Abdullahi Sardauna’s long years of service as an anti-narcotics operative, nothing seemed more disappointing than the fact that he could not violate the privacies of people’s homes in search of youths lifting the lids of pit latrines first thing in the morning to sniff the steamy stench emanating from the depths to derive some psychotropic satisfaction.
The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act limits his operation to conventional drugs like cocaine, heroin, cannabis sativa, cough syrup with codeine, ICE, tramadol, Rohypnol, diazepam, pentazocine and all other related drugs.
It does not empower him to trespass into homes, fishing out youths taking unconventional substances like stagnant water from gutters (also known as ‘gutter juice’ among addicts), lizard dung, a brand of soft drink mixed with food seasonings or methylated spirit to get high on.
Sardauna cannot identify and arrest youths sniffing the content of one of the most popular and most-trusted antibiotic capsules or fermenting their urine for about 10 days and drinking or sniffing it.
The NDLEA operative was even more pained by the helplessness of the agency, as it grievingly watched the consumers of such unconventional psychotropic substances, unable to clamp down on them with the force of the law.
Lately, the consumption of such psychotropic substances among Nigerian youths has spread like bushfire, creating a frightening challenge to Nigeria’s anti-narcotic war.
In February 2022, the North-East Forum of Secretaries of State Government expressed worry over the 2018 statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Narcotics which placed the region at a 13.6 per cent drug prevalence rate.
The forum’s Chairman and Secretary to the Gombe State Government at that time, Prof Ibrahim Njodi, said, “The statistics are glaring for Nigeria and the region.
“Highest levels of drug use is among those aged 25 to 39 years; one in five persons who had used drugs is suffering from drug use disorder.
“In the North, the North-East has the highest prevalence rate of 13.6 per cent (over three million people) which is disturbing and we have to note that this is in 2018. It is not in doubt that the figure may have increased significantly.”
Worried by the problem, the Senate in October 2023, called on the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency in response to the escalating crisis of drugs and narcotics abuse within Nigeria.
Speaking during deliberation on a motion titled, “Immediate Intervention Required to Combat Drug Abuse in Nigeria” during its plenary session, Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, expressed concern that some young individuals had resorted to drilling holes in soakaway pits to inhale vapours
Also, the Deputy Senate President, Jibrin Barau, underscored the significance of a country’s youth in its future.
He said, “The future of every country lies in its youth and when you have something that is destroying your youth, it shows that your future is in jeopardy.”
However, to nip the growing menace in the bud, the agency chose to diversify the drug war from fighting with the weapon of the law to public sensitisation campaigns on the attendant health hazards in the use of not just the common banned substances but also the unconventional ones.
“We have observed that drug and substance abuse is on the rapid increase not just across the North-East but the entire country,” the Borno State Commandant of the NDLEA, Ilyasu Mani, told on the sidelines of a youth sensitisation programme against substance abuse in Maiduguri recently.
“More disturbing is the consumption of unconventional substances, many of them conventional household edibles, by youths to achieve some psychotropic satisfaction,” he lamented.
Mani continued, “Some youths ferment their urine for five to 10 days, and then drink it or soak their handkerchiefs with it and sniff it. Some drink gutter waste water or dip their hands right to the bottom of the gutter, scoop the sand at the bottom, tie it in their handkerchiefs and then sniff it; this is apart from sniffing the hot steam of the pit latrine every morning.”
He further disclosed youths across the country had formed the habit of consuming various substances for psychotropic satisfaction largely because they were accessible at no financial cost.
“Our law does not cover such substances. We can only, therefore, mount sensitisation campaigns to draw the attention of parents and the governments about the frightening trend,” the senior anti-narcotics officer said.
“This is the only action we can take now but the problem with sensitisation is that it is not as forceful as the law because parents and the youths are at liberty to heed sensitisation or not; the law enforces compliance.”
As part of what he observed as the solution, he said Nigeria must first admit that it had a frightening problem threatening the sanity and capacity of the larger component of the society – the youths.
Sardauna, an Assistant Commander, Drug Demand Reduction, at the Borno command of the NDLEA, added, “This problem is the abuse of not just conventional, but unconventional substances, most of which are our daily consumables, and which, are not, therefore banned by law.
“Apart from sniffing the content of an antibiotic capsule, some youths now apply perfume in their mouths, shut the mouth for some time, and then swallow the perfume.”
But it does not end there. Our correspondent learnt that some youths in Maiduguri pluck leaves from graveyards and consume them in different ways.
This, a source in the NDLEA described as a very scary approach to the Zambian situation where people desecrated graves, exhumed the remains, extracted the bones, which they burnt to ashes, and sniffed as a psychotropic substance.
“The substance abuse in Maiduguri is worse than what obtains in Lagos. Some time ago, a mother brought her child, who looked mentally unstable, to us. Her child had taken a mixture of some local food items. Even a psychiatrist could not diagnose his insanity,” the source said.
Sardauna said irrational behaviour among youths who abuse drugs and consume other illicit substances was not new to the agency.
“In our rehabilitation facility, we recently had a youth who was regularly hitting his head on the wall; we later found out that he had not only consumed a mixture of cannabis sativa and tramadol but also taken an unconventional mixture of pawpaw leaves fermented in water and beer.
“The majority of these unconventional substances are free of charge; no youth buys the toilet steam they sniff. The urine they keep to ferment for days is theirs and is, therefore, free.”
He, therefore, called for drug tests before marriage, school admissions and employment.
Gambo Abatcha, a youth from the Guzamala Local Government Area of Borno State, who was a participant in the sensitisation programme, said the new dangerous trend could worsen the level of insecurity in the region.
“Majority of Boko Haram fighters are children of the poor and drug addicts. The new developing trend of unconventional substance abuse will worsen our situation in Borno State.
“I will sensitise our local community on this new trend of the abuse of such unconventional substances, the danger of which we never knew,” he said.
Abatcha also told our correspondent that substance abuse in the area was not limited by age.
“Our mothers and housewives should now know that a male child doesn’t have to attain the age of 18 before he becomes a drug addict. A mother should always bother to find out what her child is doing whenever he hides himself in the room for a longer time than necessary or whether he is stealing her food seasoning,” he added.
However, Hussaina Mohammed from the Mobbar Local Government Area made a chilling revelation about women in the state.
“A rising population of women in Borno State are into drug abuse and this is disturbing, though Kano State women are more notorious for that. Even in wedding and naming ceremonies, you will find bottles of some brands of syrup abused as drugs in many women’s handbags,” she said.
“What is even more disturbing is the new trend of unconventional substance abuse. Mothers should now be more vigilant than ever about what their child is doing in the toilet. They should be bothered about why their child is hiding in the room alone, and also learn to regularly account for the quantity of the food seasoning they have used in cooking to observe if some have been stolen,” Mohammed added.
A consultant to the Senate Committee on Drugs and Narcotics, Kenneth Anetor, said the campaign against substance abuse should change from being a moral challenge to a public health concern.
“Entire Nigeria is experiencing the substance abuse challenge. The situation in the North-East poses a higher challenge and deserves more attention.
“We want to change the drug and substance abuse war concept from being a moral challenge to a public health concern,” he said.
Anetor, who is the co-founder of A New Thing International Foundation, organisers of the youth sensitisation programme on substance abuse, explained that the programme was important to raise awareness about the health hazards associated with unconventional substance abuse, instead of fighting it, especially because the unconventional substances were not under any regulation.