As the intake and trafficking of illegal drugs increase in Eastern and Southern Africa, experts are advocating harm-reduction mechanisms over brute anti-drug policing.
This comes in the wake of a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showing that the flow of heroin and cocaine through Eastern Africa increased in recent years and the region is now considered one of the main trafficking routes for these drugs. The UNODC added that the use of cannabis sativa, amphetamines, methamphetamine (Meth), and other synthetic drugs is on the rise in the region.
To address this, former African leaders, scientists, and anti-drugs advocates launched the Eastern and Southern Africa Commission on Drugs (ESACD) on January 11, 2023, in Cape Town, South Africa.
It is the second commission to be established in Africa after the West African Commission on Drugs (WACD) of 2013 in a continent where soft and hard drug use increased to 41.6 percent as youth aged between 10 and 19 in Sub-Saharan Africa are active users of drugs ranging from cannabis to the more lethal Meth.
This is a high-level regional advocacy mechanism designed to find new ways of addressing a growing drug epidemic affecting cities, towns, and villages in every country and fuelling a worsening health crisis.
At a digital press conference, the commission members said that while the illicit drug problem was destroying the youth and communities, the ruthless crackdown was also exacerbating the problem because governments were violating human rights by harassing, detaining, and killing the youth who were actually victims of drug peddlers.
The commission has former South African interim president Kgalema Motlanthe, former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mauritius Cassam Uteem (who is also a member of Global Commission on Drug Policy) and Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim.
The commission said governments should not just focus on the end but appeal to manufacturers to produce clean products to reduce drug-related deaths.
The commission is advocating law reforms that do not only criminalise drug use but set in place regulations that allow humane treatment of the victims based on international human rights.
Criminals or victims?
“It is not just about the law but public health. The rights of children have been violated in the name of the fight against drugs. We need more humane ways of dealing with the problem,” Motlanthe said.
He said this was a dilemma for governments when the war against illegal drugs was being seen as a human rights issue. Pro-reform advocates insisted drug addicts were victims of the drug traffickers rather than criminals.
Prof Karim termed the drug issue a continental problem because 60 percent of HIV infections were now associated with injectable drugs through syringe exchange and deaths due to overdose.
The research by Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crimes terms drug abuse and trafficking a serious issue in Eastern and Southern Africa. The region is considered a transit point for illegal drugs, including heroin and cocaine, moving from Asia and South America to Europe and North America.
This is due to its proximity to major drug-producing countries, lack of effective law enforcement, and widespread poverty, which make it easier for drug traffickers to operate in the region.
Drug use in Eastern and Southern Africa has also been increasing, particularly among youth and in urban areas. Substance abuse, including alcohol, tobacco and various forms of drugs, has been identified as a major contributor to health problems, crime, and social problems in the region.
Governments are addressing the problem, but there are challenges, including limited resources and the need for stronger regional cooperation to effectively tackle it.
Along Eastern Africa’s seaboard, specifically the Swahili coast, a triangle of vulnerability for illegal trafficking is emerging as a significant geographic area.