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Sub-Saharan Africa has a Huge Drug Problem and it Will Get Worse

A member of the Liberia National Police Anti-Drug Squad reviews the municipal dump where they are burning 880 lbs of drugs that were confiscated between 2011 and 2012, Monrovia, Liberia, March 1, 2013 (U.N. photo by Staton Winter).

When it comes to drugs, the focus has largely been on developing regions as sites of production or transportation, rather than consumption. The reality is, however, far more shocking. Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge drug problem, as discovered by a study by the ENACT programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

According to the study, Sub-Saharan Africa will see a 150% increase in drug users by 2050, roughly 14 million users. That figure represents just a 5% increase in the proportion of its population. But the projected population growth in sub-Saharan Africa means the continent will experience the largest growth in the number of absolute users of any region on the globe.

The Rise in Consumption

Drug consumption research is traditionally seen as a problem for the western world, allowing drug consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa to grow unnoticed. The study finds that drug prevalence levels are currently at 1.6% (around 10 million), of the adult population. This is higher than Latin America, the Caribbean and South Asia.

Number of drug users in select regions. Source: International Futures v. 7.36 initialised from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) data

There are three major factors that drive drug usage in Sub-Saharan Africa – a large young population, rapid urbanisation and increasing affluence. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 60% of Africa’s population will reside in urban areas by 2050, up from 40% in 2015.

Rapid urbanisation does bring the risk of increased poverty. A study by Joseph Teye found that poverty in Accra, the capital of  Ghana doubled from 4.4% in 1999 to 10.6% in 2006, largely due to urbanisation. The World Health Organisation found a direct connection between poverty and drug use.

Cultural factors also play a role. Some traditional societies are able to rely on customs and norms to deter at-risk individuals from using drugs. But other, often more liberal, societies may be more easily influenced by a westernised culture that is more tolerant.

West Africa currently accounts for the majority of drug users, estimated at around six million. By 2050, the region is expected to have 13 million users. East Africa is another major hotspot, currently accounting for 2 million users. This region is expected to see the largest proportionate rise in users, tripling to 5.5 million by 2050.

Regional Challenges

For a region already facing some of the biggest health crisis in the world, the addition of 14 million drug users could break Africa’s already under-stress public healthcare system. Currently, the continent is busy battling Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and now the coronavirus. The rapid spread of such diseases has lead to a severe shortage of basic medical services like vaccinations.

A home-based caregiver in a village near Kayar, Senegal, provides basic healthcare services, including malaria treatment for patients living in areas where there are no healthcare facilities. Source: The Global Fund/Nana Kofi Acquah

The problem is made worse by the fact that in 2017, merely one-quarter of African nations reported data to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is not just an issue for the UN or regional governments but also puts local law enforcement at a disadvantage. Without access to the latest data, they cannot curb the flow of illegal substances across borders, or bring traffickers to justice.

Other challenges the region will have to overcome include corruption, poor planning and ineffective policies. The current policy of full prohibition has yielded limited results, mostly as a result of organised crime and its ties to politics. Organised crime expert Mark Shaw told Enact Africa -“Participation in drug trafficking offers political, security and business leaders windfall profits… They can conduct electoral and security campaigns, feed patronage systems, or take a fast track to wealth and power. In turn, politicians and security leaders can offer traffickers protection or even assistance.

Africa’s battle with drugs is yet to get started, and the region is woefully underprepared for the worst, which is yet to come. To respond, the continent needs evidence-based policies, upgraded medical facilities, carefully planned urbanisation and a region-wide educational programme.

Sources: Institute for Security Studies, ENACT, WHO

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