As we mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse today, Kenya is still at a crossroads regarding increasing drug use and health rights of the users. Heroin and injecting drug use have been documented in the country for over two decades. The “2018 Nacada Report” shows 4.1 million Kenyans use one type of drug or the other — 14.5 per cent prescription drugs, 7.5 per cent tobacco, 2.3 per cent bhang, 1.1 per cent heroine and 1.1 per cent cocaine.
Having realised that drug use was a global problem, the United Nations endorsed the decriminalisation of drug possession and use. This was contained in a policy statement shared by the secretary-general in January.
Many countries have some form of drug decriminalisation and harm reduction in their policies with several endorsements for decriminalisation among certain UN agencies in recent years. The World Health Organization (WHO), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have all embraced the policy, as did former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his successor Antonio Guterres.
Portugal decriminalised drug use in 2001 in response to an HIV crisis. That generated benefits such as the rate of deaths from opioid overdose reducing dramatically. HIV prevalence among injecting drug users also fell, as did criminal cases in major towns.
Decriminalisation not only dramatically reduces the number of people mired in the quicksand of the criminal justice system but also, as the UN/WHO statement highlights, vastly improves public health and the users’ quality of life. It decreases the stigma against them and addresses the discrimination and isolation they historically face. Coupled with social exclusion, the society’s perception about drug users begins to change for the better.
Other policies include reduced sentencing for petty drug offenders; investing in harm reduction — programmes and policies aimed at reducing the harm caused by drug use; universal health coverage for substance use disorders; addressing prison overcrowding; and eliminating the stigma and discrimination associated with drug use. These shared principles are promoted by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND).
The government has supported harm reduction programmes in Mombasa, Nairobi, Kisumu, Kwale and Kilifi through the Ministry of Health, under Nascop and Nacada. But that has not turned on the taps to change the drug policies.
Africa is caught up in the criminal justice debate, which has condemned users to jail whereas they should receive treatment. The stiff penalties targeting drug barons have only netted the ‘small fish’, who do not have the power to bribe or defend themselves in court and are, essentially, sick.
A Bill authored by Nyali MP Mohamed Ali seeking to amend the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act is blind to the people it should protect: Drug users. The young men and women have, for decades, suffered arrests, beatings, lynching and jail. With the prevailing high unemployment, divorce and gender-based violence, civil society organisations are recording an increase in users, even in the rural areas.
The ‘Ali Bill’ seeks to tighten the noose on traffickers but will, definitely, be used by the police to lock up the users they mercilessly round up during swoops.
First, the government needs to draft laws that support the development of youth while deterring trafficking in and sale of narcotics. Secondly, it should form a multi-sectoral platform to collaborate with the civil society and communities of people who use drugs and related agencies to step up joint efforts in ways that promote healthcare access and dignity to deserving cases.
CARE AND SUPPORT
Thirdly, the war against drugs should not be politicised. It is a healthcare concern since we are dealing with peoples’ lives. Drug users are also human beings, who need attention, care and support.
We could take a leaf from the West Africa Drug Commission. It was founded by a group of distinguished West Africans — among them former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo — drawn from diverse spheres.
The commission analyses the problems of drug trafficking and dependency to deliver an authoritative report and comprehensive policy recommendations. It also ensures its findings are discussed and acted upon.
This has created leadership in the issue of drugs in West Africa. That is the path Kenya should take in handling the vexing matter of drugs and the rights of addicts.
Ms Apondi is Policy Manager at Voices of Community Action and Leadership-Kenya (VOCAL-Kenya). [email protected]