Category Archives: West Africa

View from the Ground – Harm reduction, drug policy and the law in the Maghreb: focus on Morocco and Algeria

View from the Ground – Harm reduction, drug policy and the law in the Maghreb: focus on Morocco and Algeria

Khalid Tinasti, Geneva
Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University
October 2016

As WordPress doesn’t allow referencing, full PDF with references available here: khalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_final


The Maghreb countries, part of the Arab Maghreb Union, are Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia and form the largest part of North Africa. These countries are currently in the centre of the boiling issues of the world including terrorism, human trafficking and drug trafficking. These countries are large consumers and producers of plant-based and synthetic l psychotropic substances, Morocco being the largest cannabis producer in the world in 2014. But when it comes to discussing the issue of drug use, the legal response to it, and its impact on society, the debate focuses on ideological issues of morality and the rejection of illicit drugs, as data on the prevalence of drug use and the patterns of the use in these countries are missing.

The Maghreb is also part of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), which is one of the two regions in the world in which new HIV infections are increasing (with Eastern Europe and Central Asia) and largely driven by drug injection. In 2014, the region has seen HIV infections related to drug injection represent 28% of all new infections, and this represents a minimum since it is based only on often incomplete data submitted by governments. The region is also home to an estimated 630,000 people who inject drugs. This blog will analyze the current situation in two major countries of the region, Algeria and Morocco, which have chosen different approaches to drugs, and compare the outcomes of their policy choices. The blog will finally highlight the current drug policy reform discussions in both countries.

The current official drug prevalence:

Morocco is the country with the most widely available data in the region, with an estimated injecting population of 3000 to 4000 according to the Ministry of Health. Drug injection is concentrated in the North and East of the country, in the transit regions that export cannabis to Algeria and Spain, and import amphetamines (mainly from Algeria) and heroin (mainly from Spain). The country is also the first Arab country, and the second in Africa, to have introduced methadone substitution therapy in six centers in 2011. Furthermore, it is among the two only countries that have a national harm reduction policy in the Arab world, the other being Lebanon. The prevalence of HIV in the general population is of 0.14% (0.1%-0.2%), and mainly concentrated among key affected populations, with people who inject drugs (PWID) representing 10.17% of this total. The country has introduced methadone therapy in prisons as a pilot project , but the author has been informed that the experiment will be extended to five penitentiary centers throughout the country in the coming months.

In Algeria, the situation of PWID or people who use drugs without injection is undocumented. There is no official data on the prevalence of drug use in the country, but it is known that cannabis is the most widely used substance in the country and its use has doubled in the course of two years, between 2012 and 2014. PWID living with HIV represents 1.1% of those tested in 2014, for a prevalence rate among the general population of less than 0.1%. In 2014, a study by the National Office on Drugs and Addiction (Office national de lutte contre la drogue et la toxicomanie) showed that the number of people who use drugs (PWUD) is 250.000, while simultaneously independent research by the FOREM (Fondation nationale pour la promotion de la santé et le développement de la recherché), a non-governmental organization, estimated PWUD to be one million people in the country. A 2006 study on the number of PWID in developing countries reveals that Algeria is the second highest burden country in all North Africa following Egypt, with a number of PWID reaching 40,961.

The two neighboring countries, the largest demographically in the region, hegemons politically and dynamic economically, are at odds largely due to their conflict on the Western Sahara, Morocco claiming its territorial integrity includes the said territory, while Algeria hosts and supports, diplomatically and financially, the separatists. The conflicting relationship between the two countries is also represented in the cooperation against drug trafficking, where they accuse each other of knowingly enriching their respective black markets of illicit drugs. Publicly and through official press conferences, Algeria accuses Morocco of the impact of the large amounts of cannabis being smuggled by the Rif traffickers, while Morocco reminds Algeria that it is one of the largest producers of psychotropic substances that flood the Moroccan black market.

The narcotic laws and drug use:

The laws in Algeria and Morocco punishing drug use and possession are harsh, as they are in the rest of the African and MENA regions. The Algerian law (Law No. 04-18 of 25 December 2004) imposes incarceration between two months to two years in addition to a fine from five to fifty thousand Dinars (fifty to five hundred US dollars) or one of the two sentences for personal use or possession. For a similar offence, a Moroccan convict will face imprisonment of between two months and one year in addition to a fine (Dahir No. 1-73-282 of 21 May 1974), or one of the two sentences. Meanwhile, the Moroccan law remains the least harsh policy in the region. In 2014, 31% of the cases treated by tribunals in the country were related to illicit drugs.

The Algerian narcotics law differs highly from its Moroccan counterpart since it gives precedence to prevention over punishment, as it states preventive and treatment measures before penal judgments. It makes treatment the basis of the legal response to drug use, and sanctions are not enforced if and until the treatment is refused. In addition, returning to treatment when necessary is not prevented even in cases where the treatment decision was previously refused (Article 9 of the law). Sanctions on drug consumption have been reduced for the following reasons: First, punishment for possession or consumption would be imprisonment of between two months and two years. This is a lighter sentence than lockup or hard labor and indicates that drug consumption or possession for personal consumption is considered a misdemeanor rather than a felony; second, the law authorizes the judge to choose between imprisonment and a fine and does not force him to combine the two and third, the judge’s authority to determine the sanction provides some autonomy as to whether imprisonment or a fine is chosen, as there are large differences between the minimum and the maximum limits.

These parameters of the law, that are presented as a prioritization of public health over punishment in drug policy, are still problematic as they allow for the institutionalization of mandatory treatment. According to Article 7 of the law, the examining magistrate or juvenile judge may order detoxification, accompanied by medical surveillance and rehabilitation for “any drug user whose condition requires these measures”. The court’s judicial authority, in this case the specialized judicial authority, may also rule exemption from sanctions (Article 8). According to Article 9, incarceration and fines shall only be applied to anyone who refrains from executing the decision to undergo detoxification. The law as it is today gives judges the power to decide on medical conditions and how they should be treated. Despite every effort, it is still difficult to find data on how many people are diverted from tribunals to treatment centers in both countries.

The findings of on-the-ground research:

To face this complex situation, in countries that produce large quantities of illicit drugs, consume heavily and carry the burden of epidemics related to drug injection, non-governmental organizations on the ground have started researching the situation and gathering evidence. The Association de Lutte contre le Sida (ALCS) in Morocco has launched on-the-ground research as early as 1996 in the Northern provinces of the country to map the injection drug use, and respond to the HIV situation. At the time, drug injection has been found to be limited. A 2003 national survey on mental health and addiction, with a sample of 6000 people over 15 years old, has shown that cannabis is the most widely used substance with a prevalence rate of 3.94%, the age of first use was decreasing, and the prevalence of heroin was of 0.02%. In 2006, with the changing nature of drug use and the spread of HIV through drug injection as transmission mode, the Ministry of Health launched situational studies on drug injection, in order to establish the first harm reduction national plan. The first action was to launch needle and syringe programmes, followed by methadone treatment. The harm reduction programme includes several advances, such as the inclusion of civil society in the delivery of services, the dispensing of harm reduction training, and the delivery of services during the night hours. For instance, the ALCS delivers through its mobile unit a needle exchange programme in three cities in the Rif. Nevertheless, the programme faces tremendous challenges, be it within the harsh legal environment or through the obstacles for the scaling up the services delivery.

In Algeria, and as stated earlier, data and monitoring of current drug policies is missing. The Association de Protection Contre le Sida (APCS) has reached out to the Moroccan ALCS to conduct a rapid diagnostic mission to map the drug situation in the capital city Algiers. For this research, 43 PWUD were interviewed, of which 5 were women, 62% were students or unemployed at the time of the qualitative interview, and represented 6 communes of the capital city. The findings concluded that outside of the squats in the Blida neighborhood, drug injection remains a personal activity, that it concerns all ages and all socio-professional categories of society. Regarding PWID, 70% injected Subutex (buprenorphine) and 30% heroin, and poly-consumption was the most shared behavior of the study participants (100%). 33% of those interviewed were incarcerated at some point in their lives, and up to 5 times for some, and for over 25% the imprisonment resulted of a simple possession offence. The study finally has shown that PWID do not access the services they need, since pharmacists refuse to sell them clean syringes, increase substantially their price, or do not have a stock in remote areas. Finally, only the national hospital of Blida offers rehabilitation and abstinence based programmes which are limited in number and do not respond to the needs of PWID.

This first study highlights the situation in Algiers, and is being currently used to advocate for drug policy and harm reduction reform with the Algerian authorities and civil society. In a consultation entitled “the role of civil society in harm reduction” held in Algiers on September 26-27, 2016 attended by the author, the representative of the Office national de lutte contre la drogue et la toxicomanie, the drug control organ under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, announced that the country will open the first methadone induction service in Algiers in the coming months. No details were given. Moreover, NGOs collaboration between the two countries is in vivid contrast with the non-cooperation of the states on the drugs issue.


Algeria and Morocco share the same languages (Berber and Arabic), similar colonial historical patterns, and the longest border for both countries. They also share the drug production, use and trafficking since they both produce large amounts of plant-based (Morocco) or manufactured (Algeria) illicit drugs; they share the same trafficking routes from the Sahara or from the Middle East towards Europe; and cannabis is the most used substance in both countries. Nevertheless, the countries have taken different public policies to respond to drugs. Morocco, a traditional and large producer of cannabis, faced with a heroin crisis in the 2000s developed the first harm reduction strategy in North Africa. Algeria, where heroin injection has not been seen as a health crisis until recently, has focused its efforts on the rehabilitation of PWUD.

khalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_finalAfter years of designing drug policies, mainly focused on eliminating drugs and curbing the HIV infections among PWID, drug policy reform is becoming a mainstream discussion in Morocco. The political parties PAM and Al Istiqlal have introduced parliamentary bills to legalize the medical and industrial use of cannabiskhalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_final. In Algeria, the debate still focuses on the issues related to trafficking and illicit production, and the announcement of a methadone service has been recurrent since 2015 without details on the location or the conditions required to enroll PWID in need of this service.


New IDS Report on West Africa

A few years back there was a jump in the amount of South American drugs, particularly cocaine, being found by authorities in West Africa. Starting in Brazil and Venezuela, the shipments move across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Africa, and from there through the Sahara and on to Southern Europe. A new route presents many challenges, portending not just drug-related violence but threats to the integrity of government institutions themselves. West Africa has not suffered drug-related violence on the scale of Latin America. However, the effect on governance and development in weak and generally impoverished states could be grave.

A new paper from the Institute of Development Studies’ programme on ‘strengthening evidence-based policy’ takes a comprehensive look at the situation in West Africa and the predominant approach of international institutions to the rise in trafficking through the region. The report, written by Markus Schultze-Kraft (technical advisor to GDPO) and titled “Getting Real About an Illicit ‘External Stressor’: Transnational Cocaine Trafficking through West Africa”, critiques the current focus on law enforcement as the answer to the problem.

The author presents the framework of understanding pushed by the World Bank, which separates external stresses – military invasion, illicit trafficking and so on – from internal stresses like unemployment and corruption. These ‘stressors’, the World Bank has argued, combine to generate new stresses and violence in turn. In contrast, Schultze-Kraft contends that the World Bank external-internal dichotomy neglects the inter-relationship between the two and thereby “runs the risk of over-simplifying complex issue and framing the analysis in a way that reduces its usefulness for policy purposes. It also runs the risk of uncritically reiterating dominant contemporary discourses on global and transnational problems.” In reality, the paper argues, complex processes like trafficking “tend to involve external, internal and transnational actors and variables that are often interrelated.”  Therefore, “internal and external stresses should not be conceptualised as separate but actually as relating to and reinforcing one another for they are interconnected through transnational actors and processes that are part of broader globalising dynamics.” The paper highlights the importance of considering such factors in creating new, sustainable, effective policies.

Drug trafficking through West Africa has been an area of focus within the drug policy community for around a decade. More recently, the development community has joined in. But studies of trafficking through the region “tend to reflect institutional/organisational interests and mandates rather than rigorous independent research.” The UNODC, for example, produces reports that are “heavily skewed toward representing a situation that calls for building up increased regional law enforcement and interdiction capacities to curb illicit flows,” a goal which happens to be “at the core of its mandate.” Present policies, designed and paid for by outside actors, are focusing narrowly on trafficking routes and as such “they ignore the political economy of drug trafficking in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Ghana or Mali,” decreasing the likelihood of policy success and “increasing the likelihood of political instability and governance failure.”  “The major task at hand,” Schultze-Kraft writes, “is to devise strategies that effectively enable and support West Africa’s states to manage the opportunities afforded to them by, and the pressures resulting from, processes of illicit globalisation in such a way that the incentives for national elites and their patronage-dependent constituencies to engage in trafficking are reduced; and the incentives to build more accountable, legitimate and effective public institutions are increased.”

Among many recommendations that could form the basis of a new approach, the paper argues that effective global-level policy to tackle the problem in West Africa would need to focus on:

– increasing investment in public-health-focused and human-rights-based interventions to reduce cocaine demand in Europe and in other large consumer markets, such as the US, Brazil, South Africa and Russia;

– achieving a new international consensus on drug policy based on the reform of the existing international drug control regime.

The paper can be read in full here.

Country Snapshot: Drugs in Zimbabwe

Africa is witnessing an upsurge in illicit drug trafficking as well as an increase in illicit drug use and the problems associated therewith. Whilst data in the region is sketchy, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report of 2013 estimates that there are 28 million drug users in Africa.  They note that cannabis is the most commonly used drug on the continent with a prevalence rate of 7.5% which is nearly twice the global average.  According to the UNODC, whilst the use of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS), cocaine and opiates are comparable with the global averages (0.9%, 0.4%, 0.3% respectively) there are concerns that opioid use is increasing significantly.  The UNODC estimates that almost 37,000 people in Africa die annually from diseases associated with the consumption of drugs.  However they recognise that data for Africa is weak because data collection on drug consumption in Africa is incomplete.  Gilberto Gerra the chief of drug prevention and health branch at the UNODC says Africa’s rising illegal drug consumption can be attributed to political instability as well as porous borders.

Zimbabwe is also witnessing an increase in problematic drug use among its domestic population along with the related public health issues that accompany certain types drug use.  The substances that are most commonly used in Zimbabwe include alcohol, cannabis, heroin, glue and cough mixtures such as histalix and bron clear.  Cannabis (mbanje) remains the most popular illicit drug mainly because it is grown locally or smuggled in from neighbouring countries like Malawi and Mozambique. In some societies along the Zambezi, mbanje is grown and consumed in large quantities as a way of life and therefore the drug finds their way into other parts of the country.

Drugs also come through Zimbabwe on their way to other countries in the region such as South Africa.  Local Zimbabweans are often used to transport these drugs and rather than being paid in cash, they  are usually paid in drugs which then enter the local market. “When you become a transit country, you are immediately also a consumption country,” Gilberto Gerro of the UNODC concluded

Young people in Zimbabwe have been identified as the most vulnerable section of the population, especially those from poor or unstable backgrounds who may be tempted to see drugs as an escape from life’s troubles.  According to Rudatsikiri et al’s 2009 study of cannabis and glue use amongst school pupils (largely aged between 13 and 15) in Harare, it was found that overall 9.1% of pupils had used the drugs (13.4% of males and 4.9% of females).  Poly-drug user is also a problem amongst vulnerable groups, for example the use of cannabis and glue is commonly associated with cigarette smoking and alcohol use.  Use of these substances is also associated with sexual activity as well as a lack of parental supervision.  In order to make drug intervention programmes more relevant to the local situation, they should be designed to target risk factors within these domains. However, reducing discrimination and violence, and trying to facilitate positive parent-child relationships through social policy may also be worthy targets of intervention which could result in a decrease in adolescent drug misuse.  The study also concluded that illicit drug use among adolescents is associated with poor academic performance, violence and unsafe sexual behaviour as well as increased risks of STIs including HIV/AIDS.  Unsafe sexual practices are a real problem in Zimbabwe where, according to UNAIDS, almost 15% of the population is HIV positive and access to anti-retrovirals (ARVs) is limited by price inflation and corruption.

According to research carried out by the Health Professionals Empowerment Trust in Zimbabwe 50% of admissions to mental institutions have been attributed to substance misuse. The research went on to single out youths as the most affected group of individuals in the country.  In Zimbabwe over 80% of people admitted to mental institutions due to substance misuse disorders are aged between 16 and 40, and most of these are male.

Zimbabwean drug laws do not adequately address issues surrounding drug use/misuse – particularly prevention and treatment. The Dangerous Drugs Act (Chapter 15) in conjunction with the Criminal and Codification Act has not kept up-to-date with current thinking on how to tackle drug-related issues. Furthermore, decent data is lacking. The statistics available often come from small research projects and newspaper articles that do not present a full picture of the nature and extent of the issues at stake.

The possession, use and trade in drugs is harshly punished in Zimbabwe. Possession of illegal drugs like cannabis and heroin  as well as the recreational use of prescription drugs such as histalix and pethidine can attract a long jail sentences.  Drug trafficking is also treated harshly.  For instance, in a recent case, a South African woman who was arrested at Harare airport trying to smuggle 2 kg of cocaine from Colombia to Zimbabwe was sentenced to 15 years in jail.  Zimbabwe also has a high level of pre-trial detainees – up to 30% of prisoners – meaning that even before being convicted of a crime they are forced to endure harsh conditions in jail.

Jails in Zimbabwe have a shocking reputation: according to the Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO), an average of 20 prisoners were dying daily in 2009 due to malnutrition and a 2011 report by Zimbabwe’s parliamentary committee on human rights noted that the lack of toiletries, ablution facilities and the unavailability of water for a long time at some prisons were disturbing and that prisoners’ diets needed improvement.  Furthermore, a 2012 report on human rights by the US Embassy in Harare, also noted that prisoners were being denied access to ARVs and not being tested for HIV/AIDS.  However it’s not just those that are sent to jail that suffer.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there is no provision for opioid maintenance treatments such as buprenorphine or methadone and  there are no needle exchanges in the country.

In 2011 a new organisation – The Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN) – was set up to advocate for effective strategies for addressing problems associated with drug misuse in the country. It is working to advocate for evidence-based drug policies that are embedded in public health, human rights and scientific research.  In order to do this, the day-to-day activities of the ZCLDN include:

  • To research, document and disseminate information on drugs and related issues in Zimbabwe.
  • To engage and contribute to the identification of issues in Zimbabwe relating to dangerous drugs and unlawful drugs.
  • To engage and contribute to programmes to inform and educate persons on drug issues in Zimbabwe.
  • To address issues of governance that negatively impact on the adoption and implementation of science-based drug policies.
  • To train and advise on appropriate systems that seek to improve the management of drug-related issues.
  • To work with other people and organisations in joint consultations and action in matters of common interest.
  • To participate in regional and sub-regional initiatives for the furtherance of the appropriate responses to drug issues and adoption of good democratic governance systems and structures.
  • To ensure that humanitarian and human rights laws that protect the rights of those adversely affected by drugs are enforced.
  • To lobby for inclusion of appropriate drug policies in the decision making structures’ in public affairs.

ZCLDN image 2

This blog was co-written by Wilson Box, Program Executive Director & Board Secretary of ZCLDN.

The UN drug control authorities reinforce the ‘received wisdom’ on drugs in Sub Saharan Africa

The proliferation of drug trafficking in West Africa, as measured by drug – and most specifically cocaine – seizure data, has drawn considerable attention from the United Nations drug control bodies, and from West European and North American countries  that are engaged in anti-poverty, state stabilisation and counter terrorism activities in the sub-region. Underscoring concerns as to the rise of West African ‘narco states’ and penetration by South American drug ‘cartels’, drug seizures in the first three quarters of 2007 were 60 times higher than in 2002, with 33 tons of cocaine seized.

In its 2007 report, ‘Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa: The Threat to Stability and Development‘, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted the challenges posed to West African peace and security by the transit of an estimated $1.8 billion of cocaine (at wholesale prices) through countries such as Guinea Bissau, where the entire national budget for 2006 was just $304 million. Specific impacts related to increased trafficking volumes detailed in the 2007 report included corruption of poorly remunerated local security sector officials (police, military, customs and judiciaries), politicians and national governments; the distorting impacts of the illicit economy on development prospects and economic stability; rising domestic drug consumption linked to an increase in availability; and drug related violence.

The latest report by the Global Drug Policy Observatory explores how West Africa has become a new ‘front’ in the drug ‘war’ (see GDPO Briefing ‘West Africa: A New Front in a Losing War’).  The report explores how donors and other external actors and institutions stepped up financial support to, and political pressure on, West African countries for strengthened counter narcotics activity.  This has included the training of local security sector officials, robust domestic anti-drugs legislation, judicial reform and demand prevention measures. While this was in part influenced by the negative domestic implications of drug trafficking for the achievement of peace, security and development objectives in West Africa, it was also informed by traditional ‘supply side’ approaches that seek to prevent drugs reaching consumer markets in Europe.

This bias toward the priorities and approaches of wealthy, Western consumer states has led to the formulation and implementation of drug control measures that do not always take into consideration African concerns. Furthermore, policy responses are based on limited and very often poor data, while the use of contestable statistical indicators to legitimise the reorientation of public and donor spending toward counter narcotics activity obscures rigorous assessment of the dimensions and implications of West Africa’s drug ‘problem’.  As an example of the ‘bad practice’ in counter narcotics responses, statistics relating to levels of drug consumption in West Africa are discussed below.

In its Annual Report for 2012, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) highlights cannabis as the ‘most widely abused illicit substance in Africa’,  with a prevalence rate for the entire continent of 7.8% (range: 3.8 – 10.4%). This is considerably higher than the global average, which is estimated at 3.8% (range: 2.8 – 4.5%). West Africa, the INCB adds, is the sub-region with the highest prevalence rate within the continent (12.4 %, range: 5.2 – 13.5%) with Nigeria showing the highest national annual prevalence: 14.3%. These cannabis consumption statistics are extrapolated from the limited data sets of just 6 of West Africa’s 16 states: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo, of which three (Burkina Faso, Liberia and Togo) show prevalence rates slightly below the global average according to the  United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report Statistical Annex.

In the case of cocaine prevalence rates  the INCB estimates that there are1.5 million cocaine users in West and Central Africa, with Nigeria having the highest prevalence rate in the region. However, as with the cannabis consumption statistics, projections of cocaine use are based on data provided by only 2 of the 23 Western and Central African countries Nigeria (0.7%) and Cape Verde (0.23%). Moreover the figures for these two countries are from different years (2008 in the case of Nigeria, 2004 in Cape Verde).

In relation to heroin, the INCB sets out that ‘heroin abuse is perceived [emphasis added] to be increasing and is mainly concentrated in East and West Africa’. This assessment is based on East Africa’s emergence as a transit zone for Afghan heroin and not detailed epidemiological surveys of heroin use in East Africa. The most recent prevalence rates for opioid use in the region are from 2004  with only Senegal and Nigeria updating their statistics  –  in 2006 and 2008 respectively.  Without reliable, robust data on contemporary heroin use, the assertion that there is rising heroin consumption lacks empiricism. It should be further noted that the INCB’s report does not detail the source of evidently influential ‘perceptions’, nor does it provide citations for all data sources within the report.

All aspects of the drug market, including drug use, within West, Central and East Africa are clearly areas worthy of concern. The region undoubtedly has significant drug related problems that merit an energetic response.  However, effective, targeted interventions in the interest of public health and human security require a radical enhancement of the collation and processing of statistical information, and improved support to information gathering by sub Saharan states. Conversely, debates and strategies based on limited and archaic data runs the risk of doing more harm than good, which is to say replicating ineffective and inappropriate policies imported from other parts of the world.

GDPO launches new website and publications


The Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO) at Swansea University, UK, is pleased to announce the launch of its new website. Engaging in a range of ‘impact’ oriented activities, the recently established Observatory operates with the goal of promoting evidence and human rights based drug policy through the comprehensive and rigorous reporting, monitoring and analysis of policy developments at national and international levels. The new website provides a platform from which to disseminate a range of research outputs to broad and diverse audiences with the aim of helping to improve the sophistication and horizons of the current policy debate among the media and elite opinion formers as well as within scholarly, law enforcement and policymaking communities.

The website includes project pages on the topics of drugs in West Africa and regulated markets for the recreational use of cannabis within the USA.  Containing GDPO publications, as well as related blogs, audio files (which are also embedded within reports and briefs) and interactive maps where appropriate, these pages move away from the traditional snapshot approach towards the analysis of specific issue areas. Rather they are designed to provide users with a range of accessible resources that, as a topic selected for GDPO reporting, monitoring and analysis, develops over time.  The core of the West Africa project page is the policy brief ‘Telling the story of drugs in West Africa: The newest front in a losing war?.  A draft of this briefing was presented at a co-hosted GDPO – International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) event, ‘The securitisation of drugs in West Africa’, in London in October.    

Our detailed policy report on the cannabis policy in the US project page, Legally regulated cannabis markets in the US: Implications and possibilities, will soon be supplemented by a shorter policy brief, Voter demographics and campaign messaging: Lessons from Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Forthcoming project pages include the ‘narco-diplomacy’ of the Russian Federation and the privatisation of the drug war in Latin America.

The website will also be the repository for an additional publication stream, the GDPO Situation Analysis (SA) series.  Comprising documents of around 1,000 words, this aims to provide the diversity of stakeholders within the drug policy arena with concise, cutting edge analysis of key topics, enabling informed engagement with pertinent developments and debates.  Presented in a focused and standardized format, the GDPO-SA flag risks, opportunities and future trends in crucial issue areas, delivering readers actionable information and evidence based insight. Our first GDPO-SA focuses upon Afghanistan’s Bumper Opium Harvest, with others on drugs and cyber-crime and the khat regulation debate in the UK to follow shortly.

As well as containing a directory of our technical advisors and partner organizations, who both play a crucial role in peer reviewing Observatory publications, the website provides information on forthcoming drug policy related academic conferences and events and details of the GDPO Post Graduate Network.   The Network aims to bring together post graduate students and early years researchers in order to share ideas, discuss articles and provide support to any PG students working on drug policy or related issues.  The group will have a virtual presence on our website as well as meeting face-to-face when possible.

Please take a few minutes to visit the website and see what we’ve been working on over the past few months.  Remember, you can also follow GDPO on Twitter @GDPO_Swan and ‘like’ us on facebook where we will let you know about any new reports, briefs, blogs, GDPO-SA’s and related audio material.

Guinea Bissau: Poor data and the rise of the ‘narco-state’ narrative


In recent years, the media has applied the contentious term ‘narco-state’ to a number of West African countries, including Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, on account of the increased volumes of cocaine being trafficked through the region and the impact of this illicit activity on governance and security. The heightened prominence of West Africa in the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Western Europe follows from the strengthening of European interdiction efforts along the established cocaine routes in the Caribbean, which has led to a displacement of trafficking activity through the politically and economically fragile states of West Africa. However, as highlighted in a GDPO interview with Chief Inspector Daniel Carril, Attaché for Home Affairs in the Spanish Embassies in Bissau and Praia (Cape Verde) there is a paucity of data and empirical information on the volume of trafficking, with implications for the conclusions and recommendations that have been all too quickly drawn about the ‘threats’ facing West Africa, and the ‘narco state’ of Guinea Bissau in particular.

The interview began with Carril  outlining that there are only three Western European Embassies in Guinea Bissau: France, Portugal and Spain, with the Spanish Embassy only recently established in 2007. According to Carril Spain’s initial interest in the country was motivated by the significant increase in Sub-Saharan immigrants arriving on the Spanish coast during the so-called ‘cayucos crisis’ – cayucos referring to the small boats landing African migrants on the Canary Islands.

However, the attention given to this issue was quickly re-focused as a result of the increase in cocaine trafficking through Guinea Bissau. This alarmed Western governments in that it opened up new routes to West European drug markets, offsetting the ‘success’ of strengthened interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. The subsequent strengthening of radical Islamist movements in the wider sub region in turn produced a swift re-ordering of priorities. In Carril’s analysis: ‘’the concern about drug trafficking is more related to the financing of terrorism than with the problem of drug consumption in Western countries’. However, Carril continues that: ‘From my point of view, the international agencies do not have a big interest in understanding the problem in depth but at the same time they are interested in maintaining the high threat level in order to justify their presence and levels of funding’.

Information about the levels of drugs transiting West Africa remains scarce and existing material lacks reliability and consistency. Even the World Drug Report published annually by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) fails to give a comprehensive picture of the region (see, for example, sections focused on West Africa in the World Drug Reports for 2012 and 2013).  Acknowledging the paucity of data, the 2012 World Drug Report outlines that: ‘Considerable challenges also remain in the reporting of trend data on illicit drug use, production and trafficking. The main challenges continue to be the availability and reporting of data on different aspects of illicit drug demand and supply in Member States. The lack of data is particularly acute in Africa [emphasis added] and parts of Asia, where data on the prevalence of illicit drug use and trends remain vague at best.’ WDR 2012, Executive Summary pg. 3

Nevertheless, despite the lack of empirical quantitative or qualitative information, the 2013 World Drug Report forges a nexus between drugs, organised crime and state failure: The trends in new emerging routes for trafficking of drugs and in the production of illicit substances indicate that the continent of Africa is increasingly becoming vulnerable to the drug trade and organized crime, although data from the African region is scarce [emphasis added]. While this may further fuel political and economic instability in many countries in the region, it can also lead to an increase in the local availability and consumption of illicit substances. This, therefore, requires the international community to invest in evidence-informed interventions for the prevention of drug use, the treatment of drug dependence, the successful interdiction of illicit substances and the suppression of organized crime. The international community also needs to make the necessary resources available to monitor the drug situation in Africa.’ WDR 2013, Preface pg. iv

Carril noted that ‘most of the references to the levels of drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau are speculative, not even estimates. None of the international agencies in the country seem to be conducting fieldwork. So I don’t really know where the data used by international bodies comes from.’

Carill is not alone in questioning the data and his analysis is in line with others such as the West African Commission on Drugs and also the UNODC itself, which support the call for better data gathering and analysis on illicit drugs in Western Africa. For example, one of the key objectives of the West African Commission on Drugs is to develop evidence-based policy recommendations, as set out by the Commission: In order to fully understand the scale and impact of trafficking and growing drug consumption, and to be able to make evidence based policy recommendations, the Commission will use available data and analysis, which will be compiled into a series of background papers to help shape the direction of the Commission’s work programme. New research work would only be initiated if gaps are clearly apparent in the currently available information.’

Unlike many journalists and international civil servants working in the region, Carril is reluctant to consider Guinea Bissau a ‘narco-state’: ‘Guinea-Bissau is not a ‘narco-state’ and drug trafficking is not the main problem in the country. What is happening in this country is not a consequence of drugs. The problems of poor governance and corruption occurred before drug trafficking organizations arrived, and will continue to happen in the future even if the level of drugs transiting through decrease or disappear’.

For Carril, labelling Guinea-Bissau a ‘narco-state’ deflects from serious scrutiny of the drivers of the country’s economic, political and security problems. Moreover the use of the term is highly politicised and discriminatory:  ‘If Guinea-Bissau is a ‘narco-state’, then Gambia, Senegal and Guinea (Conakry) could also be seen as ‘narco-states’ as well. Even Spain. I doubt very much that more drugs transit through Guinea-Bissau than Spain. This analysis seems to be self-interested’.

As Carril concludes:  ‘It’s easier to blame a little country for what is happening in the region while there is neither any solution on the table nor the courage to demand explanations from the more powerful states’.

This interview formed part of the research for GDPO’s forthcoming briefing ‘Telling the story of drugs in West Africa: The newest front in a losing war?’ that will be launched on 2nd December 2013 along with our new website.