Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am truly delighted to be with you today and to launch the report of the West Africa Commission on Drugs in this forum at the African Union.
As you know, West Africa is particularly vulnerable to transnational criminal activity.
Borders are porous, coastlines are under-patrolled, and institutions are vulnerable to corruption.
International drug cartels are using our countries as transshipment points between producers in Latin America and Asia and consumers in Europe and the United States.
As the experience from other transit regions shows, drugs do not only pass through a country.
They are “Not Just in Transit” as we emphasize with the title of our report.
Drugs and drug money invade and undermine societies.
These developments threaten to undo economic and social gains in our region.
So far, West Africa has escaped the bloodshed which scars Central America on a daily basis. But this could change.
The African Union and ECOWAS have already sounded the alarm about the growing scale of the threat and the dangers to governance, security and democracy.
Governments in the region are taking action to stem and disrupt the flow of drugs, with the support of external partners.
But there remains an urgent need to step up our efforts and to ensure a coherent response at the national, regional and international levels.
The Commission looked at the evidence and consulted experts from the region and around the world. We visited some of the most affected countries and communities in West Africa.
I would like to mention our most important of findings and conclusions.
We have found that interdiction is improving. However, it is still hindered by limited capacity and resources and sometimes by the interference of the well-connected.
In some countries, people in positions of power, the security services and extremist groups have competed for the spoils of drug trafficking.
This has led to increased political instability and corruption.
However, we find that the links between traffickers and terrorist networks are often not ideological but rather they are “brothers in crime”.
Militarizing the response to drug trafficking would therefore only make matters worse.
We believe that West Africa’s electoral processes are worryingly vulnerable to corruption by drug money.
We abhor the drug traffickers and their accomplices, who must face the full force of the law.
But the law should not be applied only to the poor, the uneducated and the vulnerable.
We have found that it is still mostly drug users and small-time dealers who are arrested and imprisoned.
The small fry is caught while the big fish swim free.
National and international action against the traffickers must be stepped up, especially against those running the networks rather than their foot-soldiers on the ground.
During the course of our work, we have realized that it is not only drug trafficking which is causing major problems in the region but also drug consumption.
Drugs have become increasingly available and drug dependency has increased, especially among the young.
Injecting drug use in particular carries the strong risk that HIV and other diseases might spread.
Unfortunately, our region is simply not ready to deal with an increase in drug use.
The response is all too often to stigmatise and punish drug users. But locking them up in ever greater numbers will not solve the problem. Even the United States has started to realise this.
We have concluded that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem.
Drug users need help, not punishment.
We have to put much greater effort and resources into drug treatment facilities and harm reduction programmes.
When we say that drug use should not be a matter of criminal justice this means of course that we are calling for the reform of national drug laws.
We recommend the decriminalization of drug use and low-level non-violent drug offences.
With a complex issue like drug policy there is no single simple answer or one-size-fits-all solution.
Countries must have the space to define and develop progressive, open-minded policies best tailored to their own realities and needs.
Ladies and Gentlemen
What I have presented to you are the most important findings and recommendations of the report of the WEST AFRICAN commission on drugs.
But many of them apply equally to other parts of our continent.
As you have heard, the West Africa Commission concludes that current drug policies are not working.
Today we face a stark choice.
We can continue business as usual and see our institutions undermined by drug money and corruption, see increased violence on our streets, see our young exposed to diseases and epidemics and see decades of development efforts compromised.
Or we can find the courage to change policies that no longer fit reality.
No more sweeping the issue under the carpet and claiming “it’s not our problem”.
We need to own the problem and the solutions.
The current African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control which runs until 2017 is a big step in the right direction. Drug demand reduction has been somewhat neglected in the previous plans but this has changed.
The plan calls for agreed minimum standards for the treatment of drug dependency and for greater access to pain relief mediation.
We know that 90 percent of morphine is prescribed in North America and Europe. In our countries, patients with terminal cancer suffer needlessly because doctors cannot prescribe medication due to the misapplication of the UN drug conventions.
The Action Plan is also strong on protection of the human rights of people who use drugs.
So on paper, with the AU Action Plan and the report of the West Africa Commission on Drugs, we have what it takes.
We call on political leaders in Africa to act together to change laws and policies that have not worked.
Tackling the impact of drugs through informed, humane and coordinated policy will require a strong and well-coordinated effort.
This must be led by African governments. But we shall need the support of the wider world.
Reforming drug laws, offering chronic users proper treatment and not imprisonment, and stopping traffickers from making further in-roads in Africa – these are all vital steps.
They will take us a long way towards reducing the damaging impact of illegal drugs on communities, families and individuals.
They will help to ensure that our young people can grow up healthy and secure.
We hope now for an urgent and frank debate among political leaders and civil society in West Africa about the best way forward.
Civil society must be fully engaged as a partner in this effort.
We may not be able to keep West Africa entirely drug free but we can do a great deal to protect our people, as well as our political and judicial institutions from the harm that illicit drugs can inflict.
Today we know what works and what does not. It is time to adopt and adapt success stories from across the globe.
It is time for a smarter approach to drug policy, which I fervently hope that the report of West Africa Commission will inspire.
The Commission commends its report to you with the earnest hope that you will take heed of its findings and act on its recommendations without delay.