By David Lewis
DAKAR (Reuters) - Governments in West Africa should decriminalize drug use and treat the issue as a health problem, because a "war on drugs" will fail in the region as it has elsewhere, a new report by regional experts said on Thursday.
The West Africa Commission on Drugs report says a time of fewer civil wars, booming economies and increased democracy risks being spoiled by the "destructive new threat" of drug trafficking.
"Drug users need help, not punishment," said the report, written by independent experts working for the commission, which is led by ex-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
"We abhor the traffickers and their accomplices, who must face the full force of the law. But the law should not be applied disproportionately to the poor, the uneducated and the vulnerable, while the powerful and well-connected slip through the enforcement net," the report said.
West Africa has long produced and consumed cannabis but its collection of weak states have over the last decade become a major transit zone for Latin American cocaine destined for Europe. Heroin from Asia is also passing through the region.
Experts say West Africa is also becoming a producer and exporter of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and governments there are not yet responding to the fact that the consumption of hard drugs is on the rise too.
The spike in trafficking through the zone has led to calls for action across a string of nations from Senegal to Nigeria.
The report cited some improvements in intelligence sharing and arrests, but those detained had been mainly small time dealers, and the main impact was to displace rather than halt the flow of drugs.
Meanwhile, the report warned that increased volumes of drugs flowing through the zone has translated into increased use of hard drugs, especially among the youth. As a result, governments are facing a looming public health problem.
"Decriminalising drug use is one of the most effective ways to reduce problematic drug use as it is likely to facilitate access to treatment for those who need it," it said.
The U.N.-Secretary General last year estimated the annual value of cocaine passing through West Africa at $1.25 billion. The commission said this was slightly more than the 2011 figure for foreign direct investments into Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Cape Verde, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau combined.
A flow on this scale has allowed networks to establish footholds by exploiting weak governments and legislation.
"(Trafficking and consumption) have taken on a dimension that threatens the security, governance and development trajectory of many countries in the region," the report said.
The reluctance or inability of local law enforcement to tackle the threat has led some Western nations to take direct action. Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which is expanding its presence across the region, targeted senior Guinea-Bissau military officials in a sting operation.
But the report said a militaristic approach must be avoided and lessons must be learned from elsewhere, like Latin America.
"We caution that West Africa must not become a new front line in the failed 'war on drugs,' which has neither reduced drug consumption nor put traffickers out of business."
"We ... must have the courage to change policies that no longer fit reality," it said.
(Reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Richard Chang)