Zambia has joined the list of African nations that have legalised cannabis to some degree, as policy towards the drug slowly changes among countries in the region and investments in its medical benefits grow.

Last month, the Zambian government’s spokesperson Dora Siliya revealed that a special Cabinet meeting on December 4, 2019 legalised the production and export of cannabis for economic and medicinal purposes.

While this would make Zambia the latest country to shift its position on the drug to give its finances a boost, concerns are rising about how committed sub-Sahara Africa is to the fight drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC) of Zambia disclosed that it had handled 23,174 drug-related cases between January 1, 2014, and December 31, 2018, with a total of 487 foreign nationals being arrested. The DEC added that the most prevalent drugs being trafficked include Cannabis, Heroin, Cocaine, Diazepam, Codeine, Ephedrine and Methamphetamine.

This problem is bigger than it seems for countries like Zambia and other southern African nations where endangered wildlife species have found sanctuaries. Research by the African Institute for Security Studies shows that there is a strong connection between drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling. It is no wonder the same cartels that are linked to drug trafficking are most likely also connected to illicit wildlife transactions.

“With regard to drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling, the Commission has noted a link to the extent that drug cartels prefer to cultivate drugs in protected areas (such as national parks), while some narcotic drug traffickers operating in Zambia also deal in wildlife smuggling with some people arrested separately by DEC and other relevant wings for the vices of drug trafficking and wildlife crimes. You will be interested to note that the Commission actually collaborates with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) on a number of operational issues, such as information sharing and joint operations. One such example is the notable ‘Operation Kamwendo’ conducted in 2018 in the outskirts of the South Luangwa National Park, leading to a single seizure of over 151 tonnes of cannabis,” said Kamufisa Manchishi, who was DEC deputy spokesperson at the time.

As Zambia prepares to embrace the legalisation of marijuana, it is imperative to look at the implications that can arise from poor policy direction and the mismanagement of ‘weed’ cultivation, as this could attract international traffickers. It is important for policymakers in countries like Zambia and its neighbours to understand the dangers that drug trafficking can cause to society.

How is drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling affecting weak economies like Zambia? Drug trafficking – like other forms of transnational organised crimes – threaten political, economic, and social development. It can foster corruption and violence, undermine rule of law and good governance, jeopardise economic growth, and pose potential public health risks.

In countries where drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling is rife, donor support gets threatened as it undermines the objectives of international aid to Africa, which strives to strengthen democratic institutions; spur economic growth, trade, and investment: advance peace and security; and promote equal opportunities and development.

In Ghana, for example, drug money has previously supported the election of members of parliament, weakening their accountability and undermining democratic institutions. In Mozambique, the business community has complained of unfair competition from drug traffickers, whom it accuses of evading customs excises and container inspections. Here in Zambia, drug traffickers have immensely contributed to the poor performance of the economy, and they have fought hard to weaken institutions of governance.

The weak judicial institutions, corruption, low wages and unemployment that characterise countries like Zambia and its neighbours provide environments conducive to a variety of illicit economic activities, including drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling. Criminal networks take advantage of these conditions to co-opt government officials and security officers in order to minimise the risk of prosecution. Security wings in Zambia should guard against this.

It is, therefore, imperative that State security institutions understand that wildlife and narcotics trafficking networks are one and the same; and often, individual traffickers will engage in both. Weak laws regarding counter narcotics enable both narcotics traffickers and wildlife smugglers to escalate the vice. There is need for the government to establish stricter laws to counter trafficking and smuggling, while educating communities against aiding these cartels.

Trafficking of illicit substances erodes local economies through declining tourism revenue. Conversely, revenue from trafficking does not return to the community. Illicit substance trafficking degrades the local workforce and, thus, local businesses. Trafficking also increases crime and violence, which poses a risk to the community members and discourages outside financial investment. While a smaller percentage of the community may be participating in drug trafficking and drug use, the economic effects trickle into the lives of every community member.

There is also the cultural impact. Wildlife is a part of the African pride, power and heritage. Outsiders who engage in wildlife trafficking steal and culturally drain the community, as they perpetrate their illicit trade. Traffickers divide families, destroy friendships, and permanently impact the lives of the younger generations, eroding long-standing community bonds.

There is no doubt that as trafficking organisations gain power in a community, they corrupt the government, legal, and law enforcement mechanisms until they no longer function for the population, or worse, no longer function at all. They also create an environment where those same protective organisations then target the population for additional exploitation and personal gain. Trafficking organisations also can resort to violence to control communities and protect their products, as for them, money stands above everything else.

The work that the DEC is doing in combating drug-related crimes needs the support of not only government and donors but the affected communities as well. To make law enforcement action more effective, communities must be empowered and citizens must be encouraged to work with law enforcement officers to identify and combat trafficking activity.