In Sierra Leone, There Is Little Help for Drug Users

07:03 May 30, 2024

In Sierra Leone, There Is Little Help for Drug Users

A low-cost drug mixture is harming young people in the West African country of Sierra Leone.

The mixture is called “kush.” Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio declared a state of emergency in April over kush. The drug is made by combining other powerful drugs like cannabis, fentanyl and tramadol.

Extreme measures

Sierra Leone has limited health services. As a result, one community has set up what it calls a treatment center that volunteers operate. They sometimes use extreme measures to cut people’s dependence on drugs.

The Bombay Community operates in the Bombay neighborhood of the capital of Freetown. Recently, the group tried to end the kush dependence of a coworker’s younger brother. After they failed to persuade him to stop, they locked him in his room for two months. After that, he returned to the university he had been attending. He thanked the group for setting him free.

Twenty-one-year-old Christian Johnson described his experience. He said, “The only time I left the room was when I went to the bathroom.”

Later, the volunteer group expanded its efforts and took over an unused building. They seize people at the request of their families. Sometimes they chain them up to prevent them from escaping. The country’s only mental health hospital formerly used similar methods.

Suleiman Turay is a local football coach who helped launch the center. He said, “We turn parents away for lack of space.”

The people in the community help. He said, “Some bring food, some bring water, doing whatever they can to help.”

A doctor in the community visits from time to time. Police said they did not know about the project or the method of chaining people up.

So far, volunteers say the Bombay Community has treated 70 to 80 people. One volunteer showed the chains used in extreme cases to the Associated Press (or AP). No one was chained up at the time. The youngest person held by the group was a 13-year-old boy sent there by his father.

“I was very angry, and I wanted to have nothing to do with him,” said the father, Gibrilla Bangura, a college professor. “I am very grateful to these men and women for their role in helping my son.”

An epidemic

This year, President Bio declared war on kush. He called its use an epidemic and a national threat. He is leading a government effort to treat drug users and prevent its spread. He has promised to do this using law enforcement officials and community activism.

People rarely know what they are getting when they buy kush. Besides powerful drugs, the drug might contain chemicals like formaldehyde. In some communities, officials say people are digging up dead bodies to use the bones to mix with the drug. They are trying to get the chemicals that are used to preserve dead bodies.

Daphne Moffett is the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Sierra Leone. She said the drug is difficult to deal with because so many different substances are used to make it.

She said in an email to AP, “Before appropriate interventions can be developed, we need to know what materials are in Kush.”

Ansu Konneh is the director of mental health at the Ministry of Social Welfare. He said there has been a large increase in people addicted to kush arriving at Sierra Leone’s only mental health hospital since 2022.

However, the government does not publish an official number of deaths linked to kush or the number of people admitted to hospitals because of it.

The Social Linkages for Youth Development and Child Link (or SLYDCL) is a nonprofit group in Sierra Leone that aims to fight drug use. The organization has pushed the government for years to put more resources into fighting addiction.

Ephraim Macaulay works to educate people about kush. He first used the drug in college. He found he could get a day’s supply for less than one dollar. He said, “Overcoming the addiction wasn’t easy. It was one of the hardest steps of my life.”

Habib Kamara is the executive director at SLYDCL. He said the availability of kush grew after suppliers began to produce it locally.

He said law enforcement officials need to do more to target top-level producers instead of going after buyers and low-level sellers. The government has said it wants to help, not punish, those who use the drug.

Kamara said, “If we cannot have an approach that reduces usage, in the future we will not have people to replace us tomorrow in the workforce.”

I’m Gena Bennett. And I’m Gregory Stachel.

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