On June 26, 2015, the world commemorated the ‘Global Day of Action on Drug War’. Civil society organizations in the drug sector all over the world organized public health talks on drugs as well as policy dialogues to see how best drug laws could be reformed, and a ‘balanced drug policy’ achieved.
In Ghana, a drug reform policy dialogue was held in Accra by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) in partnership with the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Kofi Annan Foundation, the West Africa Commission on Drug (WACD) and USAID.
The forum brought together many experts in the drug field such as lawyers, civil society actors and persons who have experienced the ‘use’ of drugs, present to share practical experiences with the gathering.
Drug context in Ghana
Speaking on the drug context in Ghana, lawyer Martine Kpebu, of FUGAR and Co. Law firm, and a juvenile law expert, said the general drug law in Ghana is not ‘friendly’ as it ought to be; rather they are harsher and in the end fail to yield the expected result of ‘reforming’ the convicted drug user or addict.
He emphasized that drug users needed special care coupled with medical health care. However, there is the lack of rehabilitation centres in the country to help reform drug users, and even the few available rehab centres receive little or no support at all from the State.
Lawyer Martin Kpebu, though admitted, that the State might have other obligations to fulfil to the populace, said it was important that it (the State) sees drug use issues as a great concern and therefore, the urgent need to put aside funds for rehabilitation centres for reforming drug users.
Laws and unfriendly prisons
The juvenile law expert stated the Section 5 of the PNDC law 236 on Narcotic Drug Control (enforcement and sanction) Act 1990; which stipulates a maximum or not less than a five year prison term for a person convicted for use of narcotic drugs. The law stressed that the use of narcotic drugs is a ‘no bail’ offence.
This means that any person caught with any narcotic drug in his or her possession is convicted and put in prison without prior investigation into the intention of the accused person. The accused is kept in prison for as long as the case is tried, when sometimes, he or she might not even be aware of the drug in his possession. And what if in the long run it is established that the accused is actually innocent and then acquitted?
Lawyer Martin Kpebu explained that a compensation package is given to the acquitted person…but it is not common or not effective in monetary terms compared with the time the acquitted drug user had spent and wasted in prison.
He decried the circumstances in which judges are required or expected to use their own discretion in determining charges of narcotic offences, and pointed out that such practise is not appropriate because it lacks fairness and equal justice.
He advocated enough and specified guidelines to be formulated to enhance fair justice in drug care ruling.
“The general guidelines used in determining criminal cases must not apply to this, drug issues must be treated differently,” he said.
Touching on the state of Ghana prisons, the lawyer said the current structure of prisons in Ghana is poor; adding that the prisons turn to punish more than it reforms the accused people sent there.
He said the prison systems are not properly or specially designed to cater for drug users. The accused drug users are put together with accused persons charged with criminal offences such as murder and armed robbery. This is not fair, he said.
In his opinion, convicted drug users should be separated from prisoners charged for various criminal offences because they (drug) users need special care and reformation.
There are many factors that promote drug uses and discourage reformation on the part of drug addicts, and stigmatization is one leading factor.
Drug users are mostly shunned by the society and are branded ‘bad and evil people’. Even their own family members reject them. Unable to face this kind of rejection, these drug addicts turn to their peers in the ‘drug circle’ for comfort and solace, thereby, falling deeply into the menace, even when they are yearning to put an end to it.
Lawyer Kpebu said stigmatization that comes with sentencing drug users have negative effects on them, and advocated education and sensitization for the public to desist from stigmatizing drug addicts.
The lawyer acknowledged the fact that most people have been cultivating some kind of narcotics, especially marijuana, and have depended on it for their livelihoods for a long time, and “so we need to relook at the laws again”.
He further advocated the amendment of the drug laws in Ghana to make it ‘friendlier’ to law users.
Mr. Timothy Bentum, an actor and former drug user, and now a pastor at the Timothy Bentum Ministries, in sharing his experience with the audience reiterated the need for special care and attention to be given to drug addicts by the family and the State.
Pastor Timothy, who started doing drugs at the tender age of thirteen (13), and has been on drug for twelve years said “anyone who is on drug must be seen as a sick person, a psychologically sick person who need immediate help and health care, not punishment”.
He said everyone has a role to play in curbing the drug menace, right from the home to the State, with more the younger children as the prime target, in order to help them stay away from drugs, rather than leaving them to start it because “prevention now is better than cure tomorrow”.
He lamented how the State fund and efforts have been directed to punishing drug users and finding solutions to the menace, and less efforts for preventing it in the first place; citing an instance where drug users are charged a sum of GH₵1,000 to be admitted into rehabilitation centres for reforming. This is discouraging, he said.
Mr. Bentum advocated that ex-drug users must be incorporated in the drug law making body because they have first-hand experience and the expertise to help address the issues more effectively.
Mr. Adamu Mohammed, Executive Director of West Africa Behavioural Health Addiction and Recovery Management (WABHARM), said African drug law making bodies must use approaches that will benefit us as Africans.
He said “prisons have never been a solution” to drug addicts, as some of them come out of prisons even stronger in the menace than they were.
“At what cost is government keeping drug users in prisons and feeding them? Such funds could be better utilized when it is used for rehabilitation centres,” Mr. Adamu stressed.
In all, the ‘Global Day of Action on Drug War’ seeks to “Support and Not Punish” drug users.
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