West Africa Plans to Fight New Synthetic Drug Epidemic

Published: 17 June 2024

Spray BottleDangerous synthetic substances are often sprayed onto a leaf, mixed with tobacco, and smoked. (Photo: rawpixel, License)

By Nneoma Omeje

Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau have authorized a Swiss-based civil society organization to facilitate chemical testing of a drug that is wreaking havoc in West Africa and has prompted the president of Sierra Leone to declare a national emergency.

‘Kush’ entered the drug market in Freetown around 2016 and quickly spread across the country. The drug, taken mostly by men aged 18 to 25, often causes people to fall asleep while walking, fall over, and bang their heads against hard surfaces, which can sometimes lead to death.

For a long time, it was unclear what the drug was made of. Preliminary testing done by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) indicates the presence of synthetic cannabinoids and nitazenes. These substances are then sprayed onto a leaf, mixed with tobacco, and smoked.

“The GI-TOC believes that these results are the first indication that nitazenes have penetrated retail drug markets in Africa and a confirmatory GCMS/LCMS testing of kush is urgently required,” the civil society organization said in a report last week.

Determining the composition of the drug is essential for organizing a coordinated and evidence-based response to the epidemic. The two countries have authorized GI-TOC and the Clingendael Institute to co-design the research.

The Netherlands-based institute said that, according to people who use kush, the drug relieves stress or simply makes all feelings disappear.

Nitazenes have long been in use in Europe and North America as well as in Asia, where they have been associated with overdose deaths. Some of them can be up to 100 times more potent than heroin and up to 10 times more potent than fentanyl, meaning that users can get an effect from a much smaller amount, putting them at increased risk of overdose and death.

The consumption is so widespread that the president of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, declared a national emergency in April in response to the alarming rise in drug abuse, particularly the usage of synthetic kush and its effect on the nation’s youth.

“Our country is currently facing an existential threat due to the devastating impact of drugs and drug addiction, in particular the devastating synthetic drug kush,” he said.