AFRICA'S POT WAR
Feds Promoting Prohibition--in Ghana
WHAT IF a poor African country could grow a plant that would fetch
healthy prices in the U.S? What if the plant was harvested on small
farms, encouraging democracy in this poor African country by putting
cash into the hands of its poorest and most powerless people? What if
such a crop would reduce the poor African country's dependence on U.S.
Of course, America's government would cheer such a plant and the
country that grows it. And President George Bush would be especially
happy, since improving living standards in Africa is supposed to be
one of his key global objectives.
Such a crop does exist, and an African country is growing it in good
measure. Yet President Bush isn't cheering. Worse, the Bush
administration is fighting a war against the plant and the farmers of
the poor African country that grows it.
The country is Ghana, in West Africa, and the plant is cannabis or
"ganja," the term preferred by Ghanaians. Marijuana grown in Ghana is
of good quality, plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Twenty neatly
rolled sticks of pot, or about half an ounce, sell for about $3 American.
That's right, good pot sells for $6 an ounce in Ghana. Here is the
highest stage of capitalism--the free market--in action.
Ghana is one of the most peaceful countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The
country rarely sees any violence (a benefit of pot-smoking?), has a
democratically elected government and boasts one of the freest
societies in Africa. Pot has been grown and smoked in the country for
decades, drawing little comment. In Accra, the coastal capital of
Ghana, people smoke discreetly, to be sure, because the sale and
possession of pot is technically illegal. But pot is easy to purchase,
arrests are rare and smoking is popular, especially among American and
European aid workers in the country.
For pot smokers, Accra is an African paradise. But like many a
paradise in Africa, Accra is threatened by a man-made disaster. The
disaster, funded by American tax dollars, is the Drug Enforcement
I am no expert in the world's drug wars, or the DEA, but I spent the
better part of the past two years in Ghana and I never saw any signs
of pot ripping apart the fabric of Ghanaian life. There are no drug
lords in Accra, no gun-toting bodyguards or pot addicts strewn across
the city's derelict roads.
Just the opposite is occurring, actually. Pot is giving a people
starved for economic opportunity a chance to participate in the global
economy. Ghana is one of the losers in the world's experiment with
widening trade. Goods flood into Ghana from China, Brazil, Mexico
- even the U.S. And not just manufactured products either. Butter is
imported from France, pasta and canned tomatoes from Italy, rolled
oats from Germany and rice from the U.S. Because the cost of producing
and shipping these foods is subsidized by European, U.S. and Canadian
governments, their cost in Ghana is sometimes less than it is in the
country of origin. And even if it isn't, these imports ruin the lives
of African food producers. American rice, imported into Ghana, sells
for substantially less than rice grown in Ghana.
The burden of food imports would be less crushing if Ghana exported an
equal amount of goods. But the country doesn't. It hardly exports
anything. The country's two leading exports are cacao beans (the basic
ingredient in cocoa and chocolate) and gold. These exports are the
foundation of Ghana's economy--today and 100 years ago.
Ghana has low farm costs, making it an attractive place (in theory) to
grow fruits and vegetables. But because of deplorable "feeder" roads
to Ghana's cities and ports, roughly one-third to one-half of the
country's crop of delicious pineapples rots before reaching market.
Nearly as many of Ghana's plentiful bananas suffer the same fate.
Marijuana has a longer shelf life. For poor Ghana, it offers a
lifeline to a more diverse and durable economic future.
To achieve this does not require a revolution in world drug laws
either. European countries have eased their restrictions on marijuana,
creating a chance for African growers to tap the huge market in cities
such as Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen. After all, West Africa is
a short hop by sea or plane to Western Europe, giving Africans an edge
over producers elsewhere in the world.
Simply, then, by sticking to the gray area of the world's fuzzy pot
laws, Ghana could reap substantial benefits. Instead, the U.S. insists
that Ghana buy American rice, yet refuses to allow its citizens to
purchase Ghana's marijuana. Whatever the arrangement is, it is not
Adding to the injury, the Bush administration wants to fuel a drug war
in Ghana, where pot exporters are so sophisticated and nefarious that
their preferred method of transporting weed is to hide it in shipments
of yams bound for Europe.
Against this menace stands the DEA. About six months ago, the agency
privately persuaded the government of Ghana to accept its advice and
mount a campaign of resistance against pot production and
distribution. The DEA offered the carrot of "technical
assistance"--jargon in foreign-aid speak for equipment and cash that
African police, who are woefully underpaid, long for.
For now the DEA-inspired move against Ghana's pot growers has resulted
in publicized destruction of fields, some arrests--and more aid for
Ghana from a grateful U.S. government.