Region becoming a transcontinental narcotics hub
Africa’s Indian Ocean Islands should use decriminalisation as a strategy to combat the growing drug problem they face as the region becomes a hub for international narcotic trafficking. This is one of the key findings of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime (GIATC) which released a comprehensive report in June 2021 examining the Indian Oceans’s narco-quandary. It reports that the islands of the western Indian Ocean have been drastically impacted by illicit drug markets. Positioned between Africa and Asia, these island states have been affected by shifts in drug production and trafficking on both continents, while forming a distinct and unique inter-island drug trafficking ecosystem. Significant changes are under way in this ecosystem, with increasing volume and diversity of illegal drugs being trafficked to and between the islands.
While the dynamics of drug markets are shaped by a range of domestic political and economic factors, all the islands (namely Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar, the Comoros and the French Overseas Territories of Mayotte and Réunion), are rendered vulnerable by their proximity to a major heroin trafficking route and growing regional methamphetamine and cocaine routes.
Corruption fuels drug markets
The GIATC report, entitled Changing Tides, urges the Indian Ocean Islands adopt approaches that decriminalise the use of drugs in the face of fragmenting global consensus on prohibition. It says corruption is arguably the single most significant factor underpinning the growth of drug markets in the western Indian Ocean.
“Drug markets enjoy a degree of protection across the islands, although this is far more limited in the French Overseas Territories of Réunion and Mayotte. In Madagascar and the Comoros, drug markets are one of many illicit markets facilitated by corrupt elements of state institutions, while drugs are the major criminal economy in the Seychelles and Mauritius, and therefore stand out as a unique driver of corruption. The impact of drug-fuelled corruption on the democratic and criminal justice infrastructure of these two islands constitutes the biggest obstacle to an effective response, especially as the factors which have made Mauritius and the Seychelles attractive to trafficking networks – comparatively high spending power, high air and maritime connectivity and convenient proximity to a major international drug trafficking route – remain unchanged.
It says “states across the world are pursuing a range of soft policy approaches as an alternative to domestic prohibition. Evidence from countries adopting approaches that decriminalize illicit drug consumption, including from Portugal, which became the first country to decriminalize all drugs in 2001, point to significant economic benefits gained from reducing the cost of illicit drug use (largely from a material reduction in drug-related health burdens on the state), and benefit good governance and local communities.
Islands should consider legalising cannabis at least
The report says: “the islands stand to gain a great deal from moving towards a more progressive and evidence-based approach to drugs, particularly given the scale of the illicit drug markets they face. And there is regional precedent: a number of countries in East and southern Africa have started to move away from a wholesale prohibition approach; there is, for example, a growing trend across the continent for the decriminalization or legalization (in part or in full) of cannabis.
“This could constitute a potential first step in overall reform of state drug policy, which could bring significant benefits in the islands of focus. In Mauritius, support of decriminalization of cannabis use has gathered momentum, and is repeatedly proposed as a possible response to growing synthetic cannabinoid use, including by the 2018 Commission of Inquiry. In a number of rural areas of Madagascar, cannabis production is a key livelihood and could offer a route out of poverty for marginalized populations if cultivation were rendered legal in all, or certain, contexts.
Although decriminalization approaches do not offer an effective response to the criminal markets underpinning the narcotics trade, they may be a key step in the process towards a more holistic state response, and carry significant benefits from a harm reduction perspective.
The western Indian Ocean Islands are often neglected in studies of the African continent, seen as too ‘different’ for effective comparison. Perhaps in part because of this, Madagascar’s emergence as a significant drugs transhipment hub has received limited attention to date. Yet as argued above, the region is closely connected to the illicit dynamics on the mainland.”