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Drug abuse: Beyond the ban on codeine

Drug abuse: Beyond the ban on codeine

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Punch Editorial Board

Nigeria is breeding a wild generation of drug addicts. These youths inhale, inject and consume psychotic and narcotic substances at will, easily evading the scrutiny of a society distracted by economic malaise at the expense of their future wellbeing. A new documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation on the abuse of cough syrup made with codeine has turned the spotlight on Nigeria. In response, the Federal Ministry of Health instantly banned the production and importation of codeine syrup. The documentary, which has gone viral, is a damning evidence of Nigeria’s social decadence. But the ban is a knee-jerk reaction to the symptoms of a malaise that is deep-rooted.

Ordinarily, codeine – an opioid – is a medical substance used to ease pain and induce sleep, but it must be properly prescribed and in small quantities because it has a high potential for abuse. When it is consumed in large doses, as Nigerian youths have been accustomed to, it becomes a narcotic, just like heroin or cocaine. Because of laxity, codeine syrup is consumed in excess by youths. Ahmed Lawan, a senator, told a Senate plenary that three million bottles of codeine syrup was consumed daily in the country, with about 70 per cent of it in Kano and Jigawa states, and in the Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram insurgents gorge themselves on it.

Taken in excess, codeine is harmful. The negative effects include feeling high, low blood pressure, organ damage, insomnia and depression. Nigerian youths and celebrities, who sing about codeine in their songs, dissolve it in water and drinks. Either way, it achieves the same dangerous effects. Apart from codeine, the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency says youths extensively abuse Tramadol, marijuana, diazepam (valium), bromazepam (lexotan) and lorazepam. Ephedrine, glue, rat and lizard droppings, madras and barbiturates are routinely abused. Surprisingly, these drugs are sold widely close to police stations, military barracks, schools, markets, drinking joints and nightclubs.

The impact is lethal. Many families are contending with drug addicts; some of them have quit schooling and work; others are on the verge of lunacy or battling with acute diseases. “This drug addiction is killing us,” Lawan said. “Today in Nigeria there is hardly one single family that does not have an addict of some sorts. This is the most destructive phenomenon in Nigeria after the killings by Boko Haram and the bandits.”

In recognition of the epidemic abuse of codeine syrup, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, initially suspended the operations of three pharmaceutical companies linked to its production. It later let two of the firms off the hook. On the surface, it seems a logical step: restrict access to codeine by stopping companies from producing it. However, it is a panicky measure. It is a double punishment, following the suspension on the manufacture of codeine syrup and the stoppage of importation, all aimed at controlling the availability of the product in the open market. NAFDAC has to be careful not to disrupt the production activities of pharmaceutical firms just because of codeine alone.

However, without robust policies, regulation and enforcement, Nigeria is in danger of losing more youths to drug abuse. NAFDAC, which vigorously fought the fake drug menace on the late Dora Akunyili’s watch, has suffered a downturn since her exit in 2008. Moji Adeyeye, the incumbent Director-General, NAFDAC, admitted in a statement that “the inadequate NAFDAC presence at various Entry Points that has led to significant levels of smuggling” was a strong factor in the syrup crisis. The vacuum left behind by Akunyili has to be filled, especially in the area of vibrancy, enforcement and engagements with local and international drug manufacturers.

Likewise, the NDLEA, the main public agency in charge of drug crimes, is toothless. A few years ago, some of its officers were indicted for aiding convicted drug barons to escape from prison in exchange for money. Its woes are compounded by the fact that it is shorthanded and grossly under-equipped. In an age of digital technology, the NDLEA is just chasing shadows. The Federal Government needs to wake up to the harsh reality of the plague.

Drug abuse ruins lives; prolonged abuse ends in tragedy. Confronted with the twin problem of the domestic codeine abuse and the invasion of its territory by addicts from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh, Bihar, an Indian state, in 2013, regulated codeine sales by limiting chemists to a stock of 1,000 bottles at a time. Bihar did not stop there. It executed an awareness campaign to deter youths from taking to it. The ministry of health at the federal, state and local government tiers should fund a well-conceptualised campaign at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education.

Mosques and churches should redouble their focus on anti-drug abuse messages. NDLEA and NAFDAC should be rejuvenated with personnel and technical resources to regulate and enforce the laws. The sale of codeine syrup, tramadol and other prescription drugs over the counter should be rigorously monitored by NAFDAC and the Pharmacists Council of Nigeria. Chemists who sell these drugs without prescription should be heavily sanctioned.

Parents should be alive to their duties, by ensuring that they are abreast of the telltale signs of drug abuse among their children. Exiting the dragnet is costly, painful and a time-consuming venture. For those who have kicked the habit, governments should establish rehabilitation centres across the country to cater to them.

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