Ex- Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has said West African governments should overhaul their drug laws to decriminalize personal use and prioritize treatment as a response to rising substance abuse in the region,
In an interview before he was due to present a model drug law to regional officials in Senegal, Chief Obasanjo urged authorities to channel resources into fighting large-scale trafficking, which he said was undermining regional democracy.
He said the use of substances like cocaine, heroin and amphetamines is rising in West Africa despite strict drugs laws noting that countries that once served primarily as transit points for trade between South America and Europe are now active consumer markets.
“All of us in West Africa know now that drugs are not just in transit through our countries. Our youth are becoming more and more consumers, even some form of drugs are being produced,” Obasanjo said.
The recommendations by Obasanjo’s West Africa Commission on Drugs come as a number of countries look to decriminalize drug use, especially marijuana, after decades of enforcement appear to have done little to curb it.
Canada legalized recreational marijuana in June and most U.S. states have legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. Prominent political figures have also called for decriminalization in Mexico and Brazil in recent years.
Obasanjo’s commission has only an advisory role and it is up to national governments, often reluctant to scrap longstanding drug regulations, to decide whether to accept its proposals.
Obasanjo served twice as Nigeria’s head of state: once as a military ruler in the 1970s and then again as a democratically-elected president from 1999-2007. Drug enforcement was strict during both his stints in office.
But he cited his own encounters with drug offenders during a stint in Nigerian prison in 1995- 1998 under the dictatorship of Sani Abacha as he urged governments to find alternatives to incarceration.
“Prison does not reform. If anything it hardens,” he said.
Obasanjo named Senegal and Ghana as two countries that are moving to expand treatment options. Senegal has since 2014 opened centers to treat addicts, while Ghana is considering a proposal to exempt first-time offenders from prison terms.
But criminal syndicates, human traffickers and jihadist groups are profiting from the drug trade, he said. In some cases, politicians in Nigeria and elsewhere are using the proceeds to finance political careers, he added.
“(I) fear that they may be creeping into our fledgling democracy and political life,” Obasanjo said.