The 2015 African report on illicit drugs draws much needed attention to many serious issues, including the major role played by corrupt police in drug distribution networks.The role played by drugs in police corruption is complex, and bears consideration when evaluating the report and arguments for a change in policy.The connection between the illegal drugs markets and police corruption is well known. Booms in illegal drug markets in Western Europe in the 1980s, for example, corresponded with a rise in police corruption and violent misconduct.Similar connections between drugs and police corruption are found in many countries, and African countries are no exception.When it comes to illegal regulation,there are two common situations in which officers abuse or choose not to use their power in such a way as to benefit from the drug trade, each of which is often rationalised as an attempt to at least do something about the problem of illicit drugs, a form of illegal regulation.The first of these is the theft of drugs or money from drug dealers.For example, the report authors says that in Kenya, when police officers were tasked with policing the prohibition of illicit drugs, first-hand experience led many to believe they are unable to eliminate the industry and that the people they steal from are unlikely to be arrested or convicted.In this context, police officers in Kenya have justified stealing from drug dealers as a kind of tax or charge, an attempt to try and make it harder for dealers to do business.In South Africa, the common kind of police corruption is what crime experts call green-lighting, whereby police agree to turn a blind eye to dealers or groups that adhere to certain rules e.g. no violence, no selling drugs to children.This often used with the professed intention of creating a level of control over the drugs trade. Anyone who has read about South African drug business on the dark web will be familiar with the events uncovered by the country’s security apparatus, which alleged that criminals activities had been green-lit by officers and that police officers sometimes even assisted criminals in the commission of crimes.
The free zone where drug dealing is allowed on the condition that the drugs or violence did not spill onto other streets is common in East Africa although only drug dealers and police know about such arrangements. The reality is less noble minded or contained in Kenya, for example, green-lighting of different groups by different officers created increasingly organised territorially defined cartels in Kenya Coast region where drug trade thrives and authorities did nothing to stop the growth of the drugs trade.It’s all in the game.Apart from any rationalisation for their behaviour as having some kind of noble cause, officers in these situations in cities like Nairobi also face substantial material incentives.In the market for drugs the high levels of inelastic demand particularly in the case of highly addictive substances and high prices create an very lucrative industry, and officers involved in extorting or protecting dealers can make substantial sums doing so.One Kenyan police officer made eight times his annual salary in protection money from drug dealers in Malindi, a coastal town in Kenya so much that he often forgot to collect his legitimate pay.Tackling these problems requires considering the incentives that officers face to engage in corruption, not just weeding out the odd bad cop. Despite the persistence of bad apple explanations of police corruption, many Kenyan officers who are found to be corrupt often began as officers with a good, clean record of successful work.Draining the swamp, while there may, of course, be bad individuals, of greater concern is that all officers are working in a bad barrel or bad orchard which is itself a corrupting influence.The fact, then, that more officers do not become entangled in such activity is a credit to their integrity. Any policy response to the issues raised in the report should take care to ensure it has a real effect on the market for drugs and that it makes it easier for such officers to maintain that integrity by considering the ramifications for police corruption.