Wean off the lean: The conversation we need to have about Nigeria’s war on Codeine addiction

Growing up, Nollywood stereotypes played a huge role in scaring us off drugs. Smoke weed and you are sure to end up a criminal behind bars, a little nose candy and you become an emaciated addict chained to a makeshift gurney. The older generation loved fear as a means of communication. Yet, drug prohibition costs economies billions annually, and according to the British Medical Journal has “failed to curb either demand or supply, reduce addiction, or minimise harm”; like letting kids watch many horror movies and risking desensitising them  to gore.

Poppies have been cultivated for opium as far back as 3400 B.C. They were commonly called “the joy plant,” because of the “highs” one can get from opium. Opium soon became a popular tool to bolster power and influence  among empires.  For example, Britain smuggled opium into China in the 1800s by leveraging their control of the East India Company. The smuggling guaranteed Britain could meet its citizens’ constant demand for Chinese-produced tea to the detriment of the myriad of  people who became addicted in an exponential progression.

In 1839, China recognised this problem and shut down Britain’s drug trafficking racket. China also confiscated existing opium, which angered Britain and touched off the first of the Opium Wars. China’s Emperor was determined to end opium addiction in his country and enacted laws banning opium in China and cracking down on opium traders. British traders demanded compensation for their lost opium, but when the Treasury could not afford it, the war was used to resolve Britain’s debt. The versatility of Opium however, is what makes it most difficult to eradicate completely.

China’s draconian countermeasures to regulate narcotics did little to lessen their drug problem and even now, the current global opioid crisis goes to show that America’s decades old ‘War on drugs’ is no closer to yielding substantial result.  Codeine by itself is arguably more dangerous than the other derivatives of Opium because it is prescribed to treat common illnesses. Found in many popular cough syrups, it can also be taken orally as pain relief as it is synthesised from morphine. Yet constant or prolonged codeine use carries risk of dependency and addiction.

A report in the British Medical Journal suggests that a quarter billion of adults—one in twenty people worldwide— take illegal drugs every year. These consciousness altering substances provide a Nirvana for those who feel they are drowning in an ocean of loneliness and hopelessness and yearn for a connection to something greater than themselves. And clearly, a lot of people are, especially in developing nations like Nigeria. It’s no surprise that we have lots of drug abusers, and it was always only a matter of time before the government put a ban on products containing Codeine.

Substance abuse has been a thing in Nigeria for a minute now but trust society to heap all the blame on ‘Kids these days’. Too many of us are familiar with parents who are mobile pharmacies in their own right; popping one pill or another. You know the ones, they always excuse as stress or pain relief pills. However, Tramadol and Codeine the mostly publicly abused by the youth today. They’re in the bottles of soda, lean cups, hookah bowls and the handy water bottles. These prescription drugs have become more recreational than they are used for treatment.

To launch its documentary unit ‘Africa Eye’, BBC released an investigative documentary on the extent of codeine addiction in Nigeria. It took a five-month in-depth undercover investigation into the plague of Codeine addiction in Nigeria, but the exposé brought to light major ills in the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry. The documentary served as curtain call for big shots in Nigeria’s pharmaceutical industry who move these legally manufactured products through back channels to drug dens. You want to understand how we got here, there’s a simple explanation: it’s a lot easier to get high than it is to get help in Nigeria.

In response to the BBC documentary and the attention it got on social media and other news disseminating platforms, the government placed a ban on the importation and production of codeine for cough medications. To ensure that citizens with an actual need for antitussives are protected, Dextromethorphan is being floated as a replacement for codeine in cough syrups. Dextromethorphan is a widely used cough suppressant and compared with codeine, is proven to lower cough intensity to a greater degree. Throw in it’s lack of side-effects, it’s safety even in overdose and it’s non-narcotic status, dextromethorphan as a substitute for codeine is a decent choice.

While placing a ban on legal production and importation of the opiate is not a terrible idea, starting off with criminalisation while fighting a drug epidemic is quite shortsighted. Addiction takes off easily for a number of reasons: from poor mental health care, inaccessibility of employment opportunities to a growing sense of social isolation. The rise in deaths of despair such as suicide and alcohol or drug related deaths is proof that we have a lot of complex problems in this country. Focusing on opioid supply without really addressing these socio-economic and mental health problems linked to addiction makes no sense—because people still have these problems. They’ll simply move on to the next available substance if their drug of choice is off the market.

Usually, when drugs are banned, they don’t vanish. Instead, they are transferred from licensed businesses to armed criminal gangs. From the documentary, these criminal rings already exist and the ban only hands them more power to bargain—best case scenario, the price for Codeine goes up and abusers are discouraged. Legal businesses have the law to protect their businesses. Illegal dealers obviously can’t go to the police to protect their property so, they have to establish their trade and defend it—with violence. And just like that, the ‘war on drugs’ births a ‘war for drugs’.

There’s no shutout when dealing with a drug epidemic. Nigeria will have to do a lot more than just place a ban on the substance. From stronger safety net policies, better social services, better integration of mental health care with the rest of the health care system. Fighting this will require rebuilding communities from the ground up. We have to give people meaningful work, some opportunity for recreation— alternative sources of dopamine, so people have something to replace the drugs or can keep from turning to drugs at all. More rehabilitation centres that look better than the ones covered in BBC’s documentary (nobody is getting better under such inhumane conditions) need to be open to be public.

It’s impossible to overstate how much the public’s perception of drugs and addiction needs to change. While doctors and experts recognise that addiction is a medical condition, much of the public view it as a moral decadence.

Perhaps, educating people on the basic realities of addiction and why it needs every bit of attention is a way out of this. Until everyone understands that someone continuing to use despite their lives being in jeopardy is a clear indication that addiction is beyond individual control on some level, it’s likely the policy response will remain inadequate.

Featured Image Credits: YouTUBE/Kurzgesagt

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