Thomas Antwi Bosiakoh

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Reflections on the Ghanaian Drug Economy

By: Thomas Antwi Bosiakoh[1]


The drug problem has become widespread and endemic not only in the Ghanaian society but the world at large. It transcends both national and continental frontiers. According to some scholars, illegal drugs constitute a major social problem all over the world and have therefore sparked off enormous amount of literature in several scientific fields. Consequently, its presence is felt in the US and Jamaica, in Bolivia and Switzerland, in Peru and Mexico, and in Columbia and Fiji just to mention but a few. In the Golden Crescent of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the least said about illegal drugs, the best. So widespread is that, in Nigeria, it has assumed the description ‘the Nigerian Connection’. In the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia, illegal drug is considered not only as a nuisance but also as real social problem because it impinges on the conscience of the people.

In Ghana, literature on drug is particularly paltry except to resort to media publications. There are hardly any scientific publications on drugs. This situation notwithstanding, reflections on the Ghanaian drug situation is interesting on two accounts. First, is that, most of the drugs especially marijuana, cocaine and heroin are of recent provenance and have gained widespread discussion within the Ghanaian society. Secondly and most importantly, reflection on the Ghanaian drug situation is justified on accounts that, the drug phenomenon, if not controlled, could meddle in the relative peace the country has achieved on the political and security fronts. In Ghana, drug dealings occur in diverse forms and therefore present diverse ramifications. In this paper, I make efforts to unpack some of the diversified facets that the phenomenon presents itself. In the first few sections, emphasis is placed on definitional issues and the historical development of drug use in Ghana as well as the production modes of drugs in Ghana. Following then, drug trafficking is taken up with focus on the motivating factors. In the light of the increasing shrinking of the world, in what has been described as globalization, I ground the discussions on the motivating factors in a transnational perspective and then isolate the elements of economics underlining drug trafficking and drug trade in Ghana.

Unsettling the Definitional Disquiet

In some studies, drug is considered as a chemical used for the prevention, treatment, and alleviation of disease. The term ‘medicine’ (as used in prescription-only medicine) is sometimes used to distinguish therapeutic drugs from recreational and other drugs, such as opiates, which are used illegally or abused. Some studies bring out the natural or artificial nature of drug substances that alter the functions of organisms (for pleasure and or improve performance). In most countries, these drugs are forbidden to the general public. Most countries restrict the use of such drugs, although what is and is not legal varies widely. Whereas the legal position in different countries reflects historical and cultural attitudes to the drug in question, in many countries it is a matter of continuing controversy. Drugs are divided into three classes—A, B, and C—in descending order of gravity: offences concerning class A drugs attract the most severe sentences. The commonest class A drugs are heroin (diamorphine), cocaine, ecstasy, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); class B drugs include amphetamines and opiate pain-relief compounds; class C drugs are generally sedative drugs and cannabis (cannabis was reclassified from class B to C in 2004 by the UK government). Ghana has long been identified as a major producer of cannabis in West Africa. In a scholarly article on Ghana's Drug Economy Henry Bernstein contended in 1999 that, Ghana’s production of cannabis is only surpassed by Nigeria in the West African sub-region and that much of the production in Ghana is of ‘high quality - high delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC levels - with a large domestic market and large exports’.

The use of drugs among humans dates from prehistoric times. The first list of drugs with instructions for preparation, called pharmacopoeia, appeared in 1546 in Nuremberg, Germany. With time, drug offences have come to reflect continuous use of restricted drugs. In criminal law, drug offences refer to any of the various offences connected with drugs. In Ghana, all mind-altering or mood-changing drugs are controlled, taken only under medical observation. Exception is made to alcohol. A similar case is also found in other countries, such as Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

Tracing the history and cultivation of cannabis and marijuana in Ghana

The Second World War (1939-1945) represents the first time drug production and usage especially of cannabis was introduced into the country. This period, which extended into the late 1950s saw the introduction of cannabis by soldiers who had returned from Asia, having fought on the side of Britain, the then colonial master. This Asian attribution of narcotic use in Ghana is also expressive in the terms Indian hemp and bhanga among marijuana users albeit marijuana has been christened among users and non-users alike as wee. In the most dominant local language Twi, marijuana is referred to as obonsam tawa, literally translated as the ‘devil's tobacco'.

Following the introduction, cultivation was initiated in areas around Accra and the Eastern Region in small scales. According to a publication by Paris-based Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues in 1995, the early cultivation of cannabis in and around Accra created drug use and diffusion among lower-class social and occupational groups, especially in the cities. It was the period between 1960 and 1980 that provided avenue for expansion in cultivation to areas in Ghana beyond the south-eastern drug production enclave. During this time, cultivation was expanded to new growing areas in the Ashanti and Brong Ahafo regions. Drug use had become a habit for the lower-class social and occupational groups while young upper-class Ghanaians found 'recreational' service in drugs. Like the Nigerian case, a case well articulated by Klein (1994), drug use by upper-class Ghanaians was first pursued during periods of study and vacations abroad. Klein’s observation on the Nigerian case finds application in Ghana. Klein states:

‘There is evidence that the habit of taking hard drugs was first acquired by Nigerians during periods of study and vacations abroad. On their return they had the means to pay for the ‘stuff’ and, what is also important in as overcrowded a city as Lagos, the hotel room, if no private house was available, where the ritual of consumption could take place’ (Klein, 1994:668-669).

Clearly it was on their return that young upper-class Ghanaians joined in the use of drugs in Ghana, which of course had been dominated by the lower-class social and occupational groups. Latter on, according to Bernstein (1999), middle-class Ghanaians badly affected by the declining economic fortunes of the country also adopted drug consumption as a habit. In all these, it was the period beginning from the1980s that Ghana's drug market attained the maturity status (Bernstein, 1999), having achieved an estimated 15 per cent of the population, and exports estimated at 50 per cent of domestic production by the Narcotics Control Board (ibid:14).

Presently, areas in the Sefwi (eg. Humijebre) and Aowin areas of the western region of Ghana are heavily noted for the cultivation of cannabis. Here and in other growing areas, the cannabis tree is intercropped with other plants such as cassava and okra to make for its concealment. Both cannabis and marijuana come in different types. Bernstein (1999) cites one trader in the business in the following manner:

‘The following types and sources of cannabis were identified by a trader (well informed about cultivation and trade in the south, but not the north), in descending order of quality: 'no seed dope': grown in the most fertile soils, often marshy and deep inside forests, on the Afram plains, in Ashanti and Brong Ahafo, with marijuana from Wenchi especially prized; 'taffeta': dense leaves and very small (concealed) seeds, grown in Volta Region; 'seed dope': which grows anywhere; 'area dope': grown close to Accra and cut early to avoid detection, giving the lowest quality marijuana’ (Bernstein, 1999: 15).

Trafficking in drugs: A brief note on motivating factors

Trafficking in drugs is a worldwide activity. It is a black market consisting of production, distribution, packaging and sale of illegal drugs. The illegality of the black markets purveying the drug trade is relative to geographic location, and the producing countries of the drug markets. For instance many South American, far Eastern, and Middle Eastern countries are not as inclined to have "zero-tolerance" policies, as the consuming countries of the drug trade, mostly United States and European countries. Demand underlies the increasing drug trafficking offences, for without it, the economics of it cannot be sustained. Increased demand has therefore led to increased practitioners, and consequently, refined techniques and operational procedures. Being at least a step ahead of the law enforcement authorities is a requirement for all practitioners, especially those who operate from a low resource base.

The origin of illegal drug trade is rooted in jurisdictions where legislations prohibit the sale of certain popular drugs. In such jurisdictions, it is common for illegal drug trade to develop. For example, the Ghana government has identified a number of controlled drug substances. The same can be said of Britain and, USA and indeed very many countries across the world. As a world-wide phenomenon, illegal drug dealing has been explored as topic in books and films. The phenomenon has become a major staple for humour and entertainment and was the topic of The French Connection (films), Midnight Express (1978), Scarface (1983), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Traffic (2000), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), Bad Boys II (2003), and Miami Vice (2006). A number of movies in Ghana on the screens of Ghanaian television stations also exude drug as the defining theme.

Several reasons have been assigned to the increased spate of drug pushing syndicates across the world. In a famous submission, a former Inspector General of Police (IGP) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in listing the factors that contribute to engagement in drug trafficking prefixed the argument with ‘societal values placed on the acquisition of wealth irrespective of the source’. This submission apes the Ghanaian situation. Unlike the good days of yore when society busied itself to find the very root of its members’ wealth, the same cannot be said today. In the past, collective responsibility was the guiding principle even for the offense of a single individual. There was a threat that wrongdoing of a single individual could bring catastrophe not only to the individual concerned but the security of the entire society. The concern then was to avert such diversified effect especially on the innocent members of society. Consequently, society went beyond the ordinary to find the underlying understanding of a person’s wealth, just to make sure calamity does not befall it. This however, is not the case now albeit, the desire for wealth continues to persist, and among the youth, its shadow coaxes the more.

Like lottery, the fruit of this trade for its practitioners is sweet, and as explained by one scholar, the name of the game is money. ‘Since money is the name of the game’ explains this scholar, ‘we must recognize that, no matter how tough our legislation … people will go all out to get it’. In this connection then, one can safely argue that economic principles and greed lie at the base of the trade. Unbridled desire for money in the shortest possible time and the power of the trade because it involves huge sums of money all conspire to create increasing number of practitioners in Ghana. But one needs to take cognizance of the unabated demand for these drugs in the west, for demand, wherever it occurs, especially when affordability exists, induces supply, no matter where it has to come from. It is therefore not surprising that the drug trade thrives in this part of the world. The economic reality of the massive profiteering inherent in the drug trade serves to extend its reach, despite the best efforts of the Ghanaian law enforcement agencies. Illegal drug business in Ghana therefore thrives on greed and the demand principle in economics.

A significant motivation commonly cited in the literature is financial. The drug market mechanism provides incentives that transcend the licit/illicit divide. Most operators seek to prosper commercially without worrying and or having quarrel with the social order that nurtures them. Profits high enough to warrant great risk continue to encourage import and export despite tightened laws.

In other jurisdictions, drug trafficking motivations link financial gain to other issues. Drug trafficking linked to political transformation or action to prevent political transformation is very well established in relation to many regional and national situations in Latin American countries, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. There has also been mention of drug traffickers, whose objective has been to seize political power and or meddle in political power play. For example ex-Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie in 1951 went to Latin America to continue his anti-Communist activities and became security adviser to a top Bolivian trafficker Roberto Suares in the 1980s and assisting the 1980 coup which brought to power Colonel Gomez, who subsequently oversaw a national cocaine monopoly.

The link between drug trade and political transformation is clear and should be a concern for all well-meaning Ghanaians, and by extension, West African countries. Drug trafficking practitioner’s ability to wobble the relative peace of the country should not be underestimated. The case of the Andean region should be a constant reminder of what could befall us, should we fail to deal with the drug rings in the country. Already, some anecdotal evidence suggests that Ghana and Nigeria have earned the reputation of ‘star pupils’ in the drug trafficking business. This could enlarge the route to unexpected political take-over, and the related consequences, a situation aptly captured in the final year of Taliban rule in the following words: ending the Afghan war converted the criminalized war economy into an even high-speed expanding criminalized peace economy. In either case, incentive for misgovernment was common.

Some groups also traffic in drugs at least with a motivation to fund political and/or military campaigns. The case of Khun Sa, a notorious trafficker who formed an alliance with and became the leader of secessionists in the Shan plateau State of Myanmar (Burma), typifies this stance. Other evidence suggests risk-taking, often related to social and economic marginals, for whom risk seems a 'normal' part of life. There are other studies which show the involvement of very young, quite inexperienced people in synthetic drug trafficking in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Turin, moving in and out of drug trafficking and other illegal or irregular activities. Because of their low level of criminal skills and precautions, in principle they are exposed to law enforcement but, in practice, quite often are not detected as they are not on the radars of the law enforcement authorities. In other words, they are not known to law enforcement authorities.

Drug Trafficking: A Transnational Business?

Transcending political borders and knowing no bound, not a single country is insulated from its effects. According to one literature, a high number of jailed Africans in Western Europe and US are Nigerians who have been arrested on drug charges. This reflects the trans-nationality of the drug trade, and the complex operational techniques associated with it. In very many cases of illegal drug dealings and general drug pushing activities, people of diverse nationalities are involved. Here, the infamous East Legon Cocaine Saga is handy, because it reflected collaboration between Ghana and Venezuela and comes close to what can be described as a perfect copy of the Colombian model. Cases of this nature have recently engaged the attention of the Ghanaian media. The East Legon Cocaine Saga for one has been in the media for over a year now, beginning from the last quarter of the year 2006. Prior to this, there had been other high profile cases that involved people of Ghanaian and British nationalities and were also captured by the Ghanaian media (see for example Daily Graphic, July 20, 2006, April 30, 2007 editions and Ghanaian Times, April 30, 2007 edition).

It is also important to note that, illegal drug dealings and drug pushing activities thrive not only on groups of diversified nationalities. For instance, Klein observes that, some Nigerians have their own syndicates. The same can be said of the Mexican and Ghanaian cases. The Mexican case for instance has been described in the literature as a drug trafficking federation, posing a tremendous drug threat along the US southwest border through its poly-drug smuggling operations. This federation has patrons, division heads, gatekeepers and family syndicates. Other producing countries such as Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru (the Andean producers) as well as Thailand, Burma and Malaysia (the Golden Triangle) are also into the drug trafficking business. Not even the devoutly Islamic countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan claim insulated from the drug trade.

In all these, the practitioners of the trade look up largely to the western world for market. The US has long been cited as a major market for the trade. Increased demand for drugs in the US fuels continuous engagement in the activity. Britain also appears in the list of countries that have historically stimulated the drug trade. But whilst it remains true that much of the illegal drug from the Third World, particularly Ghana is smuggled onwards to the lucrative markets of Western Europe and the United States, a considerable amount is also consumed by a rapidly growing number of local drug users. That Ghana has over the recent years been an exporter of heroin, and an importer of cocaine including bi-products of the refinement process of ‘crack’ confirms the local consumption hypothesis. This fact has consistently been pointed out by the media. There are similar developments in some other producer countries that have no history of internal consumption. For instance, it has been said of Pakistan, one of the classical opium producers of the ‘Golden Crescent’ that, it acquired a community of several thousand heroin users within a decade.

In recent years moreover, some African countries (specifically Ghana and Nigeria) have been cited as a transit points for illegal trade in drugs. According to the 2007 International Narcotic Control Strategy Report (INCSR) on Ghana, the country has become a major transshipment point for illegal drugs, particularly cocaine from South America, as well as heroin from Southeast and Southwest Asia. And while Europe remains the major destination, drugs also flow to South Africa and to North America, with Kotoka International Airport being cited as a focus for traffickers. In all these, one would think the menace affects only the country’s capital city, Accra and its transit entry-exit points. This is not the case, for Tema, Sekondi, and Takoradi ports also feature considerably in the Ghanaian drug pushing trade, while border posts at Aflao, Elubo and Sampa also see significant drug trafficking activity. It is said that, in 2006, South American cocaine trafficking rings increased their foothold in Ghana by establishing well-developed distribution networks involving many of these entry-exit points in Ghana.

The Economics of Drug Trafficking

The economic thinking underlying drug trafficking is simply predicated on rational choice theory. The harm (cost) of being caught is almost always weighed against the benefit of it when one succeeds in outwitting law enforcement authorities. Ultimately, the benefits far outweigh the costs. It is here that motivation for drug trafficking is established. Even in situations where they are caught, dealers are quick in ‘buying their way out’.

Indeed, it makes far greater economic sense to invest available capital in an enterprise that has a dramatic dollar yield in the very short term. In Ghana, it is said that, the risks involved in drug trafficking are not greater than those in ordinary course of commerce. One man carrying a bag-full of cocaine to London can realize a larger profit than a fishing company running several trawlers, with 200 employees on its books. The case of the Mexican drug baron Carrillo is often cited. Carrillo made huge sums of money in his drug business. He later wanted to make a pact with the Mexican government to help the country’s economy with his dollars, and act as an entrepreneur.

As the trade involves international travel, the glamour of it, as in exquisite hotel rooms, airport lounges, shopping sprees (in the case of women), been-to label, et cetera all conspire to provide food for the imagination and thought of it. Though miserable when caught, as the case of mere abettors suggests, the fruit of it is tasteful, blissful and totally glorious, so much so that, neither official exhortation to abide by laws, nor the grueling prospect of capture, incarceration, or even execution are ineffective deterrents.

Traditionally a male-dominated activity, the glamour associated with the trade has succeeded in coaxing some women into it. Some women curriers are lured into it by the promise of monetary price in return for transport services. The trade also involves market women at the local level, women merchants, as well as prostitutes, often serving as abettors or conspirers. Agencies of the state – the police, judiciary et cetera have also been cited to be part of the drug trade. According to one source, the trade requires swiftness and is therefore practised in general terms, by the youth up to about 40 years and brings onboard sailors especially those working with mixed crews in international environment.

Preventing Drug Trafficking And Drug Consumption: Some Approaches

Attempts at preventing drug trafficking and drug consumption have been varied in orientation. However, the general pattern has been, in the case of drug trafficking, to stiffen anti-drug legislations. This, in the view of some academics has led to a thriving illegal drug market which can only be sustained by criminal activity. In this regard, it has become clear that, at best it will be ironic for a national policy to resort exclusively to legislative sanctions to eliminate illegal drug trade. It is perhaps out of this that the US combines both tougher anti-drug legislations and narco-diplomacy.

What remains to be learnt by Ghana from the general assessment of the US military and diplomacy efforts towards curbing narcotic trade is that anti-drug fight has to be two sided. It should tackle both the demand and the supply sides at the same time. Better still, time, attention and resources are to be directed at both ends. Ghana’s anti-drug efforts should never be unilateral in orientation. Rather, it should be a cooperative endeavour with other West African, African and Western countries.

Drug consumption constitutes the demand side of the drug trafficking problem. In Ghana, it is thought the act is practised by highly qualified Ghanaians in hotels, brothels, restaurants, behind hotel fronts, bars, joints etc., and affects very many influential people. For a long time, attempts at dealing with drug consumption have been on the repression model. This is the case in Ghana, and was so in the US, Switzerland, and Britain. It was thought possible to suppress drug consumption by police actions and or by sentencing drug dealers or users. For instance, the drug policy for Switzerland for a long time mimicked the repression model. As the case of the largest city Zurich proved, this belief was based on a mistaken assumption. And so in 1987, the police failed to prevent the emergence of an open drug scene (the famous Needle Park) which later on became ‘Letten’. The repression policy then was seen to be of no essence.

It was in 1994, that the city’s authorities decided to pursue a ‘third way’ approach between repression and liberalization. This ‘third way’ approach had it that, city authorities provide drugs, mostly heroin, under carefully screened programme to heavily addicted users at a low price. This was to make sure the drug trade was unprofitable for its operators. Participants were to consume the drug in special offices to ensure the drug was not traded. Only persons having lived in Zurich for an extended period and with a long drug-taking career and several futile attempts at medical and psychological treatment were accepted for the programme. A second major component of the ‘third way’ approach was that participants attended regular discussion and counseling sessions, whilst undergoing medical observation. In this way, the police succeeded in raising drug consumption entry cost for non-drug users.

An evaluation of the programme later suggested that, the ‘third way’ approach looked promising. Specifically evaluation suggested that the health of the heavy drug users in the programme improved dramatically, and no death due to drug taking had occurred. Participants also incurred much less external cost. Also the evaluation affirmed that, no less than half of the participants had regular job, and four-fifths of them no longer committed property crimes. The final observation was that, more than two-thirds lived in an apartment and could be considered socially integrated. Prior to the programme, only 16% of the participants held regular job, but this increased to 50% after twelve months in the programme. Also, 50% were unemployed at the beginning of the programme, but this reduced to 14% after one year. Additionally, at the beginning of the programme, 12% committed heavy and petty theft, and 54% engaged in drug crimes. These figures fell to 2% and 20% respectively.

Obviously, the approach was successful. It led to unprecedented improvement in both social and criminal situation of Zurich by drawing drug users away from illegal drug markets. It does suggest then that, not only is the repressive approach futile, but also involves huge material and human costs, and still will almost certainly prove ineffective. The experiment in Zurich can therefore be modeled by Ghana, and suggests quite clearly that the repression posture is not only futile and ineffective but also a waste of resources. Going by this study, the Ghana government, acting through the Ghana Police Service will have to direct resources and attention to other areas where they are needed most. From other drug trafficking prevention studies comes also, the lesson that, one-sided military and narco-diplomacy efforts towards curbing narcotic trade is ineffective. A suggested strategy has been that these attempts focus on both sides at the same time, and or directing time, attention and resources at both ends. Unilateral efforts are effective but cooperative endeavours more likely to succeed.

[1] Thomas Antwi Bosiakoh is a Master of Philosophy student and a Teaching Assistant at the Department of Sociology, University of Ghana, Legon. Contact can be made via