By Senthil Ratnasabapathy
VIENNA Feb 27 Sapa-IPS

Africa has become a transit country for drugs and more and more Africans are abusing narcotic substances, yet there is little awareness about the scale of the problem, according to the United Nations.

In its annual report for 1995, the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) says knowledge about "drug abuse forms, trends and consequences in Africa is limited". In many countries treatment facilities for drug addicts are limited although the continent is witnessing an increase in the abuse of drugs, both plant based and synthetic.

Some countries are making advances however. In Nigeria the government has been establishing separate drug units in psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric departments of general hospitals. But elsewhere it has been left to NGOs to take the lead in establishing facilities for the care of drug addicts.

The INCB was established in 1968 as an independent quasi-judicial control body to implement U.N. drug control treaties. Its annual report is based on reports submitted by states and collated media, Interpol and other data.

The INCB has in past years expressed concern that international drug cartels are exploiting the legislation and enforcement gap in Africa and using the continent as a transit point for drugs destined for Europe and North America. The INCB reports that the number of heroin seizures increased in 1994 and that trafficking in heroin originating in Asia has spread from eastern to western Africa.

A major cannabis producing country is Morocco, particularly its mountainous Rif area. While just over a third of cannabis stocks seized by police in Europe in 1992 originated in Morocco, it doubled to seventy percent by end of 1994. "Trafficking is organised by criminal gangs having connections with syndicates in western and southern Europe," said the INCB.

South Africa is also a major producer of cannabis, most of which is consumed locally, and the Board says the large number of seizures of cannabis in Europe originating from Nigeria indicates substantial illicit production in that country as well.

As it has been the case elsewhere, portions of the drugs intended for other continents end up in the local market, increasing the number of users. South African authorities have reported to the INCB of an increase in the quantity of cocaine seized and the number of addicts seeking treatment over the past four years.

Cocaine abuse has also been increasing in many other western African nations, where the practice has spread to poorer sectors of society, due to falling prices.

The INCB has given considerable space on what it sees as an increase in the abuse of synthetic drugs such as so-called 'ecstasy' or MDMA and a variety of amphetamines, hallucinogens such as LSD and 'designer drugs' - derivatives of the main synthetic drugs. Some synthetics, such as amphetamines, are still prescribed for a variety of illnesses, though their medical benefits are thought to be limited.

The INCB says that there is evidence that diversion of legally imported shipments and inadequate supervision of pharmaceutical supplies play an important role in the spread of such abuse in Africa. Indeed, a new study done by the U.N. Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) on stimulants says poor pharmaceutical networks have led to the rise of informal suppliers of ordinary medicines that can easily turn their hands to illicit trafficking of synthetic drugs. Some substances imported officially to be used for veterinary purposes have been diverted to the illicit market in Africa.

In an effort to control the import and diversion of such substances, the Board has called upon nations to follow the example of India and some European nations which ask the importing countries and the INCB to confirm the authenticity of documents when doubts on the legitimacy of transactions exist.

Besides following such steps, African countries should also respond in a "timely and proper" manner to such inquiries by the Board or other countries, the report urges.