Feature story

New model drug law launched in western Africa

12 September 2018

Unjust laws can prevent people from accessing the services they need to prevent or treat HIV, and people who use drugs need help and care, not punishment—these are two of the messages from the new Model Drug Law for West Africa. Launched on11 September in Dakar, Senegal, the model drug law aims to guide policy-makers in the region on how to better frame their drug laws.

It is increasingly recognized that the current drug laws are not effective and result in enormous costs. The model drug law shows how countries can modify their laws in order protect the health and welfare of people while at the same time allowing law enforcement to focus on the most serious drug offences.

“The risk of acquiring HIV is 23 times higher among people who inject drugs, yet they still face human rights abuses, punitive legal environments and are left out of health and HIV programming,” said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “It is essential that countries take a human rights-based approach that is grounded in scientific evidence and includes critical harm reduction services to protect the health and welfare of people who inject drugs and their communities.”

Drawn up by the West Africa Commission on Drugs, a group convened by Kofi Annan comprising experts from western Africa, the model drug law notes that barriers to accessing health services for people who use drugs need to be removed. People who inject drugs are one of the groups at highest risk of exposure to HIV, but they remain marginalized and often out of reach of health and social services.

The model drug law suggests removing criminal penalties for people who use drugs and making harm reduction measures available. It has been shown that harm reduction works—when harm reduction services are made available, new HIV infections fall sharply. For drug use, and possession of drugs for personal use, the model drug law sets out alternatives to conviction and punishment.

“Our current drug laws stigmatize and penalize drug users. However, pushing them to the fringes of society or locking them up in ever increasing numbers will not solve the problem. On the contrary, it worsens health issues and puts enormous pressure on the already over-stretched criminal justice systems,” said Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria and Chair of the West Africa Commission on Drugs.

The model drug law also seeks to enhance access to essential medicines such as morphine and other opioids to manage pain. Many people in western Africa are denied the pain-relieving medicines that they need because doctors and other health professionals are not prescribing opioids for fear of prosecution. The model drug law suggests special protection for medical staff to help remove barriers to accessing pain relief.

Experience around the world has shown that it is possible to change drug laws for the better. The new model drug law is a step towards making such changes in western Africa.