As Africa's urban areas and middle class grows, so does its drug-related deaths

Despite relatively low consumption of drugs, Africa is responsible for 1/5 of global drug-related deaths. Why? Lack of "practice". Seriously.

THE drugs trade is flourishing in Africa - the seizures are enormous and drug-related deaths are getting higher. Last week, Kenyan forces seized heroin worth about $155 million off the coast of Kenya, in July Kenyan police seized 342kg of heroin in the coastal town of Mombasa - allegedly worth about $12.5 million. 

A few months earlier the Australian navy found heroin worth $268 million hidden in a dhow off Kenyan waters. This gives a combined total seizure of approximately $435 million worth of heroin alone off the Kenyan coast in just over six months. 

Africa has historically held a marginal role in consumption and transportation of illegal drugs. However, in recent years the continent has increasingly become the hotspot for drug trade. Since 2006 the global use of illicit substances has been on the rise, increasing from about 4.9% of the population between the age of 15-64, about 200 million people around the world, to 7%, by the high estimate, or close to 300 million people according to the UNODC statistics. 

The same estimate indicates that in 2012 roughly 183,100 people died due to drug-related causes out of which 36,800 or 20% were in Africa. It is surprising to see such a large proportion of fatal accidents on the continent which has never played a major role in illegal drug trade and, according to the report, has low consumption of all drugs except cannabis, which is above average - but is not deadly.

A recent study in Cape Verde (2012) implies that 7.6% of African population has tried an illicit substance at least once in their lifetime. Compared to the world average trends; 8% of United States population in the same age bracket used an illegal drug in the last month, cannabis consumption in Europe has a prevalence ranging from 10 - 44% and regular cocaine users in Spain and UK are estimated at 4 - 6%. 

Why is Africa responsible for 1/5 of global drug-related deaths if its prevalence rate is so low? Is it the poorly equipped hospitals and untrained health care workers that are responsible for such high loss of lives?  Or is it something else? 

Cocaine has become the most popular stimulating drug in Europe. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), an estimated 15.5 million Europeans have used it at least once in their lifetimes. Because of tight European monitoring systems for drug smuggling - as most developed countries shifted from targeting petty distributors to large-scale trade - the delivery of products, such as cocaine, directly from South America, where it is produced, became more risky. The United States obtains its cocaine through Mexico. Europe, however, relies on sea trade. The tightening of European borders meant that more and more trade happens via African ports. 

Africa’s protection and surveillance capability, with respect to illegal trade, is limited and incomparably lower than in Europe. Africa is therefore a logical solution for trans-atlantic illegal trade. The much longer distance the products need to travel to Europe, once delivered in Africa, and therefore the higher direct costs the traders incur, are offset by significantly lower risks.

In the main drug haven ports in Africa - Lagos in Nigeria, Bissau in Guinea-Bissau or Dakar in Senegal, where in 2012 UNODC estimated a cocaine profit of $1.2bn - it is relatively easy to bribe a truck load of illegal drugs out of the controlled area. 

Sometimes it might not even be necessary to lure civil servants with cash to haul the drugs away. Bearing in mind the chaos prevalent in port areas of most African countries, it is often easy enough to simply make up an excuse of lost documents, as in the case of Cotonou in Benin where 202kg of white powder ended up in storage for prawn-fishing gear by mistake. 

Clearly, the incidents of drug trafficking are becoming increasing apparent on the continent. To grasp the African problem with drugs and the surprisingly high death rate related to them, however, it is important to understand that Africa is increasingly the consumer of illegal drugs rather than just a transit route. 

In Kenya the street costs of three major drugs, marijuana, cocaine and heroine, are 50 cents for a roll (equivalent to cigarette size) and between $60-90 and $16 per gram respectively. This means that the fast growing middle class in cities such as Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Gaborone, Lagos, Johannesburg, Conakry or Dakar, can more readily afford them. 

As the urban middle class emerges, they are shaking off their traditionally conservative norms and after working hard are turning to other forms of entertainment. The above mentioned cities offer just the right mix of entertainment - bars, clubs, music, art all go very well with boosters the middle class might want to intensify their leisure time. And they all happen to be transited through the continent. Not surprisingly they finally found the way to reach what has previously been targeted at Europeans. 

The problem of excessive drug-related deaths on the African continent may stem from precisely that phenomenon: the new middle class is new, while the Europeans have considerable “experience” in drug intake. Having the access to cocaine or heroin is not equivalent to knowing how to best use them in a safe fashion. 

Western users have had decades of “practice” and, therefore, receive a comprehensive user manual from their peers, parents, grandparents, scholars or dealers (whenever friendly enough), or simply read it in a magazine related to the “swinging 60s”. In Africa the word-of-mouth recommendations are not so common. 

In fact, the only way to inform oneself about, for instance, the effects of cocaine, is to look it up online. Asking your dad won’t work. Asking anybody else, for that matter, may not work either. Illegal drugs may be perceived as the devil itself by the vast majority of the middle class parents generation. 

By the same token, schools in Kenya, and in all the African countries I researched for the sake of this article, fail to acknowledge the need of educating the youth of the dangers of particular drugs, rendering them vulnerable to the booming illegal market and heightened temptations of the curiosity that shapes youth. 

Despite growing illegal trade or, perhaps, improvement in propensity to seize it, the drug-related death toll in Africa does not need to grow concurrently. Yes, the hospitals are ill equipped to manage drug-related cases and that needs to change. But the target should be prevention. 

Children and youth should be educated on the dangers of drugs in a comprehensive and modern way. Only then will they be able to help themselves and understand what they are getting into, once they come into contact with it - and they will. 

The American war on drugs has failed miserably, costing its citizens in excess of $1 trillion since its declaration by Richard Nixon in the 1970’s. Instead, it created a $300bn black market trade referred to as “A billion dollar failure”. It is not wise to repeat mistakes of other nations, especially if the solution is so simple. 

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