Emmanuel Onwubiko: Drug abuse and the daunting task before NDLEA

“Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.” – Mark Twain with a hard truth on addiction recovery.

“Addiction is just a way of trying to get at something else. Something bigger. Call it transcendence if you want, but it’s a rat in a maze. We all want the same thing. We all have this hole. The thing you want offers relief, but it’s a trap.” – Tess Callahan with one of our favorite drug addiction recovery quotes.

In the last few days, much attention has been paid to the grassroots efforts of the institution charged with changing the trends of drug addiction, trafficking and transforming the mindsets of Nigerians towards drugs in the Country- the National Drugs Laws Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).

This government agency spent quality times and resources beneficially to mark the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

The celebration was marked by series of advocacy campaigns and activities by the NDLEA and many other affiliated organizations including of course some high profile Nigerians such as the President represented by his able Vice President, the wives of governors, the media, the Non governmental organisations and non governmental individuals dedicated to the crusades to combat drug abuse and trafficking of illicit substances.

But of all the events put together to mark this special day, the most enduring is the inauguration of the initiative of the NDLEA supported by partners, of a 24/7 calls centres dedicated to providing quality and top notch counselling services to citizens battling the challenges of drug addiction.

A lot of us in the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) are indeed fascinated by this development and it is basically one of the strategies that we think that there should be more institutional initiatives to save millions of lives that may be destroyed by drug abuse-related issues.

This is because drug abuse goes to the roots of the heightened state of insecurity and terrorism that afflicts a large chunk of geographical space of Nigeria and therefore tackling this menace from its roots is the best way going forward in this battle against drugs in Nigeria.

Experts say that drug addiction (also known as substance use disorder) can be defined as a progressive disease that causes people to lose control of the use of some substance despite worsening consequences of that use. Substance use disorder can be life-threatening.

Addictions they reasoned are not problems of willpower or morality. Addiction is a powerful and complex disease. People who have an addiction to drugs cannot simply quit, even if they want to.

The drugs, experts affirmed change the brain in a way that makes quitting physically and mentally difficult.

Treating addiction often requires lifelong care and therapy. It is therefore in the determination of the Nigerian governmental agency that is mandated to eradicating drug addiction known as NDLEA to achieve this priority that informed the adoption of a number of projects and workable strategic steps one amongst them is the just inaugurated nation-wide telephone call centres which is a very progressive and functional strategic approach towards controlling and reducing the high rate of addictions by a lot of Nigerian youths numbering in their millions.

We will look at a recent statistical data on drug addiction in Nigeria and we will see that certainly these are frightening times that demands that all hands must be on deck to tackle this hydraheaded monster.

The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) recently said that no fewer than 29.4 million Nigerians aged between 15 and 64 years abuse psychoactive substances and other dangerous drugs.

NDLEA further said, “One in every four drug abusers is a female.” The Anambra State Commandant of NDLEA, Mrs Florence Ezeonye, stated this on Wednesday in Awka during a ceremony to mark this year’s United Nations international day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking.

She said ”The truth on ground indicates that our society needs to do more in the area of creating awareness of the damaging effects of drug abuse on human health. The drug use and health survey of 2018 captured that 14.4 per cent of the country’s drug use prevalence is almost three times the global average of 5.6 per cent.

“What is more disturbing is that the drug abuse cuts across all ages, gender, socioeconomic status and regions. From the survey, 14.3million Nigerians aged 15-64 years use psychoactive substances such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and heroin, while 10.6 million abuse cannabis. Also, 4.6 million others abuse pharmaceutical opioids such as codeine, tramadol, methamphetamine and morphine, among others.

“It is worrisome to know that drug use was common among those aged 25-39 years. The age of initiation for heroin was 22 years, while the age for cannabis sativa was 19 years. Notably these age groups comprise young people who are either in secondary or tertiary institutions or are on the cusp of graduation.

“To simplify the report of the survey, young people are overwhelmingly the majority of drug abusers in Nigeria,” she added.

The nation’s Vice President who is a Professor of law of Evidence Yemi Osinbajo said as much regarding the imminent danger that drug culture amongst youths poses to our national security if no action is adopted to redress and change the trend.

The Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who assessed the current war being waged against illicit drugs in the country and declared that the days of drug abuse were numbered in Nigeria.

Speaking recently in Abuja, on the occasion of the 2022 United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking which had as its theme: “Addressing Drug Challenges in Health and Humanitarian Crises,” Osinbajo flayed the prevailing menace of drug abuse in Nigeria, which he said portends grave consequences for young people and undermines the security of the country.

He, however said the nation was winning the drug war, adding that the days of the scourge of drug abuse and dependency in the country were numbered.

The vice president’s optimism was premised on the renewed vigour of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the commitment of the Federal Government and the support of development partners.

According to him: “We are winning this war. The days of the scourge of drug abuse and dependency are clearly numbered, but it will involve even greater investment in focus and determination for the long haul,” according to the Vice President.

“The NDLEA especially in the last two years under the dynamic leadership of General Buba Marwa, the NDLEA Chairman, has been fiercer and sharper in its determination to stamp out drug abuse and trafficking in the country. His vision and strong resolve have given the war against drug trafficking and abuse new energy, purpose and clearer direction.

“I am glad to hear that in 2021, about 8,000 drug users were counselled and rehabilitated by the NDLEA, and in the first half of this year alone, over 11,000 drug users have been counselled and treated. We must maintain a multi-dimensional and holistic approach to tackling drug abuse.”

The erudite academic spoke on the approach that ensures the realisation of the objective and averred thus, “the new normal offers us opportunities for increased innovation in tackling this menace, through technology-based monitoring systems for promptly detecting and addressing drug market changes; and also accelerating mobile outreach programmes, remote consultation, and treatment for those who suffer from drug use disorders and are without the appropriate care.”

He thinks that in as much as the federal government through its agencies and the state governments would lead the charge with decisive policy initiatives, the strides must be complemented by changes at the family and community level.

“The kind of change we seek regarding drug abuse cannot happen without the collaboration of families, faith-based organisations and community leadership at the local levels.”

Professor Yemi Osinbajo, therefore, noted that a society free of drug criminals was achievable by, “relentlessly breaking illicit drug supply chains and distribution networks; discouraging drug use through intensive outreach and sensitisation; and also promptly prosecuting traffickers.”

He added that: “We must intensify rehabilitation of drug addicts, because what we are faced with is indeed a public health crisis — a crisis that is taking lives, destroying families and shattering communities.”

According to the vice president, drug abuse and illicit drug trafficking has become a global public health and socio economic challenge, which places a huge burden on the Nigeria’s health care system, with, “grave consequences for young people and the productivity of our labor force,” undermining the security of communities.

Osinbajo made specific reference to an old United Nations Office for Drug and Crime (UNODC) report which said, “drug use was responsible for the death of almost half a million people in 2019. And drug use disorders resulted in the loss of 18 million years of healthy life.”

“The 2018 National Drug use survey also revealed that Nigeria at the time that there were about 14.3 million drug users, of which close to 3 million suffer from drug use disorder.

“This figure represents a 14.4 per cent prevalence rates in Nigeria, which is about three times the global average prevalence rate of five per cent. The UNODC also in its 2021 World Drug Report projects that by 2030 the number of people using drugs around the world will rise by 11 per cent and by 40 per cent in Africa alone causes a disturbing projection because as the country with the largest population in Africa, this implies that Nigeria’s use of drug abuse prevalence will rise substantially especially considering the proportions that we are leaders in terms of population.”

“And the past 17 months, the NDLEA we are told has recorded over 17,647 arrests of offenders including 10 drug barons and I’m sure that that number increases everyday if you’re following the news, with over 2369, convicted persons and over 150,000 kilograms of drugs that have been seized within the same period. So the statistics show that 5.5 per cent of the population aged between 15 and 64 years used drugs at least once since 2018. This is precisely the age bracket that we cannot afford to lose to drugs.”

Osinbajo, while lamenting the increasing trends of drug abuse in areas of conflict and in post conflict settings, such as in IDP and refugee camps, said the development was a special concern to Nigeria, especially as the country is in the throes of civil conflict and terrorism, resulting in the displacement of large numbers of our population.

He said young people who are usually the most vulnerable to drug, also form the majority of armed combatants and the resultant widespread use of drugs by the terrorists.

“Indeed, some studies have shown that after controlling for armed groups and individual level variables, drug intake and alcohol consumption, sharply increase the violent actions perpetrated during conflicts.

“For women and girls in particular, the situation is more harrowing. They’re exposed to severe traumatic situations. Due to violence, and sometimes sexual exploitation, especially in camps, which together with other stressful factors of displacement can lead to drug use. These problems are all worsened by the expected lack of access to treatment and therapies for drug abuse in refugee or IDP camps.”

Against this background, the vice president said the federal government had also taken both specific and general actions over the past seven years, all directed at trying to control or deal with the menace of illicit drug trafficking in Nigeria in particular.

These actions, Osinbajo said, include adopting a synergized and multi-agency approach, adding, “the government has deployed counterterrorism and Counter Narcotics initiatives led by the NDLEA which have successfully disrupted several high profile drug networks. And as part of these efforts with the funding from the European Union, and technical support from the UNODC relevant MDAS and civil society organisations, were rolled out by the National Drug Control master plan for 2021 to 2025. “This plan itself leverages an extensive evidence base, including the very first National Drug Use Survey which was conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2018.

“The master plan adopts a comprehensive and inclusive approach to addressing issues of drug supply reduction, issues of drug abuse and it has it is based on four thematic pillars, drug supply reduction, demand reduction, access to drug on medical purposes, and governance and coordination.

“The plan is not just an approach majorly targeted at drug supply reduction, is a much more balanced plan and it is much more health centered and looks at drug control not just from the point of view of abuse but also from a health perspective.”

As aforementioned, the NDLEA has commenced measures aimed at improving access to treatment, care and rehabilitation in order to stave off the public health problems that are drug abuse-related as part of radical reforms in the fight against abuse in the country,

Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Brig Gen Mohamed Buba Marwa (rtd), earlier in his welcome address, revealed the arrest of 10 major drug barons which he said have already been “taken out of circulation” with many more on the NDLEA’s watchlist along with their foot soldiers.

Marwa said the agency had been involved in a series of training, including on Drug Prevention, Treatment and Care (DPTC) for the officers, “to refocus from the criminalisation of drug users to provide the full gamut of health services for them.”

According to him, the agency has this year alone, counselled and rehabilitated 3, 523 drug users mostly through brief interventions in its facilities.

“We also extended the DPTC training to several NGOs to empower them with the requisite skills and knowledge to cascade the effect to communities and the grassroots.

“Given the dearth of treatment facilities in the country, it will be impossible to make the kind of gains we are targeting. To this end, we proposed the establishment of model rehabilitation centres to further make treatment accessible and affordable to more people. The good news is that President Muhammadu Buhari graciously, with the support of the National Assembly, approved the establishment of six rehabilitation centres across the country, three of which have been approved in this year’s budget.

“We didn’t stop there. We’re also lobbying the private sector, by encouraging the leading lights in the business community to build or contribute to the development of rehabilitation centres as part of their corporate social responsibility. In this respect, we have gotten some positive, concrete responses as well as strong commitments from other quarters.”

Also speaking, Chairman of MTN Foundation and former Minister of Health, Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, said the Foundation would continue to support the NDLEA in its effort to rid the country of illicit drugs. Incidentally, even as the NDLEA makes coordinated efforts to rehabilitate drug addicts, the body is not resting on its oars to combat the incidents of drug trafficking with many of its State’s offices coming up with impressive statistics of arrests they have made so far.

In line with the above affirmation, the NDLEA, Ondo Command disclosed that it had seized about 30,000kgs of drugs from June 2021 to date. The disclosure coincided with the elaborate events that characterised the celebration of the International Day Against Drug Abuse.

The State Commander of NDLEA, Mr. Kayode Raji, stated this in Akure, during a sensitisation and road walk, organised to commemorate the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drugs Trafficking.

Raji said marijuana, puff Shisha, alcoholic drinks and other deadly mixtures, such as “scoochies or skushis” topped the list of the most consumed substances among the youths in the state.

He noted that other deadly drugs and substances the teenagers also abuse included Rohypnol, “Ref” as they call it, “gegemu”, Arizona and Loud, believed to be enhanced Marijuana that produce stronger effect than the regular one.

He said: “We have made over 30,000 kgs of various hard drugs. We have arrested 294 suspects and out of these, about 65 have been sentenced to various jail terms.

“We have arrested some people who felt hitherto, they were untouchable and we are still doing more. As a matter of fact, it is gratifying to say that our greatest achievement are the people we’ve taken off drugs.”

He also revealed that the command had counselled over 60 drug addicts and rehabilitated them back to the society as normal human beings.

“Some have been reintegrated back to the society and some of them have even gotten jobs. About three weeks ago, one of the people we rehabilitated in our facility came to give a testimony that he just secured a job in Dubai. It shows that we can do it.

“We have synergy with higher institutions across the state and we’ve gone to various schools for sensitisation through persuasion and as well, instituted War Against Drug Abuse (WADA) clubs”, Raji stressed.

“So, drug is evil, it portends evil, it has no good. We are urging everybody to stay from drugs. There is no small or big drug. Starting from cannabis Colorado, monkey tail, Scoochies amongst others.

“We want people to stay away from it, especially in this part of the country, Scoochies and monkey tail, people see it as giving them energy and boost. It is not good for their health because it spoils their liver, kidney and all parts of their body, ultimately leading to untimely death”, Raji added.

In conclusion, we think the decision by the Chairman of the NDLEA General Mohammed Buba Marwa(rtd) to also concentrate efforts and focus towards treatment of drug abusers so as to reform and transform them to become useful members of the society is one of the finest human rights milestones of that agency since it came on stream and this is applauded.

We make the above commendation because according to experts and scholars in Cleveland, USA, affirmed that a substance use disorder is a medical illness characterized by clinically significant impairments in health, social function, and voluntary control over substance use. Besides, Substance use disorders range in severity, duration, and complexity from mild to severe. In 2015, 20.8 million people aged 12 or older met criteria for a substance use disorder. While historically the great majority of treatment has occurred in specialty substance use disorder treatment programs with little involvement by primary or general health care, a shift is occurring toward the delivery of treatment services in general health care practice. For those with mild to moderate substance use disorders, treatment through the general health care system may be sufficient, while those with severe substance use disorders (addiction) may require specialty treatment, (my.clevelandclinic.org).

The good news these aforementioned experts say is that a spectrum of effective strategies and services are available to identify, treat, and manage substance use problems and substance use disorders. Research shows that the most effective way to help someone with a substance use problem who may be at risk for developing a substance use disorder is to intervene early, before the condition can progress. With this recognition, screening for substance misuse is increasingly being provided in general health care settings, so that emerging problems can be detected and early intervention provided if necessary. The addition of services to address substance use problems and disorders in mainstream health care has extended the continuum of care, and includes a range of effective, evidence-based medications, behavioral therapies, and supportive services. However, a number of barriers have limited the widespread adoption of these services, including lack of resources, insufficient training, and workforce shortages. This is particularly true for the treatment of those with co-occurring substance use and physical or mental disorders.

Finally, good as this initiative is to treat drug addiction in Nigeria amongst youthful population, what is much more acceptable is to provide sustainable source of support and funding for the implementation of this project by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency which is fortunately headed by a charismatic Chief executive officer in the person of the erstwhile activist governor of Lagos State Buba Mohammed Marwa, a retired military General of good reputation. We call for funding and operational independence for the NDLEA. This isn’t rocket science since it has been legislated for the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria. Granting financial and operational autonomy to the NDLEA is an idea whose time has come.

EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and was NATIONAL COMMISSIONER of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

Emmanuel Onwubiko: Drug abuse and the daunting task before NDLEA