficking Undermines West Africa

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has described the War on Drugs as "failed" and has deplored the violence it perpetuates in West Africa.

In a region still recovering from years of political conflict and violence, the rise of drug trafficking is undermining institutions, public health, and development efforts.

A new report from a panel of West African leaders, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, highlights the magnitude of drug-related problems in the region. Compounding the damage caused by trafficking, the criminalization of drug use and possession puts a huge burden on already weak criminal justice systems and encourages corruption.

The report offers three significant takeaways:

  • The region is a new hub for global traffickers. West Africa has long produced cannabis, but is now also a producer and exporter of synthetic drugs such as amphetamines. Attracted by the poverty, political instability, and corrupt public officials, transnational criminal networks find it increasingly easy to operate in the region.
  • Major public health problems from drug use are going untreated. The passage of cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines through West Africa is leading to increased drug use, especially among younger generations. Of the estimated 1.8 million people who inject drugs in West Africa, 11.8 percent are living with HIV. Today, Senegal is the only country in the region that offers programs to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis among users.
  • Drug trafficking in the region severely impedes economic development and undermines already weak states. The annual value of cocaine moving through West Africa is valued at $1.25 billion: a number far larger than the budget of any of the governments in one of the poorest regions in the world. At the same time, efforts to criminalize every aspect of drug activity have diverted attention away from what’s really needed: improving state institutions.

Not Just in Transit calls on political leaders to act together to change the ineffective laws and policies that exacerbate the problem.

This article, by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, was originally published by the Open Society Foundation.

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