Africa Policy Week 2023 – Part One – A Quick-ish Overview

By |Published On: August 29th, 2023|

Africa Policy Week 2023 kicked off on a fine Monday evening with introductory presentations and a sobering keynote address by former president Kgalema Motlathe. Shaun Shelly, a true giant in Drug Policy reform and founder of SA Drug Policy Week, chaired the Opening Plenary. Shaun reflected on how, since its inception in 2016, Drug Policy Week has helped spark necessary change through conversations that explore the unique contexts of African societies and why Putting People First is crucial.

Expanding its focus toward wider social issues that intersect with Drug Policy, the week (14-17 August) covered discussions on Harm Reduction and how this relates to Drug Policy, Regulation, Legislation, and indeed Human Rights. The event also highlighted why Decriminalisation of People is a pivotal step toward Putting People First.

The 4-day event, organised by TB HIV Care and their partners, welcomed people and representatives spanning the various and varied aspects of Drug Policy and Harm Reduction, locally and internationally. Those present ranged from People Who Use Drugs to advocates for policy reforms centred on Harm Reduction and Human Rights to delegates from the UN Office on Drugs Crime and Department of Social Development. There were even a few cops; Myrtle and Etienne had a fantastically informative chat with them.

Harm Reduction International, shared stickers with the attendees on the opening night that read: “Divest from the unjust War on Drugs. Invest in Justice.” These stickers became a focal point in the address by the organisation’s deputy head Colleen Daniels. The message to “Invest in Justice” rang through the keynote address, and indeed the week. It is clear that redirecting funding toward Harm Reduction and away from criminalising People Who Use Drugs will have positive effects – the evidence is mounting as we speak. We are ALL humxn!


Drugs have destroyed many lives but wrong government policies have destroyed many more – Kofi Annan, who helped establish the West Africa Commission on Drugs

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe was invited as the event’s keynote speaker. As a Commissioner on the Global Commission on Drug Policy as well as the Chair of the East and Southern African Commission on Drug Policy (ESACD) – established in February 2023 – Commissioner Motlanthe understands intimately the need for Harm Reduction in crafting policies that focus on Putting People First.

Acknowledging those in the room and beyond who continue to offer their lives to advocating for meaningful change through offering systems of support and working toward Evidence-Based approaches, Commissioner Motlanthe demonstrated his absolute dedication to get Drug Policy right globally.  He further highlighted the need to place much needed focus on our beloved African continent, expressing his support of the 29 Member States dedicated to inspiring better Drug Policy globally, ending Prohibition and opting instead for Policies based in Scientific Evidence and Human Rights, centred on Harm Reduction as well as Public Health and Security approaches.

The ESACD Conference Commissioner Motlanthe had just attended, also resonates with APW2023. Existing Drug Policies are failing but the much needed change is gathering momentum. This is what events like APW2023 are crucial in helping build.

Commissioner Motlanthe expanded on how the quote by Kofi Annan (above) is key in reminding us that blanket approaches will not serve the various contexts in Africa. While African societies are diverse, we have shared histories of colonialism and have suffered in similar ways. Nevertheless, our contexts vary across Africa and it is necessary to engage with us – the people of these various contexts – on the decisions that will impact us, no matter the paths we may walk nor the means by which we traverse those very paths.


Evolving from the former SA Drug Policy Week, APW2023  brought together those most impacted by the War on Drugs as well as those affected by our biggest diseases – TB; HIV, AIDS, and STIs; and Hepatitis. The focus of this year fell to both Drug Users and Sex Workers in African contexts.

While it may take some by surprise, the connecting of drug use and sex work at APW2023 allows for a wider and far more necessary conversation to take place. Both demographics are interlinked – intersecting on core issues around Decriminalisation, Regulation, and Policy Reform, and Harm Reduction. Reforming Policy through active social engagement stands to positively impact both demographics, while decriminalisation and regulation can enable safer spaces for ALL humxns.

Indeed, support is what people need most. Stigma so easily sanctions the denial of support, replacing it with discrimination and rejection.


Cannabis provides an interesting perspective from which to enter the spaces created by APW2023. Throughout the discussions, from the opening plenary on the Monday straight through to the closing plenary on Thursday, your representatives from Fields of Green for ALL realised, confirmed, and conferred that the needs facing the various participants in Cannabis are the same needs as ALL People Who Use Drugs. Cannabis is a Drug after all, and standing in solidarity with those who feel the daily blows of discrimination will help us get so much more right.

Stigma, discrimination, criminalisation should not be the socially acceptable knee-jerk reaction to People Who Use Drugs, nor should any population be subjected to unjust treatment. State-sanctioned punishment is typically disproportionately meted out by unlawfully acting law enforcement, inhospitable hospital staff, uncharitable charities. How many times have you not listened to or read the horrors we recount through our various platforms to you about the sheer disdain at every level for “Daggakoppe”?

The discrimination we face as a Cannabis Community is no different to the discrimination faced by any other Drug User. Cannabis Policy changes have already shown how perceptions can shift positively. However, these reforms have equally illustrated how easily we can leave others behind if constant consultation between those who have a relationship with the Plant and those who craft Policy remains amiss. This was a point discussed in Tuesday’s Afternoon Plenary – Be Careful What You Wish For – on which Myrtle presented on Lessons from Cannabis Regulation and Decriminalisation.

Sharing our ethos with SANPUD – Nothing About Us Without Us – we know that WE ALL have a part to play in getting it right – be “it” Policy, Human Rights, Harm Reduction, ending Prohibition and all the horrors that go with it.

Financial constraints are one of the greatest complications any civil society organisation faces in this, however. This is also something that we at Fields of Green for ALL are intimately familiar with. While we can achieve a great deal by working with what we have as organisations advocating for better Drug Policy and Harm Reduction, imagine the world we could build if we were properly capacitated to bring to fruition the many plans and dreams we have for robustly enabling reforms built on inclusion and sustainability!


Indeed “Putting People First” echoes the opening comments of the High Commissioner, Volker Turk, of the Office on Human Rights Commission at the UN at the 66th Commission on Narcotic Drugs this year, where he made a strong plea for Human Rights to be placed first and for the voices of People Who Use Drugs to be heard in crafting Policy.

This year’s World Drug Report issued by the UN carried this message over as well:

Putting people first requires policymakers and service providers to actively protect the human rights of all by demolishing barriers to evidence-based, voluntary services across the continuum of care, dispelling gender, age and other biases and focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration instead of punishment.

The rigidity of the UN Drug Conventions remains imbalanced in its favouring of punitive practices over healthcare options. Exclusive medical and scientific limitations on substances mean that people cannot access the medicines they need. This has led to untold suffering in those requiring palliative care, as pointed out by Commissioner Motlanthe.

As People Who Use Drugs, we share age-old relationships with drugs and we have consistently found new ways to get high and to heal with various substances. The many powers that be are finally recognising that our Human Rights cannot be violated because of the relationships we have with Drugs.

APW2023 is really a summit on what logic and compassion can achieve when relentlessly applied to see Human Rights honoured and Harm Reduction measures implemented.

We look forward to sharing the next few instalments of our experiences with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, have a look at what Myrtle has to say on her experience of APW2023.

Thank you to our FGA Affiliates who help to make our ongoing content creation possible!

Thank you to our FGA Affiliates who help to make our ongoing content creation possible!


About the Author: Leela Baer

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  1. COSTA August 31, 2023 at 9:25 am - Reply


    • Leela Baer September 2, 2023 at 11:54 am - Reply

      This was more a conversation on how things are going in Africa with regard to policy reforms and the like. These sessions are invaluable for learning from mistakes and as well as seeing how much we can achieve with what we have. It is endlessly frustrating that a lack of political will is what keeps us from properly enjoying both our Constitutional and Human Rights. Yet, conferences like these help strengthen the already powerful arsenal we are working with. The global perspective is shifting and we need to keep that momentum going. SALUTE!

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