The New Normal

Ethiopia’s Flirtation With Hard Drugs

Issues with drug abuse are not new to developing countries. Often affecting the poorest and youngest members of society, hard drugs are starting to become a risk to public health. In Ethiopia, hard drug use was almost unheard of until the past few years. Nowadays, it is more common to see young teenagers on the street drinking or abusing solvents out in the open. However, the ‘traditional’ drugs such as khat and alcohol are not the only substances being abused by young people anymore. Foreign drugs, such as cocaine and ketamine are becoming more widely consumed, especially amongst young people. EBR’s Menna Asrat reports

In many of the world’s developing countries, and especially in Africa, drug problems have become more and more pronounced in recent years. This is also true when it comes to Ethiopia. Every day in Addis Ababa, there are young people wandering the streets with solvent-soaked rags held up to their noses. This shows that drug use has started to move into the open.

Ruth Legesse (name changed to protect her anonymity) was a student in grade 10 when she started taking drugs. She started with marijuana and khat, but then graduated to using cocaine, and eventually, Ketamine hydrochloride, which is a quick-acting anesthetic that can cause intoxication, hallucinations, and even death when taken in dangerously high doses. She dropped out of school, and for the past five years, rhas been unemployed, depending on family members to live.

Her boyfriend was the one who introduced her to drugs, starting with khat and eventually escalating. “I feel alive when I use it,” she told EBR. “At this point, if I don’t use it, I feel depressed and moody and I can’t function. I use it to feel good.”

Students, who, like Ruth, are dependent on substances, are becoming more and more common. In fact, estimates place the number of drug-using students (both in high school and college) in Addis in the thousands.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MoCT) is responsible for monitoring and evaluating issues like drug abuse, which includes the recent surge in drug abuse amongst Addis’s youth. Four years ago, the Ministry undertook a study into what it called ‘Emerging Customs and Practices’, a term which included abuse of drugs such as cocaine, ketamine, and other stimulant drugs. The study found that out of the 1,800 people surveyed in Ethiopia, 1,692 had taken stimulant drugs at some point in their lives.

Gizachew Kidane, director of Cultural Values Development Directorate at the MoCT, is one of the people in charge of the fight against the new forms of drug abuse in the country. “It’s difficult to give accurate numbers,” he explains. “Because of a shortage of funding and personnel, there hasn’t been a thorough study done into drug use in almost five years. But we are aware of the problem, and we are working to address the negative consequences.”

Even so, over the last few years, the drug landscape of the country has been changing, as increased globalisation and interconnectivity beings in information from all parts of the world. One of these new drugs is ketamine, which Ruth uses.

Ketamine, a potent tranquiliser, is used by medical professionals in hospitals during surgery, but also by veterinarians to anesthetise animals. It is starting to become the drug of choice for young people around Addis. Although ketamine abuse is not unknown in international circles, its spreading use in Ethiopia is certainly a new phenomenon.

“In Ethiopia, ketamine is used as an anaesthetic for human patients. It’s sold in bulk to health institutions and hospitals,” explains Elias Demeke, a veterinarian who owns a veterinary clinic in Bole District. “From there, animal clinics buy it in whatever amount they need, or is available.”

Available in vials of 20ccs, ketamine is injected into the bloodstream to bring about the desired effects. Of course, in hospital settings this is carried out by trained medical professionals.

Outside of ketamine, cocaine is also one of the drugs that have recently become more widespread in Ethiopia. Brought into the country through contraband routes, cocaine is one of the most popular drugs for people mostly at the college level, leading to incidents of overdose, even in lecture halls.

“I have seen people collapse in the middle of their classes,” says one student at a private college in Addis Ababa. “From what we heard later, he went to a party with his friends that didn’t end until the morning. When he came into the class, he had taken a large dose of cocaine. He overdosed and we had to take him to a nearby hospital. This wasn’t the only time it happened at my college.”

For some, part of the reason that drug abuse has become so widespread is that there is lax enforcement of the laws regarding drug offences. Drug related crimes carry prison terms that range from three years to even life imprisonment, depending on the amount of drugs involved, and fines of up to ETB5,000.

Still, fear of the legal consequences made many of the people EBR spoke to wary about divulging information about their suppliers, or even their real names, both from concerns that their privacy would be compromised, and because of the fear of legal consequences.

Caleb Aschalew (name changed to protect his privacy), another drug user, explains. “Many people don’t talk about drug use,” he says. “They are afraid that the police might try to get information by sending people in that they are not familiar with.”

Like Ruth, many people who abuse drugs drop out of school and end up exposed to disease and poverty. Introduced to substances by their friends or fellow students, they are now fully immersed in that world. For some, the first trip into the world of substance abuse came from their friends. “It was a friend who introduced me to it,” recalls Caleb. “Eventually when I started to get hooked, my friend’s father became my supplier.”

In spite of the lack of studies about the prevalence of drug use in Ethiopia, there is still a significant number of people of all ages with substance abuse issues. According to a study titled ‘Prevalence of Substance Abuse and Associated Factors among University Students, Tigray, Ethiopia’ conducted in 2016 by Haftay Gebremedhin and his colleagues, nine percent of children globally aged 12 and above are dependent on psychoactive substances, including alcohol.

Like Ethiopia, many countries in Africa have problems with substance abuse. Amphetamine-type stimulants such as “ecstasy” and methamphetamine now rank as Africa’s second most widely abused drug type, according to data from the World Health Organisation.

Even neighbouring Kenya has had increasing problems with illicit drug abuse in recent years. The Kenyan National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse presented data that at least 4.9 million Kenyans used drugs in 2017.

In fact, researchers funded by the European Union found that heroin use was increasing in the coastal areas of Kenya, as international traffickers used the areas to move drugs from Afghanistan to the West. The increase in drug use was attributed to a combination of poverty, increase in the numbers of youth, and unemployment, reminiscent of the situation Ethiopia has been facing in the last few years.

The physical, mental and societal effects of drug use are also something with which users have to contend. For example, the European Union -funded research in Kenya also found that in Mombasa, some people accused of drug use had been stoned, burned or murdered in mob attacks. In one of the most globally visible cases, the current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte stirred up controversy when he declared war on those involved in drug abuse in his country. So far, Duterte’s campaign has cost upwards of 12,000 lives, according to data from Human Rights Watch published earlier this year.

Even though addicts in Ethiopia do not have to face the same level of violence, there are still consequences to the spread of drug use, coupled with misinformation on the part of families and society members. “I have seen people who had to be tied down as they went through withdrawal from the drugs,” says Caleb. “They would tie them with chains and take them to religious places to be ‘healed’ from their addictions.”

In a country as religious as Ethiopia, churches and other places of worship are the first place most families tend to turn to when their loved ones become involved with drugs. However, according to medical experts, this can be dangerous. “In some cases when a person is coming off drugs, it can be a very dangerous experience,” explains an internal medicine doctor. ‘There are a lot of physiological things that happened when the body doesn’t get the drugs it is dependent on. Depending on the drug, it would be more advisable to involve medical professionals to monitor the person.”

Of course, it isn’t just students who abuse drugs. “Lately, I have had medical professionals coming in to the office asking to buy ketamine for their own use,” stress Elias. “It isn’t widely known, but the medical profession has people who abuse drugs.”

Whatever the reasons for the abuse of drugs, it is undeniable that the new substances, whether they are legitimate medicines, or otherwise, are having a profound effect on the youth in the country.

However, some, like Ruth, are still defiant, even in the face of information about the potential effects. “Why would I stop?” she says. “I like doing it. It’s the best thing in my life.”

7th Year • Dec.16 – Jan.15 2019 • No. 69

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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