There is significant academic debate on decriminalising marijuana in the country, and this has received some degree of political and public support. Some have argued that decriminalization will open a floodgate for drug use in the country, while others do not agree and see it as the best way to reduce drug use in the country. In practice, repressive drug laws have neither succeeded in reducing drug consumption nor put traffickers out of their lucrative business. Instead, these laws have only driven and expanded the trade underground. The current drug policy in Ghana is very repressive in nature. It is a control approach that has failed to consider the health and well being of those who use drugs. It makes no room for people who need life saving harm reduction programs such as needle and syringe distribution and opioid substitution treatments. What this kind of regime has done over the years is to marginalize the majority of citizens. Studies have shown that the criminalization of people who use drugs is often more detrimental to their health than the drug use itself and that this approach does not lower rates of drug use.
Moreover, some reports show that the criminal justice response contributes to a climate of stigmatization of, and discrimination against, people who use drugs, which makes it less likely that they will receive impartial treatment from police and the judicial system. Addressing consumption through criminal justice institutions ultimately infringes on fundamental rights of people who use drugs, including the rights to health, information, personal autonomy and self-determination. Ghana’s current drug law also lacks proportionality in the sentencing of drug offenses. For instance, possession and trafficking both attract a minimum of 10 years in prison. It is clear that there is no distinction in the severity of the offenses.
Many countries around the world have already taken steps to amend and update their drug laws – more in line with the ‘Support Don’t Punish’ approach that civil society is advocating. Over time, there has been an increase in drug consumption in the country. This shows that repressive methods are not working, and the collateral damage that comes with the application of these laws are devastating, hence the need to adopt approaches that are evidence-based, more humane, and have been proven to work over the years. The word decriminalization has received a very negative response from society, partly because of ignorance or deliberate confusion of the discussion. Decriminalization applies to the purchase, possession, and consumption of all drugs for personal use. It must be noted that, under a decriminalization model, drug possession for personal use remains illegal and prohibited –but the actions taken in response to this offense do not necessarily lead to criminal sanctions.
In fact, a more effective alternative to punishment can be social protection and detoxification services, health care, treatment of dependence and reintegration into society. Under this module, police resources can be channeled towards stopping more serious crimes, rather than being wasted on harassing people who use drugs. Children are often, rightly, placed at the forefront of political justifications for the ‘war on drugs’. But the reality is that children’s rights have been increasingly violated through the current approaches and the levels of drug control measures while drug use and drug-related harms among children have continued to rise. In 2001, Portugal passed a ground-breaking law when it decriminalized low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs. More than a decade later, the results of the Portuguese experience demonstrates that drug decriminalization – alongside a deliberate shift in public funding from law enforcement to treatment and harm reduction services – can significantly improve public safety and health. There were fears that Portugal might become a drug free-for-all, but that simply didn’t happen. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that the number of drug-related problems has decreased including petty stealing among drug users”. Under a decriminalization framework, drug use and possession remain prohibited. What it simply does is that criminal penalties are removed and other sanctions such as fines or treatment requirements are imposed, if at all. Crucially, incarceration is no longer imposed for drug possession or use, and lives are no longer ruined with criminal records. The time to act is now!
BY MARIA-GORETTI ANE LOGLO, IDPC CONSULTANT FOR AFRICA AND MEMBER OF THE WEST AFRICA DRUG POLICY NETWORK, GHANA CHAPTER