Reassessing drug markets and policies across African countries


The subject of drugs and drug markets in Africa is highly debated and contested as a field of research. The organisers of the 24hr Conference on Organised Crime hosted a panel titled ‘Africa and drugs: Rewriting the tale? Presenting the forthcoming JIED Special issue on drugs markets and policies in Africa.’ The conference dates were 13 and 14 October 2022, with the ‘Africa and Drugs’ panel hosted on 13 October. The panel discussed some topical issues covered in the forthcoming Special Issue of the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development. The Cannabis Africana project‘s presentation focused on reassessment of drugs markets and policies across African countries over the past 10 years, concluding with a particular focus on recent policy development sin the cannabis sector, and their implications for livelihoods.


Our presentation looked at developments in the African drugs markets and policies since 2012 when our colleagues Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig published their book, Africa and the War on Drugs. The book provided an overview of Africa’s incorporation into debates and International policy on drugs & drugs trade. Their publication was followed by a Special Issue publication in the Review of African Political Economy journal in 2016 which examined emerging academic work on drugs trade in Africa. The third element in our framing of developments on African drugs markets and policies is the current work we are doing through the Cannabis Africana: Drugs and Development in Africa project. Our current focus is the nexus between drugs and development in Africa. This framing allow us not only to articulate current policy developments in Africa, but also to appreciate the changes in the narratives over the last decade. This is recognition that drugs markets are not static, but change over time.

Against the above background, our contribution in the JIED Special Issue seeks to sketch some key drug market developments on the continent over the past 10 years. It also reviews some assumptions in Africa and the War on Drugs book and the ROAPE Special Issue of 2016. Further, the article articulates the perpetual problem with drugs markets in Africa – lack of sufficient data, while also highlighting the emergence of a new and lively debate about drugs and drug policy in many African countries. The point we are driving home is that new debates about drugs are welcome but they continue to exclude the voices of the ones most affected by drugs – users, traders and producers, especially where cannabis is concerned.

African drug markets 10 years on

The following were the key points we sought to highlight:

  • There is great diversity of drugs markets in Africa.
  • The differentiated view of drugs markets in Africa is more appropriate, but not always feasible due to data limitations.
  • Focus on ‘national drugs markets’ [eg. South African meth; Nigerian cocaine; Moroccan cannabis markets] reflects the nation state data available and its limits.
  • Methamphetamine (originally a challenge for some suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa in the early 2000s, synthetic opioid tramadol, and opiate codeine are widely used as drugs of abuse in West and North Africa in recent years.
  • However, cannabis, cocaine and heroine are still the major drugs across the continent
  • Use, trade and production of these drugs has extended to many countries in Africa e.g. Heroine markets in Mozambique (Hanlon, 2018)

Cannabis reinventing its image?

Since 2017 several African countries have created legal cannabis markets for medical and scientific purposes. However, only South Africa has legalized private growing by adults for personal consumption. This means that in many African countries the use, trade and production by smallholders remains illegal – including where the legal market exist. Thus, there is co-existence of two non-complementary markets – the legal and the illegal. Due to data limitations, it is not yet clear what relationship exist between these two markets. What is clear, though, is that state support is directed towards the new legal market – with high hopes that cannabis will bring in substantial foreign revenues. At the same time, the illegal market dominated by smallholders continue to be criminalised and suffer state violence. Nevertheless, the fact that cannabis is no longer viewed just as a threat, but also an opportunity as a cash crop shows the changing narrative around the drug crop.

Implications of cannabis policy reforms

A question that can be asked is whether cannabis’ status has been boosted by the legal market. It is tempting to answer in the affirmative given the creation of the legal market. In that regard one can agree that cannabis’ status has changed in a positive way. However, the apparent contradictions and tensions in the manner cannabis policy reforms have been designed and implemented call for a nuanced analysis on the implications of the new policy reforms in African countries. Firstly, there are concerns about what others have called ‘accumulation by dispossession’ – were the lucrativeness and attractive profits in the legal cannabis sector have attracted bigger and powerful players such as agribusinesses and local elites at the expense of the poor smallholders. This challenge has been worsened by high entry and production costs associated with production for medical and scientific purposes.

The consequence has been an adoption of an elitist, top down approach to agrarian reform involving potentially profitable drug crops – a process that is not inclusive and is less likely to improve livelihoods of majority. That in itself is a contradiction and injustice – cannabis is bad when saving interests of the poor, but good when serving economic interests of the state, corporate business and local elites. As such, a dual agrarian model is emerging in the cannabis sector where on one side there is the legal market dominated by agribusinesses and elites, while on the other there is the criminalized and victimised sector for smallholders.

Changing debates, new evidence & old problems

There are now widespread public debates about drugs and related policy now than 10 years ago. This is welcome. Alternatives to prohibitionist norms have emerged, for instance, harm reduction programs. As noted earlier, in the case of cannabis it is no longer just viewed as a threat, but also an opportunity as a new cash crop.

However, developments in the cannabis sector, for example, have shown the dangers of legal markets and debates being dominated by state and corporate interests. Only certain voices are heard in the emerging debates while those of users, small traders and producers remain excluded. This problem is not helped by the state of data that is predominantly dominated by consultancy work, international drug regulatory agencies and state agencies. Although we now have an improved understanding due to new sources emerging, data remains a big problem. There is little in-depth and historically grounded knowledge available. This has led to uncritical application of some concepts such as organised crime used to refer to drug entrepreneurs who are just trying to make a living through one of the age-old crops that has been available to them – cannabis.

At times there seems to be unintended collusion between the concepts we use to refer to smallholders (who are not even represented on the policy discussion roundtables) and how the national laws and policies have assigned negative identities to the poor making a living out of drug crops such as cannabis. More often the law and policies are taken as sacrosanct (hallowed), yet in many cases they fail to speak to the lived experiences of the people. Many drug laws and policies in African countries are harsh, give heavy sentences for possession of even small quantities, and are inherited from the colonial era. They are too slow to change in line with changing circumstances.

This piece does not seek to play down the negative effects drugs have in many lives. The point is that there is need to appreciate the complexity of the situation, and have a balanced approach to drugs regulation that address the problem while promoting the positive contribution that drugs such as cannabis make to livelihoods of many.


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Blog – Cannabis Africana – Drugs and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa:

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