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Reforming Sierra Leone’s Drug Control Act 2008: Harm Reduction

December 1, 2015 By Matthias D. BENDU*

In my most recent article titled “Campaigners call on government to harmonise policies”, I made it clear in that ex-combatants from the different factions who were introduced to drug abuse during our civil conflict were sent back home without paying attention to the dangerous new habit of abuse of drug, in their reintegration process. Unfortunately, as nation, we had no laws or policies on drug control until President Ernest Bai Koroma, while returning from one of his overseas trips, discovered the infamous cocaine load of plane at the Lungi International Airport. But because there were no laws/policies on drugs control and our constitution proscribe the detention of suspects beyond ten days for serious offences, the President had no alternative but to attach a certificate of emergency to the draft drug policy control bill to Parliament to hastily pass a new anti-drugs Act.

 President and the Parliament acted in good faith; we were trying to tell drug traffickers and their collaborators that business is no longer as usual, if they had capitalised on the absence of drug control laws/policies in the past, they should rethink their act now as those caught will be tried according to the current Act and punished, to save as deterrent. The action of our President and Parliament in enacting the drug control Act of 2008 was applauded both within and without, as our respectability as a nation was restored once more. Yet, there are many challenges in bringing drug traffickers to book.

The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) was also established. We also have the Transnational Organised Crime Unit (TOCU) doing a fabulous work here. It all indicates our determination as a people to put drug abuse under control in our country. However, taking into consideration that the illegal drugs trade had flourish during our eleven years conflict and left unattended to post-conflict for over five years, policies enacted in haste to try suspects do not suffice to address the numerous challenges associated with drug trafficking and consumption which is on the increase in West Africa. It is also clear that our drug control was in line with militant drug laws and policies in West Africa which supports the failed war on drug/drug war.

Today, there is a paradigm shift in drug laws/policies; it must now integrate issues like health, drug dependence treatment, access to essential medicines, harm reduction, human rights, gender, HIV/AIDS, development, decriminalisation, alternative livelihood and many more. For this piece, I am paying attention to harm reduction.

Harm reduction is a public health philosophy and intervention that seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use and ineffective drug policies.  A basic tenet of harm reduction is that there has never been, and will never be, a drug-free society.  The West Africa  Drug Policy Network (Sierra Leone Chapter) and its partners, WACD, OSIWA, IDPC,USAID and WASCI advocate reducing the harms of drug use through a lens of public health, using accurate, fact-based drug education, drug-related illness and injury prevention, and effective drug treatment for problematic use.  We believe that every solution with the potential to promote public health and to mitigate harm should be considered.  We continue to seek innovative health approaches to drug use, drug treatment, and drug policy that are based on science and research.

The West Africa Drug Policy Network (Sierra Leone Chapter) calls for shift in the focus of our country’s drug policies from punishment to humane solutions.Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use to abstinence to meet drug users “where they’re at,” addressing conditions of use along with the use itself. Because harm reduction demands that interventions and policies designed to serve drug users reflect specific individual and community needs, there is no universal definition of or formula for implementing harm reduction.

However, Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) considers the following principles central to harm reduction practice. Accepts, for better and or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimise its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them. The coalition understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviours from severe abuse to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others. It also seeks to establish quality of individual and community life and well-being–not necessarily cessation of all drug use – as the criteria for successful interventions and policies. Harm reduction campaigners again calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm, and ensures that drug users and those with a history of drug use routinely have a real voice in the creation of programmes and policies designed to serve them. In addition, it affirms drugs users themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and seeks to empower users to share information and support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use, recognising that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm, while it does not attempt to minimise or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger associated with licit and illicit drug use.

Therefore, the West Africa Drug Policy Network Sierra Leone Chapter is calling for reform in our National Drugs Act of 2008, because the draft bill was attached with a certificate of emergency, which did NOT allow our parliamentarian to consult experts or civil society organisations that are well informed about the issue, neither did it accord civil society the opportunity to lobby parliamentarians for their input.

Thus, it is now time to look at the emerging situation at regional and global levels to inform reform in our national drug control policy in a bid to integrate issues of harm reduction, human rights, health, gender, HIV/AIDS etc so that we will be on the same page with the rest of the world on drug issues. The West Africa Drug Policy Network Sierra Leone Chapter urges our government to harmonise our policies with the WACD evidence based recommendations and to support the 2016 UNGASS.

*Saa Matthias D. BENDU is National Coordinator, Development Initiative and Hope for the Vulnerable and Director of Communication West Africa Drug Policy Network Sierra Leone Chapter.

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