New research suggests that African policymakers focused on the future have yet another pressing issue to add to their already full plates—even as they juggle the urgent job creation imperative, managing the impact of climate change, and coping with ongoing, rapid urbanization. A study released on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting and funded by the European Union indicates that Africa will be the site of the world’s largest increase in illegal drug use over the next few decades. While some parts of the continent have long been important transshipment or synthetic drug production hubs, the rising tide of illicit drug consumption presents a new series of challenges to African stability and development.
Managing this issue will require new legal regimes, law enforcement approaches, public health and education strategies, and significant cross-border cooperation. But many of the institutions vital to a comprehensive and effective response to the expected surge in drug use are currently weak and underfunded, and there is little consensus among states about the right approach. The current state of play is ripe for exploitation by organized criminal networks, which already benefit from other illicit trafficking opportunities throughout the region.
However, African policymakers also have an important moment of opportunity now. They can benefit from the experience of other regions, including the negative examples of states that mistakenly invested in strategies that prioritized punishing drug users, leading to a cascade of negative consequences. By focusing on this problem today, mindful of both the worst and the best practices pursued elsewhere, African leaders can develop smart, humane, and collaborative approaches that avoid the mistakes of the past, minimize the operating space for traffickers, and serve the needs of the most vulnerable populations. But political and civic leaders must make time for this issue now; with an 150% increase in illicit drug users expected in the next thirty years, there is no time to lose.