At least 50 tons of cocaine move into West Africa every year, heading to where they are worth almost $2 billion on the drug-hungry streets of European cities.
Over the past decade, West Africa has moved from a transit route for illegal drugs headed to Europe from South America to a lucrative illegal drug market.
Most cocaine entering Africa from South America makes landfall around Guinea-Bissau in the north and Ghana in the south. Much of the drugs are shipped to Europe by drug mules on commercial flights. Upon arrival, the cocaine is mainly distributed by West African criminal networks throughout Europe.
A three-year study by the West African Epidemiology Network on Drug Use WENDU examined emerging trends in regional drug and substance use, prevalence, and treatment from 2020 to 2022. The study was coordinated by the Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS.
The WENDU study revealed that weak and ineffective governance institutions, socio-economic challenges, political instability, and overlapping security issues were behind the region’s gradual transition from a transit hub to a drug market. Besides growing numbers of people with psychoactive substance abuse disorders, the region also faces a proliferation of counterfeit medicine.
WENDU researchers also found that the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of drug treatment centers, and law enforcement capacity gaps all aggravated the hydra-headed challenge.
“The heaviest burden of drug use is shouldered by the age group 10 to 29, thus investing more in mental health among young people is essential to protecting our children and youths against the use of illicit drugs,” Fatou Sow Sarr, ECOWAS commissioner of human development and social affairs, said in a policy brief.
The problem is getting worse. Cocaine seizures have doubled every year.
Researchers found that cannabis is the leading cause of treatment for substance use disorder and dominates the list of drug seizures in the region.
According to the report, 55% of all admissions for drug abuse treatment from 2020 to 2022 were linked to the consumption of cannabis, cannabis resin, and hashish. Cannabinoids also represented nearly 70% of all drug seizures in the region. The amount of cannabis seized increased from 139 tons in 2020 to 631 tons in 2021 to 892 tons in 2022.
“Cannabis dominates regional statistics because it grows easily in our climatic condition, [has] a mode of consumption that is not restrictive (smoking), [and is] more accessible and less expensive than other drugs,” N’guessan Badou Roger, a treatment, research and epidemiological officer from Côte d’Ivoire, said in the policy brief.
Pharmaceutical opioids, such as tramadol and codeine, accounted for the largest quantities of opioids seized in the region, indicating that the region continues to be a hub for the diversion of legal pharmaceuticals for illicit consumption.
In Côte d’Ivoire, nearly 80% of people seeking drug treatment were addicted to cocaine or crack, while more than 46% of the people in treatment in Nigeria used cocaine.
In Senegal, the most abused drug in 2021 was cocaine, which accounted for more than 60% of the people seeking treatment. The most abused drug there in 2022 was cannabis, which accounted for nearly 44% of those seeking treatment.
Porous land, maritime, and air borders expose the region to illicit drug trafficking, the profits of which typically are used to finance terrorism, kidnappings for ransom, arms trafficking, cult and gang violence, coups, and prostitution, the report found.
From 2020 to 2022, authorities seized large quantities of substandard, fake, falsified, and counterfeit medical products.
According to a February 2023 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, up to 50% of medicines in West Africa are fake or substandard. Medicines such as tramadol, and products related to sexual and reproductive health, arrive in the region from countries such as Belgium, China, France, and India, typically at ports in Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, and Togo.
The drug problem is having a destabilizing impact on security and development in West Africa. According to the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, “Drug cartels buy more than real estate, banks, and businesses, they buy elections, candidates, and parties. In a word they buy power”.
The WENDU study recommends that ECOWAS play a lead role in establishing a uniform regional cannabis policy that properly addresses the region’s cultural, social, and economic realities.
The report also calls for more drug treatment facilities in rural areas and says cross-border controls should be strengthened to mitigate regional trafficking.
Outdated narcotics regulations should be reworked to adhere to current global best practices, and more efforts should be made to educate the public about the dangers of drug abuse.
The study calls for enhanced drug and substance abuse research at regional, national, and sub-national levels to better understand the extent and nature of drug addiction and substance abuse.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC has been warning for some time that West Africa is at risk of becoming an epicenter for drug trafficking and the crime and corruption associated with it. The UN body says that the scale of these problems is often too great for states to confront alone, It encourages transnational approaches to action.