Africa to face increase in illicit drug use

The East African coast plays an increasingly significant role in the global heroin trade
Photo: Jacqueline Cochrane/ISS

Sub-Saharan Africa will experience the largest rise in illicit drug users
globally in the next three decades. Findings from a forthcoming ENACT research paper forecast that East Africa will be hit the hardest, with the proportion of people using illicit drugs increasing faster than other regions.

This spike is due to changes in drug flows, urbanisation and the large youth population – and also complex and surprising factors, such as increasing gender equality.

A side event of the ENACT transnational organised crime project this morning highlighted new research findings on the trafficking and use of illicit drugs in Africa.

Held on the margins of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’s conference of states parties in Vienna, delegates heard about the impact of the drug trade on African states, their economies and their people.

‘The illicit drug trade presents a growing and cross-cutting threat across Africa. It undermines security and the rule of law, and limits prospects for improved governance, democracy and development,’ said Ute Stiegel, Deputy Head of Unit for Organised Crime and Drugs Policy, DG Home at the European Commission, opening the event.

For the past two decades, various parts of Africa have increasingly become transit points for the global trade in illicit drugs. As a result, a rising number of people across the continent have become involved in the trade – not only in facilitating the trafficking of illicit narcotics and other drugs, but also as consumers. This poses a formidable and growing problem to African governments, both from a law enforcement perspective and a public health standpoint.

‘African states, already struggling to build their own capacity and deliver services, will have to confront even more social and economic impacts associated with drug use,’ explained Eric Pelser, ENACT project head at the Institute for Security Studies.

These impacts threaten states’ ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in clear and direct ways. An increasing number of drug users – particularly of injection drugs – can result in a spike in costly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. It is also associated with increased mortality rates.

Illicit drug markets fuel violence and instability and give rise to criminal economies that spread across borders and often involve political elites. The heroin trade along the east African seaboard is a case in point.

A network of maritime routes stretching along the East and Southern African coastline forms a trade corridor increasingly used by drug traffickers for the illicit shipment of heroin to Western Europe. The trade feeds a system of criminal governance in each country along the coast, tying political figures, their parties and their country’s prospects for democracy to the illicit economy.

‘We need a better understanding of the relationship between politics, business and organised crime,’ says Mark Shaw, Director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. Civil society can play a key role in exposing the extent of trafficking and its connection to politics. It can advocate for evidence- and rights-based public-health responses, and approaches that involve the communities caught up in the violence of the trade.

More evidence is needed to frame this global threat from an African perspective, taking stock of the unique and complex ways in which the continent is affected by the scourge of illicit drugs. In Africa, attempts to respond to drug trafficking have tended to cause a disproportionate amount of harm for the limited results achieved.

There is also not enough evidence to show how drugs impede African economies. For example, rather than harming development, Africa’s two largest drug crops – cannabis and khat – are used as ‘compensation’ crops that boost the incomes of farmers, and are firmly integrated into community economies.

New approaches are needed that prioritise the relationship between the illicit drug trade, politics and prospects for attaining the SDGs.


ENACT is funded by the European Union. The project builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime. ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. For more, visit