TEXT OF A LECTURE, TITLED “DRUG ABUSE AND THE FUTURE OF NIGERIA” DELIVERED BY THE CHAIRMAN/CHIEF EXECUTIVE, NATIONAL DRUG LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY, NDLEA, BRIG. GEN. MOHAMED BUBA MARWA (RETD), OFR, AS THE GUEST SPEAKER AT THE ANNUAL LECTURE OF THE UNITED ACTION FOR CHANGE ON WEDNESDAY 6TH OF OCTOBER, 2021, AT PROTEA HOTEL, ISAAC JOHN STREET, GRA, IKEJA, LAGOS.
If I have my way, drug abuse will be a topic of daily discussion in the public sphere across Nigeria, if not for anything, but to heighten society’s awareness about the need to act decisively, urgently and comprehensively against this pervasive destructive habit.
I believe the relative passivity of society towards the illicit drug issue, the failure to keep it on the front burner as a topical issue in the past decade was partly responsible for the precarious situation in which Nigeria presently found itself.
Today, the country’s drug use prevalence is embarrassing, almost three times the global threshold. For those that can read correctly the implications of Nigeria’s illicit drug figures, there is a reason to be alarmed. At this juncture, I feel that curbing the abuse and trafficking of illicit drugs has become a colossal task that requires collective tackling by society. The Nigerian drug statistics, I dare say, should give every one of us sleepless nights. If the global drug use prevalence is 5.6% and Nigeria’s drug prevalence is 14.4%, isn’t that a wake-up call for us to arrest the trend before we are consumed by a full-blown narcotic epidemic?
With the benefit of my two-year experience as chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Elimination of Drug Abuse (PACEDA) and my present position as Chairman and Chief Executive, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, I have come to realise that while, indeed, a large section of our society claims to know what the term “drug abuse” implies, the understanding is vague and shallow. That is why these days, I am motivated to avail myself of every opportunity to speak about the dynamics of drug abuse, the danger it poses for the individual and the devastation it portends for the society that is lame and lackadaisical in tackling it. Therefore, it is an understatement to tell you that I am delighted to stand here before you to speak on the topic “Drug Abuse and The Future of Nigeria.” There couldn’t have been a better time. Today is a golden opportunity.
- What is drug abuse?
Drug abuse is not a term that is difficult to define. Look it up in the dictionary and you will get straightforward definitions. A typical definition regards Drug Abuse as “the habitual taking of illegal drugs.” For this gathering, I will stick to the definition of the international drug control conventions, which regard abuse as “any consumption of controlled substances, no matter how infrequent.”
When a drug is classified as a controlled substance, it means its use, possession and distribution is governed by law, regulated by a government. Substance in this sense means drugs and chemicals that affect mental processes. Generally referred to as psychoactive or psychotropic, these substances in the bloodstream change a user’s perception, consciousness, cognition or mood and emotions. And moreso, these substances have no acceptable medical use. In addition, they have the potential of abuse and risk of dependence for users. That is why they are illicit drugs. The international drug conventions have classified these substances into 5 schedules with the likes of cocaine, heroin, morphine and cannabis leading in Schedule I. However, the concept of drug abuse is broader beyond the list of banned substances.
That brings us to the abuse of prescription medication. After doctors prescribe certain pharmaceutical drugs, patients tend to form the habit of buying such drugs subsequently and consuming them, neither on the order of a doctor nor by a doctor’s prescription. That is also a clear case of drug abuse, no matter how useful the drugs have been. Pharmaceutical opioids, especially tramadol and codeine, are the best-known examples of this abuse in Nigeria. Benzodiazepines, such as Rohypnol and Valium, are also abused by Nigerians. Even when such misuse causes no apparent harm, by and large, users come to depend on such drugs.
An equally disturbing dimension of drug abuse concerns the misuse of substances not yet captured as illicit drugs by the known conventions. Such substances, no less dangerous, come under different names and are generally grouped under the nomenclature of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Their production and sale are often carried out with impunity which tends to deceive users that they are legal. Hence, the term “legal high.” They come in different forms such as designer cannabis, aphrodisiac tea, herbal incense, social tonic and party pills, to mention but a few. The common ones on the street are herbal concoctions. The best-known examples are the so-called Monkeytail (a brew of cannabis and liquor) and Skuchies (a dangerous mix of zobo, cannabis, codeine and tramadol tablets) which young people crave at parties. Some of us here can relate to the habit of citizens buying some unknown herbal potion from sellers at motor parks, on the street or at social parties. Consumers hardly inquire about the composition of the drinks. All they care about is that such drinks make them “active.”
Laboratory tests have indicated traces of psychoactive elements, including tramadol, which is banned. The danger of NPS is obvious: they have no recommended dosage, are untested and contain some of the most dangerous illicit elements that could lead to the destruction of body organs such as kidneys and liver. What is worse is that the number of NPS is unknown and they vary from one place to another. Anyone can wake up one day and come up with a mixture of some lethal chemicals and the public will start consuming such psychoactive drinks. When we add up all these, we will realise that the concept of “drug abuse” is more common in our society than we are readily aware of us.
Still, we can expand our definition of substance abuse to include excessive consumption of alcohol. This may come as a surprise to some people, but it shouldn’t, because the short term and long term effects of alcohol are not unlike the consequences of psychoactive substances. While alcohol is licit, it still belongs to a class of drugs called depressants, and its abuse is linked to depression, and those who suffer chronic alcoholism have to be rehabilitated. That tells you it is not a substance that should be abused. Yet people abuse it daily.
Ladies and gentlemen, drug abuse is a broad spectrum, and it has many ramifications. The little we have shared should help some of us to rethink our idea of substance abuse and subsequently take an active step towards curbing its occurrence.
- Drug Abuse Trends: From research statistics to arrested traffickers and seized substances
The available data on the pattern and prevalence of drug use in Nigeria is courtesy of the National Drug Survey conducted in 2018. Before then, there was no official figure about drug use in the country. In the absence of valid, reliable data, various authorities and stakeholders had resorted to guesswork, speculations, and half-baked hypotheses.
But today, the facts and figures being cited are in the realm of reality, derived from the findings of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Funded by the European Union with technical support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the survey gave us the big picture of the prevalence of drug use in Nigeria. What the findings showed us is a considerable high level of abuse of various psychoactive substances.
Without boring you with humongous statistics, let me cut straight to the highlights of the findings.
One: Not less than 14.3 million Nigerians abuse drugs, and they are mostly between the ages of 15 and 64 years. Among them, one of four drug users is female.
Two: Expectedly, cannabis is the most abused substance by Nigerians. What is alarming, however, is that a staggering 10.6 million of our compatriots are guilty of abuse of cannabis. That number makes our country No. 1 in the abuse of cannabis. Let us ponder over this: 10.6 million is more than the estimated population of countries such as Greece, Azerbaijan and Portugal, or our West African neighbour, The Republic of Benin. Here is the part that should worry parents: most of the abusers first started using cannabis at age of 19, and the highest level of use is concentrated in the youth age bracket of 25 to 29 years.
Three: The highest abuse of drugs, according to the findings, are recorded in the southern geo-political zones. The South West recorded the highest prevalence with over four million Nigerians indulging in the abuse of various drugs. In this regard, the Lagos-Oyo axis is the epicentre of drug abuse in the country.
Four: The findings of the survey showed that one out of five persons abusing drugs is suffering from drug use disorders. That comes to almost three million Nigerians.
- Drug Abuse and Future of Nigeria: A case for United Action by society
Now, we can speak about what the trend in drug abuse portends for the future of Nigeria. In doing this, it is proper that we are guided by available statistics, and I will draw copiously from the 2021 World Drug Report by UNODC, which says that by 2030, Africa will be a hotbed of drug abuse. The report notes that Africa will experience “an increase in the number of people who use drugs in the next decade, merely as a result of population growth.”
It is projected that the number of people using drugs will increase by 40% in Africa. When they say Africa, I want us to think of Nigeria, because Nigeria has one of the highest drug use prevalences in the world.
The report also notes, inter alia, that: “Considering the age structure of the current population of Africa and its projection by 2030, the projected number of people who use drugs in the region could be concentrated mainly in the age groups 25–29 and 30–34.”
Ladies and gentlemen, if we read that correctly, the two age brackets symbolise youth in its prime.
Away from statistics, empirical facts from anti-narcotic operations by NDLEA show us clearly that access to illicit drugs has become simpler than ever with the dark web serving as a haven of illicit drugs. Now, drug addicts don’t have to go out anymore. With data and debit cards, they can from the comfort of their home or any safe nook, access social media by phones, search for drug vendors, carry out contactless drug transactions, and have their purchases delivered to their doorsteps. That is one problem area for the future.
Another one is the continuous growth of New Psychoactive Substances. As narcotics agencies concentrate on reducing the supply of the known illicit drugs, the drug underworld is busy experimenting with synthetic New Psychoactive Substances, and the authorities could be none the wiser for many years.
By and large, the outlook of the future will depend on our action or inaction at curbing the drug abuse trend. I, being an optimist, believe the future favours Nigeria―only if we get the matrix right.
A lot has been said about the future belonging to Africa. Indeed, the potential is glaring, when you factor in the continent’s burgeoning youth population, the digital aptitude of the younger generation and the enterprising spirit of young people. But a lot of work has to go into the making of that vision. If we read the statistics correctly, the world’s biggest drug problem of the future could be in Africa. To worsen the situation, the catalysts for a drug armageddon are here with us: poverty, poor governance, bad politics, ethnic jingoism, religious intolerance and interference by foreign actors, insecurity, name it.
So, the future could be bright or bleak; it could be one of boom or gloom; it could be decades of prosperity or problems depending on the amount of work we are willing to do today. Tomorrow, the saying goes, “belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
If we must have a better future as Nigerians living in Nigeria, we must among other things, solve the drug aspect of the insecurity equation. We must cut out the drug pipelines, mop our cities clean of illicit drugs, take out the traffickers, and reduce drug demand by treating those already addicted. And to a large extent, the NDLEA has put up a fighting effort. We have arrested over 8,634 traffickers, jailed over 1, 630, counselled and rehabilitated over 4, 269 in our facilities. Operatives of the Agency have seized over 2.7 million kilograms of assorted drugs, which together with cash seized are worth over N100 billion. In the past eight months, we have targeted drug cartels and successfully brought five drug barons to book.
With the War Against Drug Abuse (WADA) initiative launched by President Muhammadu Buhari in June, the NDLEA has introduced anti-drug advocacy across the different strata of society, from state to local and community levels. In a matter of weeks, we will kickstart our campus advocacy, which will be saturated to all six geopolitical zones.
The future of Nigeria belongs to us all. As we are doing our bit at NDLEA, we expect society to complement our efforts by taking a huge role in preventing the young ones from falling into situations that encourage experimentation with drugs, whether licit or illicit. Every one of us has a role to play, and the simplest role is one of advocacy. By spreading the message, we can all become anti-drug abuse advocates. Spreading the word about the dangers of misuse of drugs can go a long way in shielding more lives from the ruins of illicit drugs. This was aptly captured by the theme of 2021 UN Day against Drug Abuse, which was “Share facts about drugs, save lives.”
Before I round off my speech, permit me to leave you with these two nuggets of facts from the 2021 World Drug Report:
One: “Drug use killed almost half a million people in 2019.”
Two: “Drug use disorders resulted in 18 million years of healthy life lost, mostly due to opioids.”
Thank you all for listening.