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Substance abuse: Time for action





“What is the government doing about substance abuse and addiction?”  That was the question a lady asked at a substance abuse prevention and rehabilitation stakeholders meeting organised by the United States Embassy in Abuja last Thursday.

It was a question that many who spoke after her also wanted to ask, but thought it was needless since the answer was obvious. Nothing is being done by the Nigerian governments-federal and states! While a lot may be going on at the law enforcement level, there is yet no inkling that the political leaders see substance addiction as a present danger to the security of the country and the welfare of her citizens.

Yet drug/substance abuse and addiction is increasingly becoming an epidemic sweeping through the  youth population of the country. We are not yet a country with reliable data on so many critical areas of national life otherwise the substance abuse problems would have long find its way into party manifestoes in this country; it would have become a campaign issue

Yet we only need to visit any of the neuro-psychiatrist hospitals in the country to appreciate what substance abuse is doing to our youths.  A former Medical Director of one of the hospitals told me that not less than 10 youths-male and female-with addiction problems were brought to his hospital every day, some of them at a very advance stage of mental impairment.

By our culture and level of health education, the psychiatrist’s hospital is not a place any family would want to take their ward for fear of stigmatisation. It takes courage, and even desperation, for any family to take their ward to a psychiatrist hospital. That is why if there is access to proper record, the real statistics of people with substance abuse disorder would be scary.

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This was what came out of the stakeholders meeting at the US embassy in Abuja. Nearly all the gentlemen and women who turned up for the meeting had suffered drug abuse disorder in the past and said they were only lucky to be alive and recovering. But the instructive part of their revelation is that none went through any psychiatrist hospital or government established recovery centre.

They revealed that many parents or friends who knew about their addiction problem now come to them seeking advice on where to treat their family members suffering from addiction disorder. But sadly, there is no such place yet, except a few private facilities whose charges fly through the roof.

Some of them who had fully recovered have now dedicated their lives towards helping others recover too, using their own means. They all lamented government’s unfathomable policy neglect in this area and lack of any executive action towards recovering our youths from the deadly clutches of drug addiction.

For now, only the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) is doing a little about substance abuse prevention education and drug demand reduction through largely ineffective radio and television jingles. Drug demand reduction requires much more than jingles to materialise. Saddling the law enforcement agency with the additional responsibility of pursuing drug demand reduction tantamount to over burdening it and rendering it ineffective bother as law enforcement apparatus and as the driver of drug/substance addiction education.

As it is, the agency is overwhelmed by the activities of illicit drug traffickers who permeate the society. The total staff strength of the agency is 5001 representing a ratio of one drug agent  to over thirty-three thousand, nine hundred  and ninety three Nigerians, using the 170 million population projection.  It is abysmally low in a country with additional burden of myriads of illegal entry routes. The agency is starved of funds and lacks operational vehicles. You only need to speak with NDLEA staff to know how frustrated and demoralised they are. Yet this is the agency we have now saddled with helping addiction sufferers into recovery. It cannot work.

Drug demand reduction requires concerted and well-coordinated health education campaign to mobilise the people against this ravaging scourge.  NDLEA has neither the manpower nor the funds to drive this.

The Nigerian government, at federal and state levels, must wake up to their responsibility and come up with a policy framework that will be supported by consistent funding to save the future generation of this country from self-destruction.

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Nigeria should study the solution model of other countries battling youth addiction problem, especially the US where President Donald Trump has declared it an epidemic and national emergency, and find what is adaptable to our circumstances.  A first step is a presidential pronouncement and a drug demand reduction policy to be incorporated into our national health policy.

It is inexplicable why this is yet to happen, especially considering how substance addiction is ravaging cities across Northern Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari’s region. NDLEA statistics put Kano, Maiduguri and Sokoto states as the states with highest prevalence of drug/substance use in the country.

Last year when the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, visited Kano, she lamented the alarming rate of drug and substance abuse in the North and called on Northern leaders, including religious clerics, to do something urgently about the menace. But her message never resonated in the corridors of power.

Recently too, the icirnigeria.org published a two part investigative report on how drug addiction is killing a generation of women in the North. The report exposes use of cough syrup with high codeine content and other psychotropic drugs by girls and women in the north, including married women in purdah.

As it is done in the US, federal and state governments must follow up by budgeting special intervention funds for drug demand reduction to support Non-Profit organisations already working in this area. The NGOs have the expertise and organisation needed to fast-track substance abuse prevention education, treatment and rehabilitation. Governments must identify NGOs with requisite addiction treatment specialists and support their work with targeted funding.

States, especially those with huge addiction problem such as kano, Borno, Sokoto and Lagos, must not wait for funds from the federal government before they start to  address the problem. These states and indeed other states must evolve their own strategies to combat this problem before it becomes intractable. Substance abuse is already responsible for many of the security challenges in these states, including the eight-year long Boko Haram insurgency.

The military had reported several drug/substance siezures during raid of Boko Haram hideouts in Sambisa Forest, confirming the fact that drug abuse also fuels the insurgency. The police in Kano have made similar seizures during raid on criminal havens in the metropolis. Thus, there is little doubt that drug abuse fuels crime. Anyone who is drug- dependent would do anything to get the drug, including violent crimes. This is the reality of life in South Africa where youth addiction has become pandemic and drug related deaths occur daily.

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