Ghana is on the cusp of becoming the first African country, and the first country outside of Europe and the Americas, to decriminalise the personal possession and use of all illegal drugs.
The outcome here will have important implications in other African countries, including on discussions around responses to drug trafficking and associated organised crime. In other developments, most notably in an on-going court case in South Africa on the production and use of cannabis, the debate on drug control policy on the continent is entering a potentially important period of change.
In Ghana, the Narcotics Control Commission Bill, 2017, which will repeal and replace the existing drug offences, is expected to be passed later this year.
The proposed new legislation will mark a significant shift in Ghanaian drug policy. In line with other West African countries, Ghana has traditionally ascribed to a ‘war on drugs’ mentality with punitive sentencing seen as a key tool in eradicating drug use. However, this ‘war on drugs’ approach is increasingly seen as failing: drug use is on the rise and Ghana’s prisons are overflowing.
As a consequence of the recent rise in the numbers of drug users and the increased availability of drugs, in part due to the region now being used extensively by drug traffickers as a transit zone, the draft legislation is intended to reflect a new approach to drug policy in Ghana. It aims to encourage greater focus on harm mitigation and rehabilitation rather than punishment of drug users.
Rising drug use in Ghana
In recent years, Ghana has become a key drugs transiting hub for traffickers. The 2016 UN World Drug Report ranked Ghana as the third cocaine transit destination in Africa behind Nigeria and South Africa. A crackdown on strategically placed Caribbean transit points has displaced a proportion of trade to West Africa, where traffickers are drawn by instability, fragile governance systems and high levels of corruption.
The increasing use of West Africa as a transit zone has been widely acknowledged to be an illustrative example of the ‘balloon effect’: pushing down drug production in one region has simply caused it to be geographically displaced to another.
Large volumes of cocaine, heroin and marijuana, the latter which is grown domestically, are known to transit through the country, predominately bound for Europe. Seizures of methamphetamines, the first of which was reported in Ghana in 2011, have revealed that synthetic drugs are also transiting through Ghana.
UNODC officials predict a sharp increase in drug trafficking across Ghana across the next few years, in part due to the sophistication of the criminal networks operating in the area. Law enforcement bodies have neither the resources, capacity, or in some cases political will, to combat this rise.
Against this backdrop, the numbers of drug users in Ghana is growing. Drugs are often the currency used by drug traffickers to pay those involved in the trade. These drugs are then either consumed or sold cheaply on the domestic market, fomenting demand. This is a pattern that follows that of other key transit countries, such as Brazil or the Caribbean.
Demographic of drug users
Drug use is, for now, largely limited to the poorest sections of Ghanaian society. These drug users are unable to afford legal assistance or to bribe to police and therefore, due to the current minimum sentencing laws, Ghana’s prisons are swollen with minor drug offenders.
In an interview in April this year, Maria Goretti, a consultant for the International Drug Policy Consortium for Africa and working barrister in Ghana, ascribes punitive sentencing for minor drug offences as a key factor behind Ghana’s overcrowded prison population, which currently stands at circa 150% of designed capacity. Further, those that are sentenced have an extremely high rate of re-offending, and are largely addicts in need of rehabilitation.
Culturally, drug addiction is seen as evidence of moral weakness in Ghana, an intensely Christian country, and addicts can find themselves shunned by society. One ex-addict described how he was perceived by society as either criminal or mentally ill – drug users are often repeatedly sent to psychiatric camps, some of which use very basic methods, including tying inmates to trees for extended periods of time, to cure them of their mental illness.
The low-profile of drug users has resulted in the growing drug problem receiving more limited attention than it should. One senior law enforcement official interviewed in April commented that ‘the best thing that could happen would be for the President’s son to become addicted’.
Narcotics Control Commission Bill, 2017
Currently Ghana has strict laws, with accompanying severe penalties, to sanction those who commit drug offences. The Narcotic Drugs (Control, Enforcement and Sanctions) Law, 1990 provides that all drug offences, including the personal use of drugs and the purchase of drugs, are punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. This mandatory minimum sentence rises to ten years imprisonment for certain drug offences deemed to be more serious, including possession and the importing/exporting of drugs.
Senior law enforcement officials have reported a shift in judicial attitudes towards drug offenders, with judges increasingly seeking to minimise the penalties meted out to low-level offenders, often changing the charge from ‘possession’ to ‘use’ in order to avail themselves of the lower mandatory sentencing requirements.
Under the proposed new legislation, a person who commits the offence of “possession or control of a narcotic drug for use” will no longer face criminal sanctions. Instead, they will be subject to the civil penalty of a fine and will only face imprisonment if that fine is subsequently not paid. The imposition of a fine will be compulsory and must be between GHC 2,400 – GHC 6,000. This is a substantial penalty when compared to the Ghanaian minimum wage of GHC 8 a day. Certain commentators, including Goretti, have criticised the quantum of this fine, stating that it will be beyond what low-level drug offenders can typically afford to pay, and ultimately result in the poorest continuing to receive jail sentences.
For certain other drug offences, the proposed new legislation will grant the Ghanaian courts greater discretion as to the appropriate punishment, permitting them to impose fines rather than mandatory prison sentences. For example, the punishment for a person convicted of the offence of purchase of narcotic drugs will be a fine or a minimum of four years imprisonment, where it currently carries a mandatory prison term of at least five years.
The Bill retains a lengthy minimum sentence for drug trafficking offences, however. Proponents of the new law, including Goretti, comment that focussing sanctions on drug trafficking rather than use, which is distinguished through the volume of drugs seized, will free up resources for combatting the drugs trafficking market.
A Narcotics Control Commission will be created under the Bill, with prescribed statutory objectives to “co-ordinate the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts” and to “ensure that an issue of drug addiction is treated as a public health issue”. The Bill therefore signifies a significant shift in the Ghanaian approach to tackling drug abuse and addiction, moving towards an approach based on harm mitigation rather than one more closely aligned to the much criticised ‘war on drugs’.
Prior to the change in Government in December 2016, the Bill faced some opposition in its early readings in Parliament. One MP, Yaw Owusu Boateng, stated during its second reading that “the attempt to decriminalise drug use and addiction is obviously an attempt to give up on the fight against hard drugs” and predicted a spike in drug use were the Bill to be passed. This view has been echoed by the Chief Executive of the Mental Health Authority, Dr Akwasi Osei, who has expressed concern that the decriminalisation of narcotic drugs will lead to an increase in the number of people with mental health issues.
However, there is a general groundswell of support for the new legislation and the Bill’s proponents do not expect significant opposition in its coming readings in Parliament. Indeed, in April 2017 the Interior Minister re-affirmed the new Government’s commitment to ensuring the Bill is passed later this year.
Rehabilitation of drug addicts
Currently, there are only a handful of drug rehabilitation facilities in Ghana and the vast majority are privately run or linked to religious institutions and movements. REMAR, a rehabilitation centre which routinely drives its bus around the poorer areas of Accra picking addicts up off the street, is a Christian organisation. Another, the House of St Francis, was set up in 2012 as a collaborative effort between the Hopeful Way Foundation and the Catholic Archdiocese of Accra. It currently provides a residential treatment facility for men who either come to the centre voluntarily or are referred from psychiatric hospitals. A women-only residential treatment centre does not currently exist in Ghana due to difficulties in housing them with men; women addicts are therefore only provided with treatment at psychiatric hospitals.
The House of St Francis has a successful track record in weaning drug addicts off their addiction. In an interview in April 2017, the manager of the House of St Francis, himself an ex-addict, estimated that, of the 200 addicts to have passed through the centre since 2012, approximately 60% completed the 6 month treatment course of which roughly 40% have remained sober. This can be contrasted to the fate of drug addicts given custodial sentences, who are more likely to end up in a spiral of re-offending and readdiction. Indeed, the rehabilitation centres unsurprisingly also appear to be more effective than psychiatric hospital – the manager of St Francis estimates that he was in and out of prison and psychiatric hospital up to 30 times before being treated at a rehabilitation centre, where he was finally able to get clean.
However, the majority of institutions rely exclusively on donations from the church or generous individuals. Many facilities cannot offer overnight care and only some can afford medical assistance, the majority offer more limited support such as counselling.
Critics have pointed to these inadequacies as evidence that Ghana is not ready for a rehabilitation-focussed approach to its drug problems. Goretti counters such claims by arguing that the new Bill represents a first step that will catalyse growth in both public and private funded rehabilitation centres. The manager of the House of St Francis also welcomes the focus of the new Bill on rehabilitation. He hopes that the number of rehabilitation centres will increase to the point that judges will have the option, which they would not have under the draft Bill, to refer those convicted of drug offences to treatment facilities rather than prison.
This seismic change in approach to drug policy recognises that the current punitive approach has not been successful in tackling drug problems in Ghana. The proposed legislation has been praised for its focus on the rehabilitation of drug users, encouraging them to seek treatment.
It can be contrasted with the previous attempt at reforming Ghanaian drugs laws in 2014. The Narcotics Control Commission Bill, 2014, which never made it into law, would have increased the minimum punishment for personal use of drugs from five to ten years imprisonment. The Bill also included an American-style “three strikes” rule, which would have required persons who commit three drug offences (excluding possession and use) to be imprisoned for life.
It remains to be seen whether this radical new approach will be successful in tackling Ghana’s growing drug problem. However, it certainly chimes with progressive post-UNGASS drug policy discourses and marks a dramatic step away from responses to date.