Drugs is a hotly debated subject that attracts the attention of policymakers, especially regarding the perceived effects drug use has on society. But, following scientific research and targeted campaigns, it is apparent that the ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric has lost its gloss and public health alternatives are increasingly embraced over criminal justice measures. As an MA student in Applied Criminal Justice and Criminology this reality, together with losing a friend to drug misuse, inspired me to investigate for my dissertation harm reduction as an alternative approach to criminalising drug use in Nigeria.
Nigeria takes a relatively firm stand against illicit drugs. This is reflected in national policy, where drugs and drug-related activities are proscribed by law. Unfortunately, young people, who account for two-thirds of the national population, are disproportionately affected by these policies. Consequently, my research sets out to investigate the reasons behind the punitive response to drug use (especially cannabis which is the top drug of choice among young people globally). To achieve my aims, the research examined three questions:
How would a harm reduction approach to drug use be beneficial to young people in Nigeria?
Whether a harm reduction approach can be complimentary to a criminal justice framework?
Whether the criminalisation of young people who use drugs is harmful and discriminatory?
These lines of questioning were informed by the desire to develop a better understanding of the motivations for drug use, the challenges of prohibitionist legal framework, and the impact on the health and social wellbeing of young people who use drugs. To fulfil these aims, the research included elite interviews with academics, researchers, law enforcement, policy makers, rights campaigners and people who use drugs in Nigeria and on the international scene. Interestingly, factors inconsistent with popular understandings of the impacts of drug use were common themes revealed from the discussions. The key findings are summarised below:
Harm reduction demonstrates that drugs are not ‘inherently evil’.
Interviews with participants revealed broad support for a harm reduction approach to drug use because it proves that drugs are not ‘inherently evil’ and protects young people from the stigma and discrimination associated with criminalisation. Findings revealed how negative perceptions of drugs feed into socio-cultural and linguistic norms that shape public responses to drugs and drug use. This finding is important as it explains locally held beliefs that ‘drugs are a taboo that promote crime and deviance’, which serves as a barrier to recognising the benefits of harm reduction. In addition, it demonstrates that scapegoating drugs, drug use, and young people to combat rising insecurity is short-sighted. It neglects other systemic factors such as poor government policies, poverty, unemployment, climate change, mass illiteracy, poor leadership, and a weak justice system.
Furthermore, despite popular use of the term, there was a lack of clear understanding of what ‘harm reduction’ means by both law enforcement (especially officials in the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and police) and civil society. For many state officials, ‘harm reduction’ is confused with demand and supply reduction activities, and often used in a political sense rather than as an urgent call to action. The need for full spectrum harm reduction programmes which take account of the social welfare needs (housing, education, employment, equality of care) of people who use drugs was emphasised as a determinant of health needed to address some of the harms of criminalisation. Addressing these equally addresses some systemic challenges faced by the state.
A mixed system is problematic but achievable. However, it is far from the ideal.
Another key finding is that the Nigerian drug regime is perhaps consciously and/or unconsciously biased towards criminalisation, without a consideration of the local and national implications of this approach. Yet despite the harms associated with criminalisation, this approach can coexist with public health-based interventions provided legal reform, market regulation, and stakeholder education are utilised as pillars of success. The danger of criminalising supply however remains for production and transit countries predominantly in the global south with many relying on alternative livelihoods for survival.
Young people are using drugs in a way that has yet to be captured by state policy and harm reduction programming.
Young people are adventurous and impulsive, rarely worrying about the position of the law in making decisions. Thus, criminalising drug use becomes counterproductive. It is held that criminalisation serves as cover for social control, and the ‘war on drugs’ is more about maintaining social order and increasing state power than it is about drugs. Consequently, criminalisation deprives young people who use drugs from services that they need. While the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency acknowledges the benefits of decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use in private communication, it maintains strong opposition to cannabis use and/or legalisation in public statements. These inconsistences further expose young people to the whims of law enforcement.
Other key findings include a misunderstanding of the role of drug reform advocates by law enforcement and the Nigerian public, which views them as ‘promoting drug use’ rather than seeking to save lives and reduce harm. However, efforts have been made to foster partnership working and training to unify purpose and enhance mutual success.
Drug control is heavily nuanced. It has political utility for the global north (control of the political economy of the international system) and south (funding of development programmes and regime support). Flowing from the findings of this research, it would appear that African states (including Nigeria) prioritise their international image over human rights and public health. Hence, drug control priorities tend to reflect the international reputation sought by the political establishment at the expense of people who use drugs who may require services.
Although, Nigeria might be regarded as a conservative state, the government prioritises its international drug control commitments at the expense of health and human rights obligations. Ultimately, you cannot arrest your way out of ‘the drug problem’. Therefore, legal (market) regulation and harm reduction remain the better approach to drug control, and the provision of a safe and legal supply of cannabis would be a great leap forward. It would better account for the health, welfare, and safety of many young people, an achievement that has consistently eluded blanketed drug prohibition. The main recommendations of the research are proper education for stakeholders; provision of targeted services to address context-specific needs of young people; political commitment to drug reform; and legal regulation of drugs.