The drug abuse problem across Africa is finally drawing global attention

A Libyan police officer views a haul of prescription drug Tramadol seized from a shipping container in Tripoli
A Libyan police officer views a haul of prescription drug Tramadol seized from a shipping container in Tripoli
Image: Reuters/Chris Helgren
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The United Nations is shining the spotlight on rampant drug abuse and trafficking across African cities.

In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council, Yury Fedotov, head of the UN’s office on drugs and crime says his office is “registering new alarming trends on drug trafficking in West and Central Africa with disruptive and destabilizing effects on governance, security, economic growth, and public health.”

The agency says west, north and central Africa jointly account for 87% of all pharmaceutical opiates seized globally.

Drug abuseparticularly of opioids like codeine and Tramadolis a problem governments in the regions have attempted to tackle. In March, Quartz Africa wrote about the problem of youth addiction to opioids spreading across Africa. After a BBC investigation in May uncovered large-scale corruption at major pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria, the government banned importation and production of codeine-based cough syrups.

For its part, Ghana’s food and drug agency has also tried to regulate the opioid imports. But the effectiveness of these measures will depend on shutting down transit routes in neighboring Benin which was named the world’s second largest destination for Indian Tramadol in 2016 by the US State Department. Recent evidence suggests the efforts remain futile: Nigerian officials seized over half a billion tablets of Tramadol in two high-profile raids at the country’s biggest port over last month.

The drug abuse problem in Africa’s cuts across societal classes as UN’s drug agency estimates there were more than 34 million cannabis users and 1.8 million cocaine users in west and central Africa in 2016. Unlike expensive narcotics, opioids are more easily accessible as they mostly cost less than $5.

Many young people across the continent are also turning to a range of unconventional concoctionsincluding smoking lizard dung and sniffing urine, petrol and fermented sewagefor a cheap high. Crucially, the UN agency also estimates that only one in 18 drug users with addiction issues have access to appropriate medical treatment.

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