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The ‘war on drugs’ is a failure that criminalises African cultural traditions and our youth


Shaun Shelly is chairperson of the Board of the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs.

For centuries cannabis and khat have been used by African communities. Their use was governed by social contracts, cultural beliefs and practices. Criminal sanctions have contributed to the problematic use of these drugs.

In 1963 the vision of a pan-African future was formalised by the heads of 32 independent African states, forming the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa. Africa Day celebrates that hope of kinship and solidarity between the independent African states emerging from the chains of colonialism.

The aims of the OAU were to promote unity and solidarity among African states, defend their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence and eradicate all forms of colonialism (and apartheid). Later amendments included the promotion of international cooperation within the framework of the United Nations and the adoption of the UN Charter for Human Rights.

By 2002, the consensus was that the OAU had been successful in several areas, including decolonisation, the defence of member sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the promotion of African culture. It was time to refocus, so the African Union replaced the OAU.

However, the door to continued colonisation, disregard for sovereignty, disregard of African tradition and the gross violation of human rights was forced wide open by the acceptance and promotion of prohibitionist drug policies.

The “war on drugs” approach to drug policy was born out of a racist agenda and continues to disproportionately harm and subjugate Africans. Prohibition-focused drug policy remains one of the fundamental barriers we must remove before Africa can escape colonialism and ensure the freedom, sovereignty and rights of all Africans.

For centuries cannabis and the stimulant plant, khat, have been used by African communities. Their use was governed by social contracts, cultural beliefs and practices. The traditional production, use and trade of cannabis and khat have been significantly disrupted through policies that criminalise their use. The replacement of cultural controls with criminal sanctions to prohibit all use has contributed to the problematic use of these drugs.

Under prohibition, the global demand for drugs and the value of the drug market has grown exponentially. Established without colonialism’s artificial boundaries, ancient trade routes across Africa to Europe have been exploited by drug traffickers who profit significantly from drug prohibition. The trade of drugs and the massive economic incentives have added to the region’s instability and have funded several political campaigns.

Growing inequality, urbanisation and the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources have created a growing population of young people who have little hope for the future and suffer from an increasing sense of psychosocial dislocation. The collision between psychosocially dislocated young people and the availability of drugs predictably led to increased use and dependence. Alarmed by increases in drug use, African policymakers have continued to implement the failed prohibitionist policies of their colonisers.

Africa should heed the experiences of Central and South American nations who have joined US-led initiatives to combat the flow of drugs. The legacy is alarming. The war against drugs has justified the presence of foreign police, advisors and military on African soil. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) provides training to police in many African countries. Their heavy-handed responses, military tactics, and health system interference are well documented. The only thing Africa can learn from the DEA is that almost all their efforts at controlling the availability of drugs have failed and resulted in harm.

Criminal justice responses to the use of drugs do not work. The United Nations has admitted as much in a 2019 report where the heads of 31 UN agencies strongly supported the decriminalisation of drug use. In the wake of failed criminal justice responses, the latest focus is on biomedical interventions for drug use. Expensive treatment centres and long-term interventions do not provide the coverage needed to accommodate the millions of people who may need help resolving their drug-related issues.

The aims of the OAU have been compromised significantly by adopting drug policies that criminalise African cultural traditions, criminalise the youth, allow foreign influence to shape policy, increase human rights abuses and pathologise entire communities. Adopting colonial drug policies has perpetuated apartheid-type policing, and there is a need to decolonise all drug policy in Africa and globally.

While the increases in drug dependence in Africa are cause for concern, heavy-handed policies and responses contribute significantly to the harmful effects of drug use. We need to rely on better, thoughtful responses that will result in long-term solutions and better lives for all Africans. Money should not be wasted on policing and incarcerating people who use drugs but on human rights-informed policies, economic growth and opportunities, community-based resources and development. We need to reduce, not increase, harm.

Any celebration of the decolonisation of Africa while prohibitionist drug policies dominate is premature. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Keith Scott says:

    Excellent article by South Africa’s leading expert on drug law reform. DM should publish more articles on this subject.

  • John Cartwright says:

    The ‘War on Drugs’ is an abject failure and the source of massive harms. Despite huge expenditures throughout the criminal justice system, the trade in drugs continues, but has by definition become a criminal enterprise:. This means, among other things, that the fiscus loses potential billions in tax, the police inevitably become embroiled in webs of corruption, and the users of criminalised drugs (unlike the users of tobacco and alcohol) have no protection or comeback against the unregulated manufacturers who ‘extend’ their products with toxic additives. Any parent knows that blanket prohibition is a useless policy in preventing or mitigating harm – the only way forward to a less destructive future is through a process of decriminalisation leading to a transparent and enforceable system of legal regulation.

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