West Africa’s emergence in the early years of the 2000s as a key transit hub in the global illicit drugs trade has led to a large number of studies that outline the configurations of networks moving drugs across the region and their routes.
It is only more recently that the deeply destabilizing and corrupting effects of the international drugs trade on the region’s governance mechanisms have been recognized.
Nevertheless, the focus of research is still largely confined to law-enforcement approaches for combating trafficking. And only recently has the impact of the increase in drugs flowing through the region on domestic consumption drawn the attention of the international press and, to a lesser extent, policy actors.
In the early 2000s, Ghana’s political elites repeatedly denied that there had been any increase in the domestic consumption of drugs. But, in recent years, this trend has become more difficult to ignore.
Health professionals, lawyers and law-enforcement officers in Ghana now report a dramatic increase in the domestic consumption of illicit drugs over the past decade. However, the scale of the increase remains unclear, as figures to accurately quantify the prevalence of drug use in Ghana do not exist.
Within the region, Ghana’s deep-water ports make the country an attractive logistics hub for drugs being moved overseas, while its anglophone status strengthens its links with Nigeria, from where there is a significant overland transit route into Ghana.
Opera, the name of an area of central Accra near the shoreline, is known to be home to many Nigerians who immigrated before independence but who retain links to Lagos. This is reportedly a key spot for heroin to be brought into Ghana.
The drugs are typically smuggled into the country concealed in bags of Thai white rice – lending heroin its local street name, ‘Thai’.
The demographic of people who use drugs (PWUD) in Ghana has changed significantly since the mid-1990s, when cocaine and heroin use was largely confined to more affluent families.
In the current landscape, drug use is believed to be most prevalent across middle- and lower-income demographics, and most visible in the latter.
In Ghana, PWUD are predominantly male and young – generally between the ages of 18 and 40.
Faces of addiction: Kofi
Kofi (not his real name) is a tall man, with broad shoulders and a weathered face. He sits on a low wooden bench in a small, dark room with no door; PWUD can pay to sit in here while they use. As it is morning, there are only five men in the room. Later in the day, it will be full, and a queue of people will form outside, each of them willing to pay the GH¢2 (US$0.5) entry fee.
Kofi is a carpenter by profession, and he is married with two children, both at school. He has been using drugs for over eight years, but was clean for two years until he relapsed in March 2017. He now uses heroin and crack cocaine daily and is here smoking his Saturday-morning hit of heroin before heading to work. He remains employed but fears that he will soon lose his job if he is unable to stop using.
I can’t stop earning, I need to keep my children in school. My family know I use; they don’t like it, but what can they do. I want to stop; I know it is bad for me and my family
But Kofi is stuck as he cannot afford to pay the inpatient fee charged by local rehabilitation centres.
Emerging trends: Tramadol
The popularity of tramadol among PWUD continues to grow across West Africa and internationally, placing further strain on already limited health resources.
In a 2018 statement, Ghana’s Mental Health Authority called for tighter control of tramadol imports, demanding a change to current legislation to permit NACOB to regulate imports.
It is illegal to buy tramadol without a medical prescription or to sell it without a license. Non-medical tramadol use has continued to spread throughout Ghana’s lower-income demographic.
Local media have focused on non-medical tramadol usage among children and young adults. PWUD interviewed in Accra referred to tramadol use as a ‘new fad’ among the youth.
Emerging Trends: Methamphetamines.
The amount of methamphetamines being seized in Ghana is increasing in line with global figures, which are experiencing year-on-year growth.
The amount of methamphetamines being seized in Ghana is increasing in line with global figures, reaching over 158 tonnes seized globally in 2016.
Law-enforcement officials believe there to be methamphetamine labs in Accra and have therefore identified the city as a significant new area of challenge in the region. Previously, meth labs had existed predominantly in Nigeria, with the drugs then transported overland across the country’s borders primarily into Benin, with some of the drugs then reaching Ghana at a later stage.
None of the PWUD or health professionals interviewed had respectively used or witnessed the use of methamphetamines. This might suggest that although the drug is transiting through Ghana, it has not yet entered the domestic market on a large scale.
Current regulatory framework:
In line with other West African countries, Ghana has traditionally ascribed to a ‘war on drugs’ approach, with punitive sentencing seen as a key tool in eradicating drug use.
Although this hard-line attitude towards drug usage reflects the position of most of Ghanaian society, senior law-enforcement officials report a shift in judicial attitudes towards PWUD, with judges increasingly seeking to minimize the penalties meted out to low-level offenders, often changing the charge from ‘possession’ to ‘use’ in order to lower the mandatory sentence.
For the past few years, legislation has been on the brink of changing as a result of the draft Narcotics Control Commission Bill 2017, which would repeal and replace the previous act and mark a significant shift in the Ghanaian regulatory framework for tackling drug use.
Passing the Narcotics Commission Bill 2017 into law would constitute a significant step towards treating drug addiction as a public-health issue rather than one of law enforcement. However, in order to yield visible results, it would need to be accompanied by an increase in government spending on drug rehabilitation and treatment facilities, a move that the cash-strapped Ghanaian government is unlikely to take when there are so many other more socially acceptable causes requiring attention.
This Bill works towards an approach based on harm mitigation rather than one focused on punitive measures yet may still unfairly target low-income groups. Under the proposed new legislation, a person charged with ‘possession or control of a narcotic drug for use’ will no longer face criminal sanctions.
Picture: Ghana Ministry of the Interior, Ambrose Dery