Kenya: How Chemists Are Turning the Youth Into Zombies

Security agencies have attributed the increased cases of youth violence to the use of legally, affordable and readily available pharmaceutical drugs, defining a new front of substance abuse proving hard to police.

Catherine Wambui, a mother of three in Murang'a County, is distressed since she was recently assaulted by her 16-year-old son.

"He was to sit his KCPE exams last month at Mugumoi-ni Primary School in Ichagaki location but did not since he had become addicted to those tablets. His elder brother would have cleared Form Four three years ago but since he kept dropping out to nurse addiction, he is still in Form Two. They are violent when they take the drugs which they buy from chemists in Maragua town," she told the Nation.

The drugs are cheap, as Wambui lamented: "Sh10 is the cost driving my children down the road of self-destruction as the government watches."

Hers is a cry shared widely by many parents in Central.

"The main problem we are facing in the family unit is that substance abuse has become so cheap. Drugs are readily available and facilitated by unscrupulous traders in legally established enterprises as our leaders and security spectate," said Maendeleo ya Wanawake boss Lucy Nyambura.

In the past two years, her organisation has received 12, 000 cases of children trapped in drug and substance abuse.

"It's a big issue. We are losing our children to abuse of over-the-counter drugs. Someone needs to instill sanity in our chemists that all in the business must adhere to the law. These drugs should only be administered to patients," said Ms Nyambura.

The drugs are used to treat or manage psychiatric disorders generalised as 'benzodiazepines', and which medical experts say pose a societal crisis.

Serious effects

They are known by such street names as 'tap', 'kuruka' or 'kuruga' and are sold for as little as Sh5.

Murang'a County Medical Superintendent Dr Leonald Gikera said they have serious effects on brain functionalities.

"Abused, they can cause schizophrenia that triggers bouts of random violence, sharp increase in body temperature (malignant hyperthermia) leading to muscle breakdown and kidney and cardiovascular system failure.

"Although we have over 2,000 different benzodiazepines in the medical history, currently we have about 10 varieties that are in use in the country and if not handled diligently, they have side effects that include mental collapse and death," said Dr Gikera.

Some are predominantly central nervous system depressants and are colourless, tasteless, and odourless, hence serving the ideal purpose of being blended in beverages and ingested.

Criminals often use them to sedate victims before robbing them, while women are sexually assaulted.

Central Regional Commissioner Wilfred Nyagwanga has formed specialised units to tame the menace. He urged political leaders to put in place cogent laws at the national and county levels to address the issue.

"These drugs are mostly to blame for teen crimes and suicides. They are also contributing to road accidents, especially when abused by boda-boda riders. These pharmaceutical substances include ecstasy MDMA, rohypnol, D5, GHB and ketamine," he said.

"They are supposed to be accessed by prescription. But our youth are getting creative and either stealing those prescriptions from qualified cases, acquiring them corruptly or even stealing the tablets from patients in their families."

Rift Valley Regional Commissioner George Natembeya said the drugs are hard to police. "They are behind very wild and weird behavior among the youth. There is a very high degree attributed to the drugs and violence. Our agencies will attest to that from many of the confessions we get from the youth," he said.

Some unscrupulous traders procure them in wholesale - given that 3000 pieces go for Sh1, 000 - then make huge profits by selling them at Sh5 each.

While on a tour of Murang'a County last month, Interior Secretary Wilson Njega said the commonly abused drugs in the country are heroine, khat and tobacco.

"But most uniquely, we have noted a new front of criminals dealing in psychotropic substances freely accessible in ordinary chemists at the grassroots," he said.

No secret

In Murang'a, Health county executive Dr Joseph Mbai admitted that some chemists and hospitals openly sell the benzodiazepines.

"These varieties falling under benzodiazepines have very high toxic effect taken alongside other forms of antidepressants -- alcohol being the most favoured. A glass of illicit brew laced with two tablets costing Sh10 can be lethal to those who take them without mental conditions," he said.

Mr Mbai said the most abused psychotropic substances in the region include diazepam, benzhexol and flunitrazepam -- commonly referred to as rohypnol.

Former Nacada boss Joseph Kaguthi, now Nyandarua County Substance Abuse Control Board chairman, called for the immediate revamping of the Anti-Narcotics Unit of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.

"It is no longer a secret that many chemists in town are the new legal dealers of very dangerous substances abused by our youth leading to deadly violence, road accidents, wasted brains and deaths," said Mr Kaguthi.

Nandi Hills MP Alfred Keter is seeking to outlaw pharmacies from selling medicines without a doctor's prescription. If passed, all prescriptions will have to be signed by registered medical practitioners.

The Bill proposes that anyone found selling over the counter drugs without prescription be liable to a fine of Sh30, 000 or imprisonment to a term not exceeding three years, or both.

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