Treating drug use as a public health issue

12 June 2014

A new report by the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) says that drug trafficking, consumption and production in West Africa is undermining institutions, threatening public health and damaging development efforts. The report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, particularly highlights the importance of addressing drug use in as a public health issue rather than criminalizing people who use drugs.

Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa states that the criminalization of  drug use and possession has a range of negative consequences, such as over-burdening already stretched justice systems, exacerbating social problems, increasing human rights violations and encouraging corruption. It also worsens major epidemics such as HIV and Hepatitis C, as people who use drugs often fear accessing the health and harm reduction services they need in case of legal reprisals. This is especially important for people who inject drugs who can be highly vulnerable to HIV through the use of non-sterile equipment.

The report cites data to highlight the extent of the problem in a region where drug consumption is said to be increasing. For example, in Senegal an estimated 9.1% of people who inject drugs are living with HIV, compared to less that 1% of the general population.

As well as treating drug use as a public health issue with socio-economic causes and consequences, the report also advocates for the reform of relevant laws; decriminalization of drug use and low-level, non-violent drug offences; adopting harm reduction approaches and encouraging research, including the gathering of baseline data on trafficking and consumption.

The West Africa Commission on Drugs is convened by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.


"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offences. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of diseases and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks. We must all take hope in the findings of this report."

Olusegun Obasanjo, WACD Chairman


"Criminalising drug users should be replaced by a public health approach. We have concluded that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem. Drug users need help, not punishment. Therefore we must deal effectively and humanly with this problem by adopting a health oriented approach and civil society must be fully engaged as a partner in this effort."

Kofi Annan, WACD Convenor