By Moronfolu Adeniyi ’14, SSDP’s West Africa Global Fellow
The World Human Rights Day Symposium was organized by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) Nigeria, African Students for Liberty and Law Students’ Society, Crescent University Abeokuta. The main topic discussed was the intersection between drug policy and public health from the larger lens of human rights. In attendance were stakeholders from Ogun State Ministry of Health, School Deans, tertiary institution students, SSDP members, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) officials, and expert health officials at the Federal Medical Centers among others. The event started with a welcome address by the SSDP chapter president for Crescent University, Ige Oluwatimilehin.
The entire symposium initiated a thought-provoking discussion in which speakers explained the need to see drug use from a public health perspective rather than criminalizing people who use drugs. The public health approach puts people at the center and recognizes their rights and freedoms. Consumers who engage in problematic drug use and even people who are part of drug trafficking networks must be treated as human beings first. Consumers should not be considered sick; stigmatization keeps people away from access to support, care, and treatment.
Not only are these policies a complete failure, but they have also severely harmed societies throughout the world. Dr. Busayo Awolaran, the Ogun State faculty coordinator for SSDP, discussed during a panel session how every year there are countless preventable deaths from overdose, HIV, and Hepatitis C because of punitive drug laws. Adebisi Yusuff Adebayo, SSDP chapter president from the University of Ibadan, further enlightened the audience by explaining that despite the increased risk of HIV for people who inject drugs, they are among those with the least access to HIV prevention, treatment, and healthcare. This is because drug use is often criminalised and stigmatised to the extent they are denied access to health treatment they need. A new multi-disciplinary approach is required to help build a formal network of services which guarantee the right to receive science-based interventions and care, along with oversight of institutions to ensure there is no discrimination. This says nothing regarding the myriad of human rights abuses committed in the name of drug control, including forcibly detaining and torturing people because of their drug use. Bashorun Olufemi, National President of SSDP Nigeria, also discussed how people can be executed for drug offences in some countries, which is a violation of international human rights law.
An SSDP representative also advocated for the Just Say Know Peer Education program by explaining how abstinence-based drug education has been failing. #SayNoToDrugs is not a successful campaign because it tells young people not to use drugs without teaching them anything about drugs. The teens tend to eventually experiment with drugs without the knowledge on safe use or possible associated harms. Instead, we discussed changing the campaign to #SayKnowtoDrugs, which advocates for teaching all information about drugs so young people can make informed decisions. Many people in attendance noted this type of proper drug education may actually lead to more young people abstaining from drug use altogether.
Chidi Enitan also discussed how an important first step toward reforming drug laws will be to begin redirecting money from ineffective law enforcement spending to health-based services for people who use drugs. He further explained that almost $100 billion a year is spent on drug law enforcement and how research has shown redirecting just a fraction of this money could dramatically improve public health and achieve development goals.
Finally, Moronfolu Adeniyi, West Africa Fellow of SSDP, reiterated the need to recognise those from poorer backgrounds who do become involved in the drug trade are not doing so out of malice. This is in many cases a choice driven by economic hardship, limited work opportunities, and the need to provide for their families. As is often the case with issues related to drugs, it is not actually about the drugs themselves—it is about people, community and society, and is often tied to poverty, power, and socio-economic issues.
Ultimately, SSDP Nigeria clearly stated that Nigeria has to acknowledge evidence is firmly stacked against punitive drug policies. If governments want to genuinely improve the health and well-being of their societies, they have to move toward sensible, rights-based approaches to drugs.