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Corruption and organised crime worsen Africa's looming drugs crisis

A looming drugs crisis in Africa is being made worse by ineffective drug policy, fuelled by corruption and organised crime, says the ENACT transnational organised crime programme.

African consumption of illegal drugs, including non-medical use of prescription opioids, threatens national development and is projected to become a public health emergency.

Sub-Saharan Africa will see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users in the next 30 years, with its share of global drug consumption projected to double. But securitised responses have had unintended consequences and have done a disproportionate amount of harm for limited results achieved.

Prisons are overcrowded and generations of young people are disenfranchised by criminal convictions for low-level drug crimes. Continental drug markets continue to expand even as illicit crops are destroyed, drug labs dismantled, and drug shipments seized.

Drugs have become a revenue source for terrorist organisations and crime syndicates, but African law enforcement bodies lack the institutional, technological and financial capacities to have a significant impact on drug trafficking markets.

ENACT is a partnership between the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), INTERPOL and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), funded by the EU. The new research, released in New York on Tuesday 24 September at a side event on the margins of the UN General Assembly, is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the illicit African drug trade, consumption patterns and African drug policy.

Researchers estimate that the number of drug users in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by nearly 150% in the next three decades. They forecast that by 2050 there will be an additional 14m Africans using illegal drugs, with a total of 23m users in sub-Saharan Africa.

African drug policy is complex and controversial. Most drugs are still illegal across much of the continent, but there is a discrepancy in how they are policed and controlled. ‘Drug policy in Africa today is a dynamic mix of progressive legal decisions, political conflicts and inconsistent implementation,’ says Dr Mark Shaw, executive director of GI-TOC.

Most African policy on illicit drugs does not consider overwhelming evidence that prohibition forces drugs underground, stimulates organised crime and corruption, and fails in its response to drug users. ‘The continent’s current approach to drugs does not appear to take account of a looming public health crisis,’ said Eric Pelser, ENACT programme head at the ISS.

The new research suggests that East Africa will experience the sharpest increase in the proportion of its population using illicit drugs. West Africa is set to remain the continent’s largest regional drug market. West African drug users are projected to more than double from about 5.7m in 2018 to 13m in 2050. This makes the region an attractive market for the drugs trade, incentivising local production of illicit substances.

West Africa’s role has expanded as a global trafficking hub for illegal drugs, particularly cocaine, and an illegal economy has developed around the production and distribution of methamphetamines.

Illegal drug use poses a formidable law enforcement and public health problem and the African Union (AU) and its regional economic communities need to act urgently, says Pelser.

Africa’s dangerous drugs phenomenon is assisted by growing global production of cocaine and heroin to levels the 2018 World Drug Report says are the highest ever recorded. Other stimulants of the surging trade and consumption of drugs include urbanisation, development of infrastructure and transport routes, a fast-growing youth population, and persistently challenging social and economic circumstances for millions of people.

Africa has dominated the global market expansion of non-medical use of pharmaceutical opioids, with 87% of global seizures in 2016. But it has a dramatic inability to meet demand for treatment of people with drug use disorders.

The researchers made a number of recommendations to AU and national policy makers. Effective national and pan-African responses to the crisis must include efforts to reduce production and trafficking of drugs, coupled with demand reduction and expanded healthcare for the treatment and care of drug users.

Data collection and monitoring of drug use should be expanded and coordinated, and the stigma removed from drug use and the need for treatment.

All regions should bolster their intelligence-led cross-border law enforcement responses to curb the supply and production of illicit drugs, targeting traffickers rather than users. The diversion of pharmaceutical opioids from legal channels also needs to be curbed.

In order to improve the prevention of and fight against illicit drug production and trafficking in Africa, INTERPOL has been developing capacity with regards to the sharing and analysis of information and supporting the establishment of analytical units in a number of African countries. This approach has already proven to be effective as these units have started to produce their own analytical products. Pilot countries have also expressed their will to disseminate the culture and method of criminal intelligence analysis, using their analysts to provide training within police schools.

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