Farmers in West Africa are turning to cannabis as a quick cash crop, feeding the biggest illegal drug market in the world. UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) director for West Africa, Antonio Mazzitelli, told IRIN clandestine farmers are lured by quick earnings: “Faced with the choice of cannabis or cassava, some choose easy money.”
Of an estimated 42,000 metric tons of cannabis grown worldwide in 2006 – sold as marijuana or hashish – 25 percent was grown in Africa where it is the most common drug of abuse and cultivation, according to the most recent UN World Drug Report.
Liberia’s Deputy Minister of Justice Joseph Jalloh told IRIN at a high-level drug conference in Cape Verde on 29 October that marijuana abuse spread during Liberia´s civil conflict from 1989 to 2003, and is now an increasingly popular cash crop: “Within three months, farmers see profits verses seven years for rubber, or three years with palm [ingredient for oil].”
Jalloh said farmers are turning to highly profitable cannabis farming, which relies on cheap labour and low set-up costs, to feed the high demand among youths for relatively inexpensive marijuana.
The street value of cannabis grown in West Africa annually is about US$600 million, according to the UN. Most of it stays in the region, with only a small amount sold to Europe, according to an October 2008 UN report that links increased drug trafficking in West Africa to growing drug abuse.
A director of Ghana’s Narcotics Control Board, Micheal Addo, told IRIN agents destroyed 660kg of cannabis plants in September.
The executive director of Gambia´s DEA told IRIN one ton of cannabis was destroyed in 2007.
Facing down farmers
Starting in June 2008, Liberia’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), with support from the UN police, reported burning more than 400,000 cannabis plants over four months in the central Liberian Bong county, 100km northeast of the capital Monrovia, and Nimba county, 150km from Monrovia near the Guinea border.
DEA reported seizing some 20,000kg of already-harvested marijuana in 2007.
DEA’s director, James B. Jaddah, said the raids would not have been possible without military backup: “We have known about these farms for some time, but you can’t just storm them without weapons. We did not know the resistance we would face. Some of these are ex-fighters [from the civil war] who held on to their weapons [during disarmament programmes].”
Jaddah said government regulations allow only a specially trained police unit to carry weapons, so drug agents must rely on the UN for protection. “We are able to arrest drug dealers. Not all dealers have weapons. But it is different with potentially violent farmers in remote areas. They are likely to protect their property with guns.”
When asked how the government can prevent farmers from replanting cannabis after raids, the Ministry of Justice’s Jalloh said the agency does not even know who the farmers are: “It’s not like the farmers are waiting for us when we show up to burn their fields. They have workers on the farm, but the owners have fled or are based far from their farms. If we don’t know who they are, the government cannot retrain them to take up other livelihoods.”
Jalloh said cannabis farmers must be prosecuted. “These farmers could have planted things our country actually needs, like coffee, rice or pineapple. We don’t have enough food for our people and they go and plant marijuana because of greed. Rice takes work. It is not easy money. But at least it can feed people, rather than an underground economy.”
Liberians are among the hungriest people in the world, according to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, a situation that has changed little since 1990.
During its first raid on marijuana farms, Liberia´s DEA destroyed about 438,000 plants based on hectares destroyed, the agency estimates.
The challenge is wiping cannabis out for good, said Deputy Justice Minister Jalloh. “We will send in people, both openly and undercover, to monitor the [burnt cannabis] fields. But the agency has only three cars, and about 70 men total. It will be difficult.”
At the conclusion of the ministerial drug control conference from 26 to 29 October in Cape Verde’s capital Praia, West African ministers adopted a regional political declaration on drug trafficking, organised crimes and drug abuse.
An action plan lays out steps to fight growing drug abuse in the region through detoxification centres, job training and prevention, among other activities.
But UNODC´s top director, Antonio Costa, told conference attendees that the challenge is now to find funding during a global financial fallout to turn “words on paper to deeds on the ground.”
The issue of marijuana addiction and the need for marijuana rehab will only increase with more and more farmers opting to grow this illicit plant rather food crops.