DAKAR — The West Africa Commission on Drugs says the region needs a new approach to tackling drug-related crime. The commission, which released its findings Thursday in Dakar after nearly two years of research, says countries should not criminalize drug use or militarize their approach to traffickers.
Over the past decade, West African countries have made headlines seizing tons of narcotics at their coastlines and airports. Thousands of arrests have been made.
While it looks impressive on paper, it's not enough. Most of those going to prison are addicts or small-time dealers, couriers and middlemen. The trafficking and use of drugs like cocaine and heroin continue to climb. Labs producing amphetamine-type stimulants, like meth, have cropped up in the region.
In addition, drug money can buy elections and destabilize governments. Organized crime and extremist groups are getting in on the action.
Those are among the findings of the West Africa Commission on Drugs created by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana.
"Current drug policies are not working. We must now have the courage to change policies that no longer fit the reality," he said.
Nigeria's Drug Law Enforcement Agency says between 1990 and 2013 it seized 178 tons of cocaine. It sounds impressive, but ex-Nigerian president Olesgun Obasanjo put those numbers in perspective.
"Just one ton of cocaine that reaches Europe via West Africa is worth more than the security budget of many of our countries," he said.
Obasanjo led the commission during its investigation, and said all that trafficking also has meant more drug use in the region.
"Our region is simply not ready or adequately equipped to deal with the spread of drug use and dependency. The response all too often is to stigmatize and penalize drug users," he said. "However, pushing them to the fringes of society or locking them up in ever increasing numbers will not solve the problem."
The commission says countries should decriminalize taking drugs and the possession of small amounts of them for personal use. It says drug use should be treated as a public health problem, and the focus should be on things like opening treatment centers.
That's a stark contrast to the so-called "prohibitionist" approach that has characterized the now decades-long "war on drugs" in the Americas. Some experts say that war has failed. The violence only intensified, and drugs did not become less available.
The commission says West Africa has a chance to avoid those mistakes.
Guatemala's foreign affairs minister, Fernando Carrera, said the commission's recommendations for West Africa are in line with evolving thinking in his region.
"The fact is that prohibition has failed. Regulation is the new word," he said. "We need to work on interdiction but in a different way. Interdiction as usual is not enough, is not doing enough. We need to work on public health. We need to work on better social services. We need to work on economic opportunities for the poor."
Both Carrera and Obasanjo say law enforcement should go after high-level targets, the so-called "big fish." That takes political will and specialized, coordinated units dealing with narcotics, money laundering and corruption.