I agree with the views expressed by Ms Mariatou Jobe-Njie in your edition of Tuesday, 17 June. Indeed the drugs menace is a real danger confronting states in our sub-region and that is all the more reason why the work of the West Africa Commission of Drugs is all the more important. The nearby state of Guinea Bissau became a failed state largely thanks to the paralysis caused by drug traffickers corrupting the whole political and military set-up. The real threat is what happened in Guinea Bissau can happen in any other country if steps are not taken to combat the menace.
As highlighted by the report, decriminalisation of drug use and possession can free up resources that can be more effectively invested in establishing services for those most in need of treatment. Investments in drug treatment and harm reduction can lead to economic and social benefits far in excess of the invested resources. Yet across West Africa, including The Gambia, the availability of the most basic drug-related health and treatment policies and services is limited.
Most services are provided by psychiatric hospitals, which may be overcrowded and do not have specialised drug dependence services, or by traditional healers and faith-based facilities, which have been reported in many places to use scientifically unsound methods and even methods that are cruel or inhumane.
Available facilities are generally poorly funded, and few have adequate numbers of personnel with skills and experience in managing substance use disorders. This situation exists in part due to a glaring absence of drug treatment policies, standards and monitoring systems. It is also due to the fact that people who use drugs are often heavily stigmatised, and are deemed as not meriting the expenditure of state resources.
The quality of treatment available to drug users in West Africa varies enormously both within and between countries in the region. There is an urgent need to set and implement standards that can help to ensure humane and effective treatment across the region.
Treatment should be scientifically sound and not punitive physical restraints, beating, forced labour, unnecessary isolation or involuntary detention, and humiliation are not scientifically sound practices and have any proven effect for treatment of drug dependence. There should be human rights-centred guidelines for quality of care in this area, and there should be an oversight mechanism to ensure that guidelines are followed.
Treatment options should be flexible. It is well documented that some people need to try more than one type of treatment before they find one that is effective for them. Treatment should be affordable and accessible to all who need it. Treatment services should not be denied to anyone on the grounds of having a criminal record, being homeless, or any other discriminatory criteria. Treatment should be voluntary and should not require compulsory detention.
Decriminalising drug use is one of the most effective ways to reduce problematic drug use as it is likely to facilitate access to treatment for those who need it. It can also help free up resources for law enforcement to focus on more selective deterrence and targeting of high-value traffickers, especially those whose behaviour is more damaging to society in the long run.