East Africa has embarked on an ambitious process to formulate a joint draft policy on harm reduction services for people who use drugs. If successful, East Africa will be the first region on the continent to formulate such a policy.
Experts drawn from member states of the regional economic bloc, the East African Community (EAC), met in Entebbe, Uganda, from 11 to 15 December 2017 to deliberate on the draft policy, ahead of further consideration and validation by the EAC technical working group on health.
Out of the region’s population of about 150 million inhabitants, some 260 000 people are reported to use drugs. Though it is home to about 20% of drug users on the continent, East Africa still lacks reliable data to inform programming and service delivery to this vulnerable group.
The EAC policy will guide national policy and practice by policymakers, health workers, law enforcement officials, development partners and others in responding to drug use as a public health problem. This response includes research, domestic policy on harm reduction, capacity building to support programming and creating an enabling environment for successful harm reduction initiatives.
‘This initiative is a two-prong approach from both health and policy perspectives to dealing with the problem of drugs,’ says Bernice Apondi, Policy Manager of the Regional HIV and Harm Reduction Programme of the Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium (KANCO). According to regional experts, harm-reduction initiatives account for 40% of the multi-dimensional responses to drug-related crime.
KANCO, in partnership with the EAC, is also leading moves to establish a regional drug policy network. Apondi is confident that such an initiative will lead to a regional mechanism similar to the high-level West African Commission on Drugs (WADC). In a report released in 2014, the WACD called for the decriminalisation and treatment of drug use ‘as a matter of public health’. This has led to a policy shift in Ghana, a country that is ‘poised to become the first African country to decriminalise the personal possession and use of all illegal drugs’.
Ghana’s legislative initiative under the Narcotics Control Commission Bill, 2017 (the Narcotics Bill) seeks to address drug use as a ‘public health issue’. Its implementation would be a major drug policy shift in Africa, where punitive sentencing has not yielded much success in the so-called war on drugs. Various parts of the continent are increasingly turning into key transit hubs for drug traffickers, leading to a spike in domestic drug use. The shift in Ghana and East Africa is a recognition of the failure of the punitive justice system to effectively counter the drug problem.
A comprehensive regional policy, such as the EAC framework, would encourage member states to review and update their national laws and create an enabling environment for harm-reduction interventions, complementing the criminal-justice approach to drug use. Such measures would go a long way to improve and harmonise drug laws in East Africa and boost the awareness, commitment and data required for more effective responses to this problem.
Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS