An emerging drug market – As parts of Africa get richer, rich-world problems proliferate
Apr 16th 2016 Economist
In the early morning at a bar in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, electronic beats pump from a DJ on a stage. Shielded from the autumn rains under tarpaulins, a substantial crowd, mostly of young Kenyans but with several European and American expats, dances. Outside the women’s toilets, attendants turn their eyes away—in exchange for a tip—as groups of young people go in together and then wander out, wiping their noses.
The drug scene is not entirely new to Nairobi. “There has been cocaine here since I was 14 years old,” says one young Kenyan woman, who works for an e-commerce firm and is now 26. But whereas in the geriatric West recreational drug use is falling and many night clubs are closing, in Africa’s capitals it appears to be growing, both among the new middle class and the poor. Drug-use surveys are rare in Africa, but governments are worried.
Africans have consumed drugs for decades, if not centuries. Cannabis is grown and toked across the continent: the UN estimates that roughly 7.5% of African adults smoke weed in a typical year, almost double the global figure of 3.9%. In Somalia and Ethiopia, many men chew vast amounts of qat, a leaf with mild amphetamine properties, (much to the irritation of their wives).
The more recent spread of harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine is driven by the expansion of Africa as a transit route for chemicals on their way to Europe. Cocaine is smuggled from South America to West Africa by boat or small plane. In some small countries, the trade is huge. In Guinea-Bissau, Colombian drug dealers are alleged to have funded the re-election campaign of President João Bernardo Vieira in 2005. Mostly, the product is then smuggled out to Europe by land, sea or air. But much is sold locally, too. Cocaine-snorting in West Africa is now thought to be as common as in Europe.
In east Africa the more urgent problem is heroin, which is imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan on its way to Europe, but also serves a local market. No one is quite sure how many people take heroin—across Africa, the UN puts the number of injecting drug users anywhere between 330,000 and 5.6m. But everyone is sure it is growing. With injection comes HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which is easily spread by sharing needles. In the poorer parts of Mombasa, some users even inject blood extracted from another drug user to get a free high, a technique called “flashblood”. It is, of course, incredibly risky.
Governments are reacting. Kenya’s drug-and-alcohol-addiction authority now operates a free helpline for addicts of all sorts, which is advertised on the back of high-visibility jackets given to motorcycle taxi drivers. The phone line is answered quickly, but other treatment is patchy, says Elizabeth Ogott of the Kenya Alcohol Policy and Control Alliance, an NGO. When rehab is available, it costs too much for most Kenyans, she says: at least 1,000 shillings (about $10) a day. Methadone clinics have recently opened in Mombasa, but “that’s just a drop in the ocean”. Few Kenyans understand addiction, she thinks.
Corruption makes prohibition even less effective than in the West. Kenya’s government likes to blow up boats carrying contraband in front of journalists. But few traffickers are prosecuted. Even booze laws are barely enforced: bars are supposed to stop serving drinks at 11pm, but you’d never guess it wandering around Nairobi at midnight. In January Ugandan officials admitted that about 80kg of cocaine which had been seized by the police at Entebbe airport had subsequently gone missing. As Africans get rich, the party seems sure to get louder–whatever the consequences.