It is certain that “access to drugs” policies have been mostly responsible for either a rise or decline in the demography of drug addicts in Nigeria. A controversial thing the Obasanjo military government did in 1976/77 was to progressively ban many goods [including controlled substances] into Nigeria to curb the wanton and wasteful “Import or Die” phenomenon triggered by the unexpected “Oil Boom” years governed by General Gowon. The first experience of drug culture in Nigeria, though very limited and short, was a creature of the frenzy of Oil Boom importation. Some will argue the ban’s impact on drug use was inadvertent or even nonexistent. Nigerians back then did not have to escape reality though; life was good and masses sought conspicuous consumption and luxury. When the ban on imported goods came into effect the drug abuse phenomenon faded like a fad but created smuggling boom in which smugglers found Veblen goods like lace and refined stills far more profitable.
Ironically, the viral drug problem of today’s Nigeria is fuelled by poverty, the demands of socio-economic survival and very harsh realities. The recent ban of codeine-based cough syrup by the Buhari administration after the BBC’s damning expose, Sweet Sweet Codeine will have nothing like the impact of the ban put in place by Obasanjo in 1970s. The present drug problem has now reached a high point after a long surreptitious build up; all presidents since Babangida reportedly created the Nigerian Narcostate have allowed the problem to fester. I will share my witness.
In 1977, I was a secondary school student in Bendel State. I saw the drug experimentation fad first hand among students of different schools in the state. Daring and naughty boys and girls, mostly senior students, were trying out drugs both addictive and non-addictive for curiosity and off-label purposes. There was a certain drug Uro-something [methylene blue] if taken, turned the user’s urine blue and many students took it for the drama of that effect alone. Smelling salts [ammonia carbonate] sniffed to sharpen the consciousness of boxers between rounds during matches or fainting persons was used by students for shock effect. Senatogen Multivitamin Plus Iron [a haematonic] was believed to increase one’s strength with regular use (or abuse) and many fights were lost on this premise. These were just a few of the novelty drugs.
Peer pressure to take drugs was negligible among students then, it was more personal heroics-oriented, but there was much soft coercion to smoke cigarettes, get a Gatsby haircut, fight karate, dance the latest steps, learn karate, drink booze, and try muscles.
The more serious problem was with selorine, codeine and Reactivan among school students. The demography of selorine among the boys was small in entire schools and was well known for it; they sometimes did crazy things, used it for Dutch courage and had many proxies to help them buy the drugs which I will explain later. Even a female student was taken to a General Hospital for a selorine overdose. Marketed as a “psychotropic energiser”, Reactivan was widely used and abused by students for Awoko [extended night reading]. Reactivan was implicated, anecdotally, in the sudden phenomena of “Brain Fag” syndrome among students in many schools with symptoms similar to mental “burnout”.
Codeine was different. Many boys and girls used codeine sincerely for pain then got hooked on the euphoria it produced. Karate and Kung Fu injuries, besides other causes, introduced many boys to codeine. Codeine cough syrup [“B” Codeine] was rarely abused then if ever. High doses of codeine tablets were also used by girls as a morning-after pill or an abortive. Whether it worked for them remains a mystery. In the 1970s once a girl got pregnant and had a child that was the end of her education in most cases and Codeine was by far the cheapest option to keep a girl in school after unprotected sex. Codeine happened to be the drug most missed by student users when import restrictions made them inaccessible.
Marijuana use then was very limited for most youths who dreaded going mad by smoking it. Most parents and guardians were ignorant of withdrawal symptoms and blamed it on witchcraft. Some students addicts were thought to have epilepsy after going “cold turkey”. The students addict suffering withdrawal usually ended up staying in a spiritual church or a native doctors compound for higher intervention treatment but many would escape looking for the drug.
Then the abrupt Obasanjo ban on imports came into effect. By 1980, just three years, there were very few drug experimenters or users in schools. However, the Narcostate created and the free market embraced by the General Babangida had effectively reversed all the possible gains regarding access to drugs achieved by the Obasanjo ban and precipitated the economic conditions that would foster drug epidemics in just over half a decade. The second drug problem was in Nigeria. By the mid-1980s as an undergraduate, I witnessed the high use of marijuana and a slowly increasing number of marijuana-triggered schizophrenia among students. Cocaine and smack use by rich bad kids and their hangers-on were beginning appear on campuses by the late 1980s. Reactivan was back but Catovit replaced Senatogen, Lorazepam and Valium replaced selorine. Anabolic steroids too were abused by male undergraduates for muscles; very few of the ones I knew made past age 40 but none made it to 45.
My witness as a student was of the days when money was not everything and the individual moral costs of destroying others to make money were high. Life and survival were not desperate then. Today, money is all that counts, it is the “neoliberal ideal”, yet life is very harsh and desperate in Nigeria for but a few. It would not surprise the initiated that large pharmaceutical companies now give commissions to their sales representatives for selling vast quantities of addictive drugs to schools and on the campuses of higher education. The scope for smuggling, local off-book production and artesian pharmacies resulting from the new ban on cough-syrup will offer irresistible incentives for profiteering. Will the ban be extended to all addictive drugs? Addicts and the suppliers have proven quite innovative in finding or creating substitutes, many obnoxious and dangerous.
How is the Buhari administration’s ban intended to diminish the drug problem going to work? It will not be easy.