Drug problem: A global pandemic from US to Zim

Over the past few years, Zimbabwe has been battling the scourge of illicit drugs and narcotics, which is slowly gnawing at the younger generation. A few weeks ago, the nation was shocked when it emerged that learners at a top girls’ school in Harare had abused drugs during a school trip, leading to the expulsion of eight.

The incident led to a lot of soul searching — and of course action by authorities who literally went on to search drug dens and logistics pipelines.

In Zimbabwe, commonly abused drugs include Codeine; Methamphetamine (crystal meth, commonly known as meth, speed, mutoriro, Chalk, Ice, Crank, Guka; Glue; Broncleer (Bronco); Solvents — Fembo and Genkem; Chlorpromazine — Maragado; Mangemba; Cane spirit; Cocaine, Cannabis/Marijuana/Mbanje (which is mostly abused or traded under a variety of street names such as — Mbanje, Ganja, Dope, Weed, Blunt, Grass, Pot, Boom, Spliff, Mary-Jane, Skunk, Kiff).

According to research, drivers of drug abuse include peer pressure, broken families, emotional and physical abuse, and curiosity, often resulting in addiction.

But there is also another driver: American pop culture. Young people in Africa are hooked onto television where film and music stars glorify drug usage. The popular culture depicts drug usage as a positive thing and a key ingredient to having fun.

In the mix, is also violence and sex. There could be more danger on the horizon if the legalisation of marijuana for industrial purposes is not handled well.

Made in America

Coincidentally, the United States is the global capital of drug abuse, but the consequences on society are not as glorious or cool as depicted on TV.

For over half a century, the US government has fought a drug war and lost dismally.

As a result, the country has earned the dubious distinction of having the biggest drug addicts in the world.

According to a report released by Xinhuanet recently, 12 percent of global drug users come from the US, three times the proportion of the US population to that of the world making the drug problem.

The US National Centre for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) lists eight categories of drugs most commonly used in the country: alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, fentanyl, opioids (mainly referring to psychotropic substances under control), prescription stimulants, methamphetamine and heroin.

In 2021, findings by NCDAS show about 19.4 percent of Americans have used illegal substances at least once. Out of the 280 million aged 12 and older, 31,9 million are drug users, with 11,7 percent on illegal substances and 19,4 percent either having consumed illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs in 2020.

If alcohol and tobacco users are included, the number of people in the United States who are abusing substances totals 165 million.

During the past 12 months, 48,2 million Americans over the age of 18 consumed cannabis at least once. Between 2018 and 2019, use of the substance increased by 15,9 percent.

Though outlawed by the federal authorities, cannabis is legal in 15 states for recreational use. The cannabis industry in the country surged despite the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

When many businesses closed in March 2020 amid the pandemic, cannabis pharmacies in the eight states that legalised the substance were able to maintain their “essential businesses” because sales were allowed to continue during the period of mass home quarantine.

As a result, legal cannabis sales in the United States hit a record 17,5 billion US dollars in 2020, a 46 percent jump from that of 2019, according to BDSA, a platform providing cannabis sales data.

During the past 12 months, 10,1 million Americans have consumed opium at least once.  According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid is the primary driver of the spike in drug-related deaths. Between April 2020 and April 2021, 75 000 Americans died from opium overuse — more than 75 percent of the total deaths from drug overdose and a 50 percent rise year on year.

Each year, 95 000 people in the United States die from alcohol abuse.

During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, over 60 percent of Americans increased their consumption of alcohol. According to the latest data, 25,8 percent of those aged 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past month, and on any given day 261 Americans would die from excessive drinking, 80 percent of whom are adults over the age of 35.

Adolescents experience the fastest rise in drug overdose deaths. In this group, the 18 to 25-year-olds are the heaviest drug users, with 39 percent of them using drugs.

For the 26 to 29-year-olds, it is 34 percent. Seventy percent of drug users try illicit drugs before the age of 13, and drug users as a population group is becoming younger.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports that between January 2021 and June 2021, about 1 150 youngsters aged 14 to 18 died from drug overdose, a 20 percent increase from that of 2020 and more than doubling the number in 2019.

In addition, 47 percent of adolescents start consuming illicit drugs upon graduation from high school.

Failures of the US

The above grim statistics point to a system failure.  Interestingly, despite many failings at various levels and successive administrations, the US has sought to divert attention from the failures to blame, in part, China.

The reason is that thousands of overdose deaths in the US each year stem from illicit fentanyl made from Chinese raw materials.

Fentanyl itself is a drug approved for pain treatment, but ended up killing more than 64 000 Americans from April 2020-April 2021, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

China has rightfully slapped down this accusation, pointing firmly on the US government’s inadequate response to the opioid overdose crisis.

A number of important indicators show the failures of the US and why it should own up to the same, and the global problem of drug abuse, which is now affecting even countries as far as Zimbabwe.

Essentially drug abuse in the US is a reflection of deep-rooted social problems, and the result of an interplay of economic interests, lobbying, and social and cultural factors.

First, researchers have found out that the rapid growth in national wealth created post World War II created a prosperous consumer market, including an active drug trade in the US that led to “drug culture”, which influences young people.

Tied to this is the so-called “hippie culture” which lobbied for the legalisation of cannabis which increased in the 1990s. The US government has pushed for the legalisation of cannabis and other drugs out of economic considerations.

Legalising cannabis allows the government to generate significant tax revenues from the legal drug market. In return, the distribution of such revenues becomes an important driver of drug abuse. The US government has justified drug legalisation to cover the fact that it would do anything for economic gains.

Researchers assert that the legalisation of cannabis has further boosted the black market and criminal organisations, which in turn put great pressure on the judicial system and threatens social security.

Secondly, it has been established that the US system has been corrupted by large pharmaceutical companies that lobby for the continued use of drugs classified as opioids.

Sponsored experts and associations peddle the narrative that “opioids are harmless” as they push for drug legalisation and prod pharmacies into promoting drug sales and doctors into indiscriminate prescription of drugs.

As a result, some patients have unknowingly developed drug addiction that they could not get rid of.

With millions in lobbying and corrupting lawmakers thus, the drug problem is set to persist. Thirdly, the health system in the US, involving doctors and pharmacies, has been proven to be weak – or deliberately weakened to allow for the continuation of drug culture.

The US federal law stipulates that one must present prescription by a doctor when purchasing certain drugs.

However, according to research, this policy has big loopholes in terms of supervision. At the same time, pharmacies could still sell psychotropic drugs at will while doctors are forced to prescribe psychotropic drugs.

Fourth, America’s failure in social governance has resulted in the ballooning of the drug problem, thereby creating a devastating public health disaster.

Still a lot more causes of the drug problem remain unexplored, and this article discussed a few.

Avoiding the pitfalls of America

For Zimbabwe and other developing countries in Africa and beyond, it is critical to avoid the pitfalls illustrated above.

It is ironic that there are current discussions around the legalisation of industrial hemp in Zimbabwe and a number of African countries.

Typically, there is an economic argument regarding the purported benefits of industrial hemp for medicinal or industrial uses.

However, things could go awry, as has happened in the US.

As things stand, misinformation about the legalisation of industrial hemp has led to people making conclusions that the drug is now legal.

More problems could be on the horizon.

Authorities need to be careful and forthright..

Already, the situation is bad as it is: a recent research conducted by the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), the National AIDS Council (NAC) and the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) revealed that more than 53 percent of women and 28 percent men injected themselves with drugs.

In the research, a large proportion of those using crystal meth (42.57 percent) made daily use of the substance, and another 36.64 percent declared to use it at least two or three times a week.

In the case of pharmaceuticals, 57.89 percent reported using them two or three times a week, and 21.05 percent used it daily. These general trends were similar across the provinces.

Regarding routes of administration (RoA) of substances, both cannabis and skunk were mostly smoked in a joint (respectively 65 percent and 81 percent) or smoked from foil (29 percent and 19 percent); a few others (5 percent and 3 percent) declared to swallow the substance.

Crystal meth was mostly smoked from a (makeshift) pipe33 (58 percent), smoked in a joint (15 percent), or swallowed (13 percent). Nevertheless, 12 percent reported injection as the main route of administration for crystal meth in the past month.

Statistics show that many recent admissions to Zimbabwe’s mental health hospitals are a result of drug abuse.

Statistics from Sally Mugabe Hospital Psychiatric Unit indicate that there has been an increase in drug use related admissions in their unit, especially since the Covid-19 period.

Parirenyatwa Marimba, the medical superintendent for Zimbabwe’s second-biggest mental health hospital Ngomahuru in Masvingo, said 80 percent of admissions are juvenile and adult patients presented with drug-induced psychosis.

Disturbingly, youths form the greater demography of drug abusers.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) 2019 report, Zimbabwe has the highest rate of 15 to 19-year-olds engaging in heavy “episodic drinking” in Africa, with 70.7 percent of males and 55.5 percent of females participating. Unfortunately, this age group is also heavily involved in drug dealing and use.

These are worrying signs. Not least, drug usage has been linked to HIV and Aids, a battle that was thought to be won by Government but could now be fuelled by the drug crisis.

A number of social, economic and political problems could soon manifest if the drug problem is not addressed.

The US provides some sobering lessons.

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