Toxic tablets, counterfeit pills (II): Inside the evasive world of mischievous drug peddlers
By: Ibrahim Adeyemi
AT dusk on Friday, Hassan’s daily efforts as a drug peddler are beginning to pick up for the day, amidst a gang of drug merchants located at their popular spot behind Obalende Bridge in Lagos – the economic capital of Nigeria. Hassan seems determined to attract customers – drug abusers and unsuspecting patrons.
A few moments later, an ardent customer appears before him, looking suspiciously, like a wanted pocket-fingering thief. “Give me white,” he whispers to Hassan, conspicuously exchanging hands. Hassan quickly scissors four pills of the drug and hands them over to him. The customer drops the pills into a half-emptied Pepsi bottle; he waits for a few minutes for the pills to dissolve, still looking around, and then gulps a portion of the mixed drink.
“Dan banza (scoundrel),” Hassan insults the man, in Hausa, as he disappears. Common contraband caplets, counterfeit pills – paraded as potent – narcotic drugs, among others, dominate the stuck of drugs on his trade tray.
The dark, middle-aged man from Borno is a personification of a hustling Nigerian citizen, perspiring to make ends meet in the bustling city of Lagos. Fast-backward a few years of his trading sojourn in Lagos, he has ventured into many kinds of trades before starting to peddle drugs, in the bid to make bountiful gains, albeit illegal.“I was into selling provisions; I was a shoemaker; I was also once a butcher in my village and I did a lot of brisk businesses, before this,” says Hassan.
The drug peddler admits the fact that trading illicit drugs in the heart of Lagos is risky, but he has decided to “stick to this business”, hoping to “earn some money and leave the business to set up another”. Though he is illiterate, Hassan makes his daily bread in a business that requires solid expertise. But to him, learning the art before the act is nothing to worry about, as the most important thing is to earn a meaningful living, while he depends on “what God provides.”
Although the young man pays his bills through his illegal trade, he will not advise anyone to venture into it. “It’s a very complicated business and it’s not easy to set up; if you don’t know where to buy the actual drugs and the right person to buy from, you will end up buying fake drugs,” he said with a smile on his face.
“Please don’t venture into this business. It’s risky and we buy the drugs at a costly price. I advise you to set up a provision kiosk. If you are educated, you should better find a chemist and start selling drugs. If you are buying in bulk from a company, they will even give you a loan and retrieve the money later,” Hassan admonishes the reporter, who dramatically plays the role of a drug abuser and a potential peddler, after many fruitless attempts to interview the drug tycoons about their illicit merchandise of medicinal products.
Merchandising contraband and counterfeit drugs to drug abusers and vulnerable citizens who cannot differentiate between fake and genuine drugs in the market is a multi-million Naira business in Nigeria. An extensive study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2013, which focuses on Africa and South-east Asia, shows that the counterfeit drug market in Africa is worth about US$4billion.
Illegal drug traders are found on streets, in the slums, on the highways, etc. – they are part and parcel of the existence of common Nigerians.
In Nigeria, illicit drug peddling is a lucrative trade
At Ijora-Badia, a crowded Lagos community, 17-year-old Ibrahim places his stock of drugs on the railway in the ghetto area, hunting for customers in the bubbling market. As young as he is, Ibrahim’s eye is exposed to buying and selling of banned brand and counterfeit drugs, among others, to make profits.
The teenage drug vendor has just arrived Lagos from Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, fleeing the state to seek refuge in Lagos and start a new life, after suicide bombers cruelly disrupted his secondary education. Now in the busy slum of Ijora, he thrives in the illicit business, where he makes profitable returns on a daily basis.
“I make N5, 000 and sometimes N20, 000 per day, if I get more customers,” he says, when asked how much profit he makes every day from the trade. And it is obvious; Ibrahim makes a lot of money, selling all sorts of contraband drugs such as Tramol (Tramadol), and Codeine, which are in high demand.
Buying and selling of drugs, preparing medications, interpreting the physician prescriptions and detecting therapeutic inconsistencies – which are the principal duties of a pharmacist – should not take one more than two weeks to learn, according to young Ibrahim.
“If you have anyone who is selling drugs, in less than two weeks you will learn about this business,” the drug vendor confidently says, stressing that the job is what anybody can do.
If Ibrahim earns N5,000 profit daily from his illicit drug peddling, in 30 days, he will make N150, 000 – that is five times more than the new national minimum wage pegged at N30, 000. The rate of turnover makes drug peddling more lucrative many legal trades? But then, as profitable as the trade seems, the offence is punishable under National Food and Drugs Administration and Control’s counterfeit and fake drugs and unwholesome processed foods (miscellaneous provisions) act cap c.34, 2004.
Section (1) of the above NAFDAC Act strongly prohibits the sale and distribution of counterfeit, adulterated, banned or fake, substandard or expired drug or unwholesome processed food; and of sale, etc. Meanwhile, section 3 (1) of the same act clearly states the penalties for the aforementioned prohibition: “Any person, who commits an offence under (a) section 1 of this Act, is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N500, 000 or imprisonment for a term of not less than five years or more than fifteen years or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
Drug peddlers should not even exist in society if the NAFDAC Act is really effective. They are unlawful traders of medicinal products, who cause more harm than good to the people and innocent drug buyers.
“Any person who (a) hawks or sells; or (b) displays for the purpose of sale; or (c) aids or abets any person to hawk, sell, display for the purpose of sale, any drug or poison in any place not duly licensed or registered by the appropriate authority, including any market, kiosk, motor park, road-side stall or in any bus, ferry or any other means of transportation, is guilty of an offence under this Act and shall, accordingly, be punished as specified in this Act,” section 2 (1) of the NAFDAC Act declares, noting the “prohibition of sale, etc., of drugs or poisons in certain premises or places.”
‘Banned (over the counter) drugs selling fast’
As usual, Ibrahim’s perpetual patrons have come around now; they have come to rejuvenate their dying appetites with doses of narcotic drugs – most of which are forbidden for sale over the counter, to make them out of reach of drug addicts. But abusers of the drug will always find their ways to get those banned drugs from peddlers like Ibrahim. And to avoid being remanded by drug regulatory agencies, they refer to drugs with certain street lingos: “Codeine is Gutter water”; “Tramadol is TM”; “Benzodiazepines is Benz,” “Rophynol is Roofies,” and the list goes on. Most of these drugs are either banned totally or banned over the counter because they are narcotic; drug abusers and addicts pop them for hyper-sedation, an increase of sex appetite, hyper-activeness and hyper-intoxication.
“You get TM (Tramadol)?” a dark man with thick dreadlocks inquires from Ibrahim, holding a bottle of Coca-Cola firmly with his left hand. “Yes I do,” Ibrahim replies. “I have red Tramadol; it costs N300 per pill.” The young man quickly grabs two pills, uncaps the bottle of Coca-Cola and dissolves the two pills in the beverage and turns to take his leave. Before he leaves, his eye catches some drugs understood to be narcotic. “Which drugs are these?” he asks. “They are also high drugs,” Ibrahim says, pointing at the said drugs on his tray. “We have them a lot, see them. The white is two pills for N50; the capsule is N100 each, and this one is four pills for N50.”
Ibrahim, the teen drug vendor seems to know very well that it is forbidden for him to sell Tramadol, as he and other peddlers encountered engage in a subtle display of Tramadol’s brand. “Can’t you see that we disguise these Tramadols so that they won’t know?” He persuasively queries this reporter, noting that they are always careful and afraid of Police apprehension when caught.
Tramadol, among other narcotic drugs, seems to be commonest to acquire in the open markets. Use the right words to describe it and it shall be sold to you with immediate alacrity. Introduced in 1995 with ‘Ultrum’ as the brand name, Tramadol is used to help relieve moderate to moderately severe pain. It is similar to opioid (narcotic) analgesics. It works in the brain to change how your body feels and responds to pain. However, because the said drug has been abused and misused by its patrons on several occasions – which calls for concerns – its sales are restricted in the open market, especially over the counter.
In Orile-Iganmu, under the rabble-rousing Orile Bridge in Lagos, Saliu and his co-drug vendors enjoy the rowdiness surrounding their world. He sells all kinds of fake drugs too. “This drug will add to your strength and make you high,” he states, describing how the 225mg Tramadol he attempted to sell to this reporter works. He nonetheless asserts that Tramadol sells fast in the market, noting that “as we buy it, we sell it in a short period of time.” The illicit drug vendor also confesses that he and his cohorts buy the contraband drugs in large quantity at Idumota drug market – one of the largest open drug markets in Nigeria – in Lagos.
As for David, also at Orile, he is not only an illicit drug peddler; he is also a devoted drug abuser. After trying to sell 250mg Tramadol to this reporter, he reveals how itinerant his illegal business has made him. “I’m always available,” he says, “but often change my locations – in the morning I stay there; in the afternoon, I stay beside the bridge; in the evening time, I stay here.” While trying to convince the reporter to buy his illegal Tramadol, he reveals that he is also an addict of the drug, saying that “yesterday, I took half of this pill and I was high from night till morning working very hard.”
An encounter with drug abusers
“I started taking drugs through the influence of friends because at that time the pressure was so high. So, due to the myriad of drug addict friends around me, I had to start taking drugs too,” Bashir Awalu narrates his ordeal as a drug addict. The brick-layer man, by occupation, says he is an ardent user of narcotic drugs to get hyper-activated while working. “Actually, drug abuse has affected me in many ways – everything about me has changed both mentally, physically and socially. Taking drugs excessively affects our thinking,” Awalu confesses.
Apart from the mental negative effects of his drug addiction, Awalu enjoys being an adherent of toxic tablets, basing his habit on this: “I feel comfortable and relaxed if I take hard drugs, rather than not taking them.” But then, he notes that whenever he is intoxicated by drugs “little misunderstanding aggregates my anger”. “I also take patch gum and Indian hemp. I smoke and take everything that will make me high except alcohol,” he says.
It seems Awalu is aware that drug abuse and taking hard drugs should be forbidden; he opines that “dealers of the drugs need to be cautioned, from wholesalers down to the retailers”. “But now,” he continues. “Since I stopped taking drugs, I withdrew from taking other substances. So if they will stop importing the drugs, the high prevalence of taking drugs will surely decrease.”
Sani Gwagwarwa, like Awalu, dwells well, taking hard drugs in Kano; he is an adherent addict of Tramadol and other ‘high’ drugs. To him, taking hard drugs, especially abusing the use of Tramadol makes him feel he is in the paradise of the Lord.
“I take the drug (Tramadol) during the weekend, so as to have some relief,” he says. “I take hard drugs anytime I feel sad and jobless, so I use the drugs to overcome my emotions, so as to feel comfortable. And If I take it, I feel comfortable because I won’t feel any bad condition again and it makes me feel happy.”
Gwagarwa believes taking hard drugs has not affected his health or mental condition and so, he has no reason to stop taking them. “ If I over-work, I take drugs and whenever I want to overwork myself, I take Tramadol and after use, I even feel more works should be given to me because it’s then I regain more powers and energy.”
Timelines on drug misuse… abuse of tramadol
It is appalling though, it is a matter of fact; Nigerians are growing cancerously in abusing the use of drugs. According to the National Bureau of Statistics’ 2018 reports on drug usage and abusage in Nigeria, about 14.3million people in Nigeria use drugs outside prescription; the statistics revealed that those who are victims of drug use are mainly between 15 and 64 years of age and, one in every four of them is also a woman.
The report also unveils the huge data on the prevalence of illicit drug use in Nigeria at the national level and also by geopolitical zones and states, adding that Yobe, Imo, Bayelsa, Rivers and Lagos States were ranked as the states where it was more difficult to access treatments for illicit drug use disorder.
As if that is not enough, in 2018, Prof MojisolaAdeyeye, Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) publicly lamented that the agency intercepted 6.4 billion tablets of Tramadol with an estimated street value of about N193.38 billion on an average cost of N1.5 million per carton, stressing that agency destroyed 25 containers of Tramadol valued worth N1.7 billion.
She said this in Abuja, while presenting her one year anniversary speech, noting that three persons involved in the distribution of the banned Tramadol have been arraigned at the Federal High Court, Lagos even as plans were underway to destroy more than 30 additional containers of Tramadol and other unregistered products worth more than N198 billion on the street.
“Little did I know that aside from substandard and falsified medicines issue, the unsafe and illicit drugs would become a significant part of my role as the Director-General of NAFDAC in safeguarding the health of the nation,” she said.
“Since my assumption of duty, the new Director of Ports Inspection Directorate and his team have intercepted 86 containers containing Tramadol and other unregulated drug products. These include 23-40-foot containers recently examined and found to have been loaded with Tramadol of various strengths from 120mg to 250mg.
“Tramadol and other unregistered pharmaceutical products that are known to be injurious to the health of the public, most importantly our youth. The Tramadol is estimated to be 6,446,100,000 tablets. The worth of Tramadol alone on the street is estimated to be at about N193,383,000,000.00 on an average cost of N1, 500,000.00.”
Is the insurgency in Borno State fuelling the illicit drug trade?
Curiously, most of the peddlers met in Lagos tell the tales of how they absconded from their own state of origin, Borno, to begin the illicit trade here in Lagos. Some of them claim to have left their communities because of the massive killings by insurgents in the state.
John, 23, from Maiduguri sells contraband drugs at Obalende, Lagos. The youngish man reveals that he, as well as other drug vendors in the state, has no formal knowledge about drug prescription. “We don’t have formal education about drugs; we only use our own little literacy to read the manual description of drugs and start selling,” he says.
Just like John, Mustapha, a teenage drug vendor from Borno, also exploits the night patronage of unsuspecting patrons in Ojuelegba, Lagos. At night passers-by buy all kinds of drugs from him and he makes a lot of money in the drug peddling trade. According to him, his brother taught him how to do the business within just three months when he came to Lagos, from Maiduguri, to seek fortune and favour.
In Obalende market, this reporter meets another peddler from Borno, while prescribing a malaria drug to a seemingly sick patron. “You’ll use this one in the morning, this in the afternoon and two pills of this at night,” he prescribes. The illegal drug prescriber and peddler refuses to reveal his name to this reporter but he tells him he is from Maiduguri.
So, John could be right for saying that there are many of them, from Borno, in the market hawking drugs illegally in the suburbs of Lagos. “Most of us from Maiduguri sell drugs or ride bikes; if you go to Ijora and Apapa, you will see us there,” he affirms, which makes one wonders whether the insurgency in Borno state is actually fuelling illicit drug trades, in Nigeria.
Who should (not) buy, sell drugs?
The business of illegal drug peddling booms in Nigeria for so many reasons, including lack of proper control of who can handle drugs and who should not have access to buying and selling of drugs in the open drug markets. Concerned about the proliferation of illicit drug peddlers in Nigeria, Mr Chukwuebuka Ejiofor, a renowned pharmacist in Nigeria believes that curbing illegal drug peddling in Nigeria “can’t be 100% but it should be limited to the extent that it will be rare. There should be some kind of rules and regulations that only certain people will handle a certain kind of products. There are several factors like I said from the point of entry these products into the country.”
“There is one particular body dealing with this – Pharmacist Council of Nigeria,” he proceeds. “They deal basically with proper licensing of pharmacists and premises for pharmacy. Also, there are some patent drug dealers, they also deal with them and give them their limits and boundaries.” However, all efforts geared towards getting the practical stands of the Pharmacist Council of Nigeria were unsuccessful.
Mr Ejiofor also notes that drug peddlers should not even exist in a saner world, adding that it is the role of drug regulatory agencies to make sure that “when it comes to the authenticity of products, it takes much more time. It is their responsibility to ensure that proper medications enter into the market they are dealing with and that only professionals engage in this business.”
He also asserts that “pharmacists have a role to play but it first starts from NAFDAC. Right from Customs, coming in of product, screening of product, proper registration of the product, and verification of the origin of certain products – they are the ones that lack responsibility. Any lapses that you see will be because of the failure of one of these processes.”
Nevertheless, Chairman of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) – a group of people who come together to project the image of pharmacy and pharmacists – Mr Kilani Jelili has admonished Nigerians to patronise only registered pharmacies and pharmacists, to curb the scourge of fake drugs in the country. He said this while speaking to this journalist, in a telephone conversation.
Mr Jelili noted that “the problem in Nigeria is that everybody is just interested in the money they will make from selling drugs. I always emphasise that if we allow everybody around to handle drug then the result is chaos.” He however assured that “PSN has been collaborating with PCN and NAFDAC to ensure that sanity is actually maintained.”
The Chairman also stated some of the plights of the association and the efforts geared so far to tackle the challenges. He said: “We normally educate the public but the people who usually perpetrate this evil of selling fake substances are in town abundantly and they are also powerful. They contribute money and even late last year, they even wanted to sponsor a bill to have their own regulatory body. These are people who did not go may be beyond primary school and they want people to lay their lives on their hands for drugs. They are only supposed to sell what we call over the counter drugs but when you go to them, they sell everything. They don’t remain within the bound.”
“Also,” he continued, “you found that the street drug hawkers are always there at the garages but nobody is doing anything today. How do you want pharmacist’s council to even handle those ones? There were times we went on inspection and we found out that people ganged up against us and even wanted to mob us, if not that we had to seek the help of the police.”
He emphasised that “there is a shortage of fund for the inspection that we are supposed to be doing every moment but we couldn’t do much.”
Additionally, the Public Relation Officer of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) – an organ that is charged with the duty of eliminating the buying and selling of illicit drug – Mr Jonah Achema has revealed that lots of efforts have been geared towards in tackling growing illicit trade in Nigeria by the Agency. “In terms of arrest and seizure, in the last one year, we have arrested over 10, 000 drug traffickers and peddlers, including drug coordinators,” Mr Achema says, stressing on the sweats of the NDLEA to ensure that illegal drug trading is totally tackled in the country.
The PRO also noted that “in terms of awareness, we have been into schools, market places, campaigning” on why people should stay away of from hard drugs, telling them the harms in such drugs. He, however, advised the public to stay away from buying and selling of illicit drugs in Nigeria, irrespective of the circumstances.
‘Stop buying drugs from peddlers’
However, a top NAFDAC official – who prefers not to be mentioned because is not authorized to do so – has advised Nigerians to be very careful while they purchase drugs to heal their ills. “This is a serious menace that we have been fighting; we have been telling people to stop buying drugs from road peddlers. They are there just money makers, they don’t care whether it is something that will affect the system or not.
NAFDAC is doing extremely everything possible to ensure that these peddlers are no more in our society. We have an enforcement team; their function is to enforce NAFDAC regulations. They move around with the police. Anything that has been apprehended we don’t allow society to use them. We keep them for a long time and then dispose of them.
“Immediately we get them, we also charge them to court. We have a legal unit in our department. Most of those drugs with those peddlers are illegal, they are smuggled drugs. They are not registered by NAFDAC – 80 per cent of them, I can say this categorically – are smuggled in. You find out that they smuggled them due to our porous borders. And NAFDAC is trying everything possible to make sure that these things are not being escalated. The companies that we give importation permit, we liaise with them, and from time to time we visit them, for them to follow the proper guidance and proper regulations,” he says.
Mr Jimoh Abubakar, the Director of Public Affairs, NAFDAC also urges Nigerians to patronise only licensed pharmacies for drugs of all kinds. He reiterates that drug peddlers are “mischievous makers who have no integrity to protect.”
This report was done with support from Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.