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A Growing Danger: The Abuse Of Cough Syrup In Northwestern Nigeria
By Salisu Suleiman
At a car wash recently, I watched with astonishment as a car was emptied of debris while the interior was being cleaned. One after the other came bottles of cough syrups. In all, fourteen bottles of a popular make of cough syrup were removed from the car. Upon closer inspection, I found that all the bottles came from the same production batch. Evidently, all fourteen bottles must have been bought and consumed at the same time or within a very short time span.
That was my introduction to a problem we all know exists, but would rather not talk about, or pretend it does not concern us: the growing danger of drug abuse and addiction.
Digging deeper, I came across three young Nigerians whose life may have been destroyed, or badly distorted by the allure of drugs. The substances abused may be petrol, solution, cough syrup, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, papaya leaves, marijuana, but the results are the same: we are losing an entire generation to drug and substance abuse.
Hamisu is a young Nigerian university student. He is mild-mannered, well-behaved, quick to say hello and generally courteous. That is, until the calm demeanor explodes to reveal a totally unpredictable character. That is when you see the glazed, faraway look in his eyes.When he eventually recovers, you can tell he is apologetic, sad, helpless. Yet, you both know that he will still go after the ‘thrill’ or ‘trip’ that seems to have become a permanent feature of his life and from which he is unable to break free.
From a distance, Asma’u is a spectacularly beautiful young lady. She is clearly the kind of daughter parents pray for and the kind of wife suitors dream of. That is, until one meets and relates with her. The signs of intelligence are evident. The desire to do the right thing can be perceived. But this young lady seems befuddled by life and the expectations of her personal and social circumstance. Her thought process is broken, speech patterns morbid and outlook bleak – a tale of wasting potentials.
One cannot mistake Katako, or his harsh, throaty voice from any distance. He is permanently angry, always ready for a fight and has no inhibitions brawling with anyone and everyone over any slight to his person, whether real or imagined. All over his body are the scars from old fights and more recent ones. He is the archetypal bad boy, crude, mean and brutal. Except that those who knew him a few years ago would tell you he was a quiet, meticulous young man who always kept to himself and out of trouble.
These three young people, whose real names have been changed to protect their identities are by no means isolated cases of broken youth and crushed dreams. Indeed, all over Nigeria today, a fast growing – and conveniently neglected – epidemic of drug abuse and addiction seems to be the norm. Hamisu is addicted ecstasy, a chemical substance derived from methamphetamine or meth; Asma’u gulps down two to three bottles of cough syrup everyday while Katako gets his thrill from sniffing glue when he can afford to or petrol, when he is broke, which is often.
Unlike social and economic problems that tend to afflict the poor on a disproportionate basis, the problem of drug abuse cuts across all social strata: a prince may be as likely to snort cocaine in a closet as the street hawker is to sniff petrol in a motor park; the sophisticated socialite is as likely to quaff down bottles of cough syrup as the trailer driver is likely to smoke hemp. Hamisu is currently in his fifth university, having failed to finish from the first four. Asma’u currently lives with her parents and is neither in school, nor in a job. Katako is where he has always been: on the streets.
While cases of substance abuse, alcohol consumption and drug addiction can be found all over Nigeria, the instances are clearly more widespread in the North: not many people were surprised by the recent disclosure by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) that at least one million bottles of cough syrup bottles are abused daily in the North-West. According to the Zamfara state commandant of the agency, statistics showed that cough syrups such as Benylin, Tutolin, Emzolyn, and Coplin, amongst others, were the most abused.
The most frightening aspect is not the figure of one million bottles, but the fact that each bottle contains at least 10 doses, depending on the size and content of the bottle. From this fact alone, one can infer that at least, 10 million doses of cough syrup are consumed on a daily basis in Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara. By the time one adds unrecorded sales of the syrup, marijuana use, meth and even hard drugs like cocaine and heroin to the mix, it is clear that the entire region is engulfed in a drug addiction crises of major proportions.
A version of this article was originally published on the author's blog.