Amid heroin scarcity, addicts get synthetic fix

Former drug addicts and peer educators reveal that the heroin shortage since January has driven desperate users to resort to injecting synthetic drugs.

To compound matters, heroin has been increasingly laced with hazardous substances, such as cozepam, morphine, and amitriptyline, making it even deadlier.

In one instance, a resident of Kuna in Kwale County, Fatma Ahmed, demonstrated the swift preparation of a cocktail of diazepam, morphine, amitriptyline, and heroin.

These dangerous concoctions, known as "Nairobi flower," are used for smoking or injecting and are available at alarmingly low prices, ranging from Sh10 to Sh20 per gram.

Fatma, a 38-year-old who was introduced to heroin at a young age, paints a grim picture of her life as she battles poverty and deteriorating health. She recounts her near-death experience when she was hired to test heroin in the forest, only to wake up in a hospital, realising the heroin had been adulterated.

The origin of these synthetic mixtures remains shrouded in mystery, with rumours suggesting they were developed by university students in Nairobi. The drugs in circulation include Rohypnol (bugizi), diazepam, methamphetamine, bath salts, and various animal drugs like xylazine, skunk, ketamine, and fentanyl.

Xylazine, a potent horse tranquilizer, has garnered particular notoriety for turning human users into "zombies". The abuse of Rohypnol, diazepam, and other synthetic drugs is causing severe health problems due to their unregulated use in high doses.

According to Robi Mwashighadi, a former drug user and founder of the Okoa Pwani Initiative, the shortage of pure heroin has pushed many addicts to seek help through Medical Assisted Therapy (MAT), where they receive methadone and counseling.

The recent mass transfers of security officers and increased surveillance in Tanzania are believed to have disrupted the heroin supply network, leading to a sharp increase in heroin prices.

Cosmas Maina, director of the Teens Watch Centre in Ukunda, notes that Rohypnol pills have become a prevalent substitute in the absence of heroin.

He explained that synthetic drugs are sold over the counter and in the black market but are not prescribed, with some users going for them to solve libido problems.

However, he noted the proliferation of drugs like xylazine and fentanyl in the market has posed a major health problem that requires concerted efforts.

He noted that there are six cases of overdose in Ukunda, which could be attributed to the use of synthetic drugs.

A multi-agency team from the government has identified skunk, amitriptyline, diazepam, morphine, ketamine, and xylazine as the main emerging drugs abused in the Coast region in the last six months.

The team comprised the Ministry of Interior and National Coordination, Nacada, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, and Government Chemists to investigate emerging drug use trends in the Coast region.

The fact-finding mission has confirmed there is a shortage of heroin supply due to the restructuring of the security and enforcement personnel and the stringent measures and surveillance being undertaken by the National Government Administration (NGAO), Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI), Anti-Narcotics Unit (ANU), National Police Service (NPS) and Nacada.

As a coping mechanism, drug peddlers have resorted to adulterating heroin with various cutting agents, affecting its purity and potency.

Drug addicts are waiting for clients at Chobingo Forest in Ukunda, Kwale County. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Users have turned to a dangerous combination of heroin and prescription drugs, particularly diazepam and amitriptyline, to achieve longer-lasting highs.

The report urges the regulation and control of veterinary drugs, including xylazine, to prevent their diversion into the illegal market. It also emphasises the need for public education, harm reduction facilities, and rehabilitation centres to combat the crisis effectively.

In light of the dire situation, Fredrick Ngugi, the director of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) calls upon county governments to take proactive measures, including establishing rehabilitation centres and offering counseling services to victims of drug and alcohol abuse.

Furthermore, regional collaboration and increased surveillance are needed to address the escalating narcotic and synthetic drug problem that threatens the well-being of the East African states.

"We face inadequate funding although there is goodwill from the national government. We want the county governments to also come on board and address the problem of alcohol and drug abuse," said Dr Ngugi, who accompanied Ugandan MPs on a benching marking tour at the Miritini drug addicts rehabilitation facility.

Hundreds of drug users line up for methadone from the Miritini rehabilitation centre and Frere Town in Mombasa, Kombani in Kwale, and the Omar project in Kilifi.

Dr Charles Ayume, chairman of Uganda's Parliamentary Committee on Health, said there was a need for East African states to strengthen surveillance on narcotic and synthetic drugs to secure the region.

"With the emerging trend, there is a need for more surveillance in our seaports, airports, and other entry points to address the problem of drug abuse. There is a need to establish who is importing drugs in any form and for what purpose," said the medical doctor.

The Ugandan parliament recently passed a Bill on control of narcotic drugs and plans to set up its own version of Nacada.