DAKAR West Africans are consuming more of the drugs trafficked between South America and Europe, raising the specter of rising crime and health problems in already unstable states, experts said.
The region, an established transit point for Latin American cocaine to big Western markets, has also become a drug processing site amid rising addiction rates, and drug-related violence will follow, they told a drug summit over the weekend.
"A flourishing illicit trade in the hands of organized crime is obviously a threat to the rule of law, governance and, as a result, human rights," said Alexandre Schmidt, West African head for the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"But we must no longer hide the indirect consequences with regard to the increase in problems linked to drug abuse."
Some 20 tones of cocaine passed through West Africa in 2008, worth about $1 billion, the United Nations says.
The warnings came during a meeting of seven West African governments who, backed by the United Nations, France and Spain, are seeking to implement declarations of intent to curb trafficking.
The drugs trade through West Africa grabbed headlines in 2007 after a series of seizures of hundreds of kg of cocaine were made in the region alongside a spike up in violence.
Guinea-Bissau, the landing point for most of the cocaine, saw a string of political assassinations that analysts say was linked to the drugs trade, and the notoriously brutal military in neighboring Guinea was also believed to be involved.
But now West African nations are sounding the alarm over new trends of increased domestic drug use that could boost theft, gang violence, and health problems.
"We are also increasingly becoming consumers of the drugs we transit," Adrienne Diop, a commissioner for regional body ECOWAS, said in a presentation made on her behalf.
Although concrete figures are hard to come by, experts said there was clear evidence of a rise in local use of cocaine and crack. Citing research in Cape Verde, the region's initial drug hot-spot, Margarete Molnar, a health specialist at UNODC, said drug use was entrenched.
"This shows that being on the route of trafficking is a disaster," she said. "(Law enforcement) may protect West Africa and Europe but I can tell you that in this region there are people who are hard drug users who need to be rehabilitated."
A string of local health workers attending the summit also called for an increased focus on rehabilitating existing drug users instead of a purely law-enforcement approach to stamping down on the international trade.
"Strategies have not been thought of for the youth," said Aissatou Thiam an educator in Senegal's Ministry for Youth and Sport. "They need to come up with plans to tackle the issues of the youth, who are turning to drugs because of poverty, amongst other issues."
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis)