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6th March 2013

Young Brits’ drug use is fueling organised crime in West Africa

Christian Barrow tells us why students need to consider the worldwide impacts of purchasing recreational drugs

There’s a disparity between the way we choose what we buy in stores, and what we buy on the streets. As a result, one of the world’s most deprived areas is being plunged further into violence and crime.

Despite the world’s gaze being fixed on West Africa due to the Malian conflict,  the destruction of that part of the world by the increased flow of narcotics through the area is still not widely known. It’s not hard to understand why an area of ungovernable desert and underfunded governments is a fine breeding ground for cartels to operate. Couple that with the endemic poverty of countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso (where around half of the population live on less than $1.25 per day) and the supply of drug runners who will work for little remuneration is endless.

In the last ten years trafficking in the area has boomed. 13% of the world’s cocaine, with a street value of $15-$20 billion, now travels through the region –  roughly the same as the entire GDP of Mali or Guinea and twice that of Mauritania, some of the worst affected areas. Naturally, new gangs have formed from Guinea-Bisseau and Guinea right through to the north of the continent; to protect supply lines to the lucrative European market. As with all gangs, tales of organised brutality in the region – one all to familiar with violence – are beginning to surface. As with all drugs gangs, they target the vulnerable young.

Yet increasingly, young Brits are providing the demand for this trade. The most recent British Crime Survey revealed that cocaine use had more  than trebled among young consumers. Up from 1.3% to 4.2% of the 16-24 demographic group were users during the period 2011/12. However, among student consumers there is little responsibility for the effects of their consumption.

The majority of consumers fall into two broad categories. Firstly, there are the apathetic and uninformed who either care little or know nothing of the harms of the trade. Secondly, and increasing in size, there are those who avert the blame; choosing instead to point to the criminal status of cocaine and shirking responsibility to policy makers. They miss the point. Even if it were decriminalised in Britain, it would still be illegal in the more socially conservative African west. It would still cause just as much harm.

The current problems only tell half the story. The reason the focus of this piece is West Africa and not Latin America is poverty. The impoverished nature of West Africa means that governments have few resources to fight what are increasingly well-armed and well-funded drugs gangs. Much of South and Central America is mired in conflict arising from the cocaine trade.

However, the relatively wealthier nature of the states means that living standards are not as adversely affected despite the all too frequent incidences of brutality. Guinea and Guinea-Bissau which are the main port countries for cocaine arriving from South America are among the world’s poorest countries. Money being spent combating drugs gangs is money desperately needed for infrastructural and education spending.

The situation in Mali is dire. Fuelled by demand from Europe, cocaine trafficking is rampant in the Saharan state. Its ungovernable desert borders to the north make for safe routes for cartels to access North Africa and beyond. Its southern-based central government lacks the capability to mount any sort of response to the vast organised criminal gangs. Factor into this already bleak picture the current conflict that is creating uncertainty and harming investment opportunities, and living standards are plummeting.

That young people – often ardent when demonstrating their conscientiously liberal political beliefs – are so complicit in driving this harmful industry is saddening.  In recent years we have seen student activism on the streets of London demanding cheaper education. We have witnessed laudable opposition to the rise of Islamophobic populism. But whilst defending cheaper tuition fees and opposing the far right are commendable, the instance of cocaine consumption seems to be anything but a cause to celebrate.

The notion that we ought not to buy things produced or transported by dubious means has been around for centuries. From the boycotts of sugar picked by slaves in the late eighteenth century, to more modern practices such as the refusal to buy products made in sweatshops, or those that have been tested on animals. Young people and students have often been the standard bearers for conscientious consumption. There is however one outlier. Worryingly, many who wouldn’t dream of lining their coats with fur all to keenly line their nostrils with cocaine, one of the most damaging industries. One that is destabilising a part of the world which can ill-afford it.

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