Africa will see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users over the next 30 years

A heroin addict smokes heroin in Lamu, Kenya
A heroin addict smokes heroin in Lamu, Kenya
Image: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
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African health systems and law enforcement will face an increased burden over the next 30 years because of a projected rise in the number of drug users on the continent.

By 2050, there will be 14 million more users of illicit drugs in addition to the current estimated drug user population of about 9 million on the continent, according to a study by Enact, a coalition of security-focused organizations including Interpol. “This figure represents the most substantial increase in the absolute number of drug users in any region in the world,” the study said.

West Africa’s position as Africa’s largest drug market will remain unchanged but the study’s most alarming projection is that East Africa will witness a significant rise in the number of its drug users. “Compared to West Africa, where drug use is forecast to roughly double between now and 2050, in East Africa drug use is projected to nearly triple, going from about two million today to about 5.5 million in 2050.”

Most African governments’ policies on illicit drugs overwhelmingly focus on prohibition and criminalization and not on public health, says a separate report published by Enact in June 2019.”The continent’s current approach to drugs does not appear to take account of a looming public health crisis,’ says Eric Pelser, program head of Enact.

There is indeed a rapid rise in drug use among Africa’s youths, as Quartz Africa has previously reported. Drug abuse—particularly of opioids like codeine and Tramadol—is a problem governments on the continent have attempted to tackle. Last year, Nigeria banned the importation and production of codeine-based cough syrups while Ghana’s minister of health issued an executive order controlling the use and sale of Tramadol.

In its annual World Drug Report 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime increased “the number of past-year users of opioids to 6.1 million, compared with the previous estimate of 2.2 million” in Nigeria alone [pdf p.9] because of newly available data. In addition, there is also growing evidence that illicit Tramadol on the market contains stronger chemicals than conventionally made pills.

There are increased calls by experts for the decriminalization of drug use and the reallocation of resources to rehabilitation and support services to drug users.

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