Oluwadamilare, a 19-year-old pick-pocket, has just woken up to another Tuesday of highness in the notorious community of Akala, in the Mushin area of Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling commercial nerve-centre.
His tongue is dyed blue from licking five tablets of Rophypnol, a brand of Flunitrazepam. That is a good morning gesture to prepare his system for the daily pattern of intoxication it goes through.
Damilare, as he is fondly called, is one of the ghetto stars who command a sufficient degree of street credibility within an army of very young people who have become masters at concocting various drugs with drinks since Codeine became an expensive and scarce contraband in Nigeria.
A small bottle of Codeine syrup now goes for about N4,000 but Rophypnol, which has 30 tablets in a pack, currently sells for between N2,500 and N3,000. Retailers within the ghetto offer it at N150 per tablet, profiting between N1,500 and N2,000.
Wearing a black T-shirt, shorts printed in royal-house design, a cluster of star- and arrow-shaped tattoos around both arms and an energetic cheer dancing through his veins, a host of blue-tongued allies fenced him as he pounded three tablets of Swinol, another brand of Flunitrazepam, with the bottom of his small phone into a carton of orange fruit juice.
Flunitrazepam is a powerful hypnotic drug that depresses the central nervous system (CNS). It is in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines – which are sedatives used to treat anxiety, insomnia and sleep disorders, seizure ailments or used as skeletal-muscle relaxants. When mixed with alcohol, another CNS depressant, suppression, stupor, respiratory depression, and death are more likely to occur.
The exhilaration heightened when he shook the carton vigorously to achieve an even blend of the mixture. And just before the bride in his hand landed, an army of tiny disposable cups jostled for a spot on the wooden bench he sat, waiting to be filled. A brief moment of relief it was for they were now addicted.
The Ekiti State-born Damilare requires highness for a number of reasons, chief among which is his pick-pocket job. The highness, according to him, elevates his spirit to a realm that makes his sensibility dead to the financial, resource or emotional trouble he inflicts on the victims of his thievery.
All he sees through the lens of Rophypnol alongside other anaesthetic mixture is a careless commuter struggling for a seat in a haste to the workplace or a forgetful resident failing to secure his gates and even an over-careful driver who has the doors all locked up in a traffic, dismissing his ability to shatter the glass to cart his possession.
But Damilare was neither born nor bred in this crassness. In fact, he once nursed the dream of litigating clients’ cases before judges as a young boy before dropping out in JSS2.
His father’s death worsened his prospects and like children with limited opportunities, he has found a home in Akala in the last 10 years.
Lion, unlike Damilare, was not deprived of tertiary education. But despite a degree from the University of Lagos, he has also found a home in Akala – the difference being that he often sleeps in his biological family house and resumes to highness every other day.
At a crowded tent where heated arguments seamlessly flowed under the influence of Rophypnol, Swinol, 502, Shisha, Goscolo and wraps of varying grades of weed, Lion told BusinessDay he and his friends would not stoop low to pick-pocket or cart-pushing when they can afford a phone and a laptop for internet fraud. Their typical style was similar to marathon race. Drinking and smoking never end. The drench in their system desperately finds escape in the stench that oozes from them the moment they open their mouths. The chain smoking, drinking and licking also thrust them in a struggle with their thoughts and expressive capacity. They get dizzy, yet actively snap against any impression that they might not be in control of themselves.
Lion, however, appeared better in charge of his articulating faculty and in response to the inquiry on the endless craving for highness among youths, he simply admits, like Damilare, that the ill-means they explore to escape the hardship and frustration of unemployment requires drug intoxication.
“This country does not have a good leadership. They are criminals, thieves and liars. Due to this frustration, we get high,” Lion soberly explained.
“Internet fraud is not a job you can do without drugs. With highness, if you want to ask a client for $100, you can boldly ask for $1,000 and he might be pleading with you to accept $700 or $500. That is why we are getting highness. Highness is the reason some of our governors and senators steal N500 billion instead of N500 million,” he said.
Ugo, another addict, managed to squeeze out of his dizziness and said in a staggering and croaky tone, “Nothing can change us. We are pressing onward and going deeper.”
Lion and his graduate friends, Damilola and Ugo, are outside the circle of 69.54 million of the population who the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) categorises as employed Nigerians in 2018.
Effortlessly, they chair the league of over 20.9 million unemployed Nigerians and over 14 million Nigerians who abused drugs in the last one year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use in Nigeria. Drug abuse was most prevalent in the Southwest from the activities of highness-craving 4.3 million people, marking 22.4 percent of the population.
Cannabis, the most abused substance, recorded about 10.6 million abusers in 2018; opioids 4.6 million, cough syrups 2.4 million, and cocaine 92,000.
According to the report, tranquilisers and sedatives, prescription, stimulants, inhalers and amphetamines are other drugs commonly abused in 2018.
Accessibility under ban a big business for underground dealers
If there is something the government’s clampdown on anesthesia has achieved, it is that Nigerians without doctor’s prescription cannot access these drugs over the counter. But that does not apply to the real abusers who are fed by a thriving cartel of under-dealers who make access possible with the least restriction.
When BusinessDay visited some pharmacies into both wholesale and retail sale of pharmaceuticals to purchase any available brand of Flunitrazepam, they denied selling, saying it was against the law to sell. Health Plus, a leading pharmacy, required a doctor’s prescription before access.
But Chijioke, a member of the Lagos State Association of Medicine Dealers, who gave only his first name for security reasons, confided in BusinessDay that the sale is run in a coded manner between recognised dealers and retailers to avoid blowing their cover.
“We sold before but we are usually disturbed by both our association and NAFDAC. They have asked us to stop selling anaesthesia. But some people still sell secretly only when they know the person buying,” Chijioke said.
“They have coded dealers who they sell to. Even if the dealer sends somebody, they will not sell to that person. You can only get it with a prescription. So, the connection is uptight in order not blow their cover,” he said.
On the streets of Akala, these drugs fly in the open with unimaginable speed of accessibility. There are outlets that purely source them in addition to several other drugs. The dealers within the area operate with freehand and are in fact protected from harm in the event of faceoff with regulatory officials and crime control patrol.
Slim hope of cure
Terribly, Nigeria has a shortfall in the capacity to rescue its drowning youths. In Lagos, for instance, the Drug Addiction Unit of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, can only treat 400 core cases of in-patients and at least 20,800 out-patients yearly. Half of these patients suffer drug-related problems, meaning that the hospital can only manage 0.5 percent of the Southwest need to address psychiatric disorders.
The challenge before Olajumoke Koyejo, a consultant addiction psychiatrist at the hospital, remains the exponential increase in number of patients presenting, 90 percent of them youths.
“Right now the drug unit has a very long waiting list of patients waiting to enter for treatment and we can’t even cope with the number of people that have problems anymore,” Koyejo explained.
“Our male ward takes 70 patients and our female ward takes 30. We are full to the brim at all times. We receive an average of 100 patients every Tuesday in our out-patient clinic and some patients even go to other clinics. Out of like over 500 patients we see in outpatients, 150 to 200 are drug-related. So there is a big problem,” she said.
Koyejo said there has not been a study linking Rophypnol to mental disorder the way Indian Hemp has been established. But she noted that since drug abusers tend to explore several options simultaneously, there is a propensity to develop disorders, especially psychosis.
“A time comes when they don’t get the high they are getting from Rophypnol, so they add some other drugs and that’s where the problem is. People who have family history of disorder usually come down faster. Those who are psychotic have very bad complications and people that don’t have at all might develop psychosis with the use of Indian hemp,” she added.
There is a general belief that regulatory laxity is among factors fuelling drug abuse in Nigeria. But the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), saddled with the responsibility of eliminating the growing, processing, manufacturing, selling, exporting, and trafficking of hard drugs, thinks otherwise.
The agency said it relies on a combination of aggressive campaign, punitive measures and psychotherapy counselling to reduce the menace. In 2018, it arrested about 10,000 suspected drug dealers. There is hardly any year it does not face the task of counselling over 3,000 drug-dependent people.
Jonah Achema, NDLEA’s principal staff officer on public affairs, said the abuse grows difficult to contain as rise in population sets the tone for a corresponding rise in other components of social behaviour such as in deviance and criminal activities.
“We are aware that all manner of concoction is going on and we have embarked on massive awareness campaign targeted at all categories of people including students, out-of-school and in worship places,” he told BusinessDay.
“New forms of drugs keep unfolding. There are some drugs that have not been classified by the United Nations. They include Tramadol, Codeine, Zakami harvested in the bush, nail remover and Goscolo. In fact, people go to the toilet to sniff faeces,” he said.
But Koyejo said for effective drug control, the macro economy has to be corrected. This, she said, has to do with the culture and the bigger environment. Micro environment which is the immediate environment of that person has to change. The school, family, faith-based organisation and peers have to have things that will manipulate those things to have an effective outcome. Policies on drug distribution in Nigeria also must be uptight.
“The borders are so porous that we have heard of 30 containers in the port with only eight got to NAFDAC. If containers can fly from the port and those containers have Tramadol, of course they will get to the market,” she said.