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Drug Abuse: The task before Buba Marwa’s committee
By Tajudeen Suleiman
NIGERIANS woke up to the cheering news on December 11 last year, that former Military Administrator of Lagos State, Brigadier General Buba Marwa was announced as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Drug Abuse.
For stakeholders in the health sector, and for parents who are condemned to watch their wards ravaged by drugs and substances, the news was elating. It is once again a demonstration of the connection between the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration and the ordinary Nigerians. Not only is it a desirable intervention; it is also a timely move to preserve the future of the country. And the government, in my opinion, could not have made a better choice of who to lead such a critical rescue assignment.
Drug abuse affects all of us and you don’t have to be a user. Research has shown that drug addiction leads to an increase in crime rate. Drug users would do anything to satisfy their craving, including committing crimes such as burglary, armed robbery and even murder.
Addiction has also been found to reduce the labour force of a country and results in low labour productivity. In Nigeria, this may sound far-fetched because no one has yet conducted research on the economic impact of drug addiction.
This is why drug and substance misuse is now seen by most countries as a national problem. And in a world rapidly shrinking into a global village, it is not unexpected that the United Nations has declared drug abuse as a global challenge.
We may not appreciate the seriousness of the menace here in Nigeria for some obvious reasons. Nigeria is still not a country ruled by statistics and no institution of government has yet conducted any research on the nexus between substance addiction and crime, or the economy. And if any such research had been done, the results are yet to be made official.
But such an investigation is necessary to allow a better appreciation of the challenges facing the country on the issue of drug abuse. Nigeria is one of the countries of the world where drugs and substances are abused in frightening numbers. The abuse of prescription drugs is so rampant and has gone beyond codeine, recently banned by the Federal Government. There are not less than six or seven over-the-counter drugs which are being abused in the country, including antibiotics, antidiarrhoeals, laxatives, pain-relieving drugs, sedatives, amphetamines and cannabis.
Pain relieving drugs such as Rohypnol, Tramadol and Tramol have become so common that kids as young as 13 have been found to use them, especially in the northern parts of the country. Others include Valium, Alabukun, Aspirin and others.
Worse is the use of unhealthy substances as get-high drugs by youths in poor neighbourhoods. There are various names for these substances in different parts of the country. The damages these substances would do to those using them are better imagined.
Thus, while the use of hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin and others are more prevalent among the affluent and the middle class, the lower rung of the society is overdosed by substances and counterfeited prescription drugs. There is hardly any community in the country where drug rendezvous would not be found. Therefore, the Marwa committee is good news if it is given all the necessary support by the Presidency. Because it cannot succeed without the comprehensive support of the FG, especially the Presidency.
As a priority, I believe the committee must immediately commission comprehensive research of the problem. What are the demographics of users? What percentage of the population lives on drugs and substances? What is the connection between the figures and the economy, health facilities and unemployment? Where are the red spot cities, neighbourhoods and states?
Two months ago, at a symposium to mark the 2018 World Mental Health Day, the Medical Director of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in Yaba, Lagos, Dr. Oluwayemi Ogun, revealed that one in five youths in the country has mental health issues. We don’t yet know what percentage of this is drug-related.
While the committee is on this, it must collaborate with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, to identify and block drug supply routes within and outside the country.
To reduce drug demand, an aggressive enlightenment campaign must be afoot. The campaign must be goal-specific and goal-targeted. It must involve seminars, workshops and public engagements with stakeholders, including select local Non-Governmental Organizations working in the field of drug abuse prevention education.
Campaigns against drugs are more effective when they are targeted at families, which is the nucleus of society. This is where the NGOs have a critical role. They are more suited for a targeted house to house campaigns, engaging families and interacting with drug users.
It is useful that wives of state governors, some of who have their own NGOs, are members of the committee. They are best suited to identify other NGOs in their state to partner. State governors must be made to understand the need to fund drug abuse prevention campaigns by earmarking funds yearly to support local NGOs. To prevent arbitrariness in the disbursement of such funds, it could be awarded through a competitive bidding process so that NGOs with the best and most realistic programs are selected and funded.
In the United States and many countries in Europe, the role of government is limited to law enforcement-cutting supply routes, going after dealers and prosecuting them and making sure to prevent crimes and arresting criminal suspects. But the governments support NGOs to execute the tasks of drug abuse prevention education, and in the case of US which I’m familiar with, even treatment and rehabilitation of people with drug and substance misuse disorder.
It is important to employ TV, radio, print, online and social media to educate families about drug-abuse prevention. This has been repeatedly shown to reduce the non-medical use of narcotic pain pills.
For long term solutions, we must increase the availability, affordability and access to drug treatment centres in the country. Many people who could benefit from treatment are not getting it because there are no treatment clinics around. Those around are too expensive, and only the rich can afford them. Although the Neuro-Psychiatrists Hospitals in the country now treat drug-related cases, they are still too few, overstretched and ill-equipped to offer any meaningful intervention.
We must also begin the process of decriminalizing drug abuse and encourage treatment and recovery. Instead of sending drug users to prisons, we must start sending them to rehab centres. Researches in other countries have shown that people who commit crimes due to addiction and are jailed, always go back to commit more crimes after serving their terms. That is why drug abuse has been decriminalized in the US. Many other countries in Europe are towing similar path.
Nigeria, like many other countries, has an epidemic of drug use and abuse. Other countries are fighting to overcome it. Nigeria too must join this fight. This is the promise the Marwa committee offers.
Tajudeen Suleiman could be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org