INVESTIGATION: Abuja drug sellers, street vendors cashing in on codeine ban

Archilin, one of the many varieties of cough syrup with Codeine. Bought from a drug bandit in Wuse Zone 4, Abuja at N2,000.
Archilin, one of the many varieties of cough syrup with Codeine. Bought from a drug bandit in Wuse Zone 4, Abuja at N2,000.

Ladi Kwali Street off Constantine street in Zone 4 of Wuse District is one of the most popular areas in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Aside being the location of the popular Sheraton Hotel, the area is synonymous with one thing: trade in currencies.

Buyers and sellers of different foreign and local currencies converge on both sides of the street to trade. ‘Yan Canji’ (Hausa for money changers), day and night, beckon on cars and passerby.

However, that is not the only trade going on there. Deep at the far end of Constantine Street, opposite Zone 4 Primary School, is a drug haven. As money changers solicit customers, so do drug hawkers, mostly teenagers.

Codeine syrup has been banned in Nigeria, but it is still consumed at street corners, in slums, inside cars and markets, at bars, gardens and homes. It is cconsumed straight or mixed with soft drinks. The drug can be purchased without prescription in underground markets such as Constantine Street or in pharmacies.

The illicit trade has become more lucrative since the ban on May Day by the Nigerian government on importation and production of codeine as an active ingredient for cough syrup preparation.

Cof ‘n’ Cold – A Nosy Day Inside Abuja Codeine underground Market

“Nigga wetin you wan buy?”asked one of the dealers as our correspondent posing as a drug buyer walked into the ‘trade centre’ directly opposite Wuse Zone 4 Primary School at about 4 p.m. on Tuesday. “C ‘n’ C (Cof and Cold) na N3,000, Anxolene N2,000 and Tough Cough N2,500.”

“Guy do sharp sharp, this place no good oh”, the dealer hurriedly added.

Out here, everything is on the fast lane. Dealers as well as buyers are wary of the police and security operatives who raid the location regularly.

The dealer furtively brandished the bottles at the reporter’s request. C n C, the costliest of the different varieties seemed to be of best quality. It is packaged in a short brown glass bottle while the rest are contained in rubber bottles.

“This Codeine na correct one – We no dey sell something wey no good for here”, said another dealer who came in from the opposite end. He must have felt the transaction was taking too long.

As the deal was ongoing, other illicit drug vendors were either on the look out for cops or beckoning on prospective customers.

The reporter later settled for ‘Rochi’ (Rephnol) at N300 per tablet.

The centre was more at ease around 9 p.m. of the same day. Buyers and sellers including women could be seen both sides of the road exchanging money for different types of drugs, including codeine.

At the sight of an incoming police van, one would have thought a raid was about to happen but that was not the case. The dealers were not even as wary as they were during the day. The police men just parked in front of the school gate, got down and stood under a tree as business went on as usual.

The Ban

On May 1, the Nigerian government announced the ban on importation and production of codeine-based cough syrups in Nigeria.

The ban came after a BBC documentary, “Sweet Sweet Codeine,” that showed pharmaceutical company staff selling large amounts of cough syrup to undercover BBC reporters. The government, however, said the ban on the drug was not influenced by the BBC report, but followed a long time review of the gross abuse of the drug in the country.

Following widespread reactions to the BBC documentary and subsequent ban of the drug by the Nigerian government, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) shut down production plants of the pharmaceutical firms exposed in the documentary.

The pharmaceutical companies, Emzor Pharmaceuticals Ind. Ltd., Peace Standard Pharmaceutical Limited, and Bioraj Pharmaceutical Limited, were reopened five days later.

To tighten the noose on the codeine illicit market, however, Nigerian lawmakers proposed a N2 million fine and a two-year jail term for corporate violators of the ban on Tramadol and Codeine in the country.

Individual violators, according to the proposed law, will be liable to N500, 000 fine and two years imprisonment or both on conviction.

The bill also stipulates that in the case of a corporate body, all the directors, managers, partners and trustees would be guilty of an offence and would be punished as if they had committed the offence themselves.

Despite these measures, professionals in the health sector argued the ban alone is not enough to curb the gross abuse of the drug in the country.

“Banning codeine would never really solve the problem; it would only force it underground and what has happened now is that the price of codeine has gone up,” said Ifedilichukwu Uchendu, a consultant Neuropsychiatrist.

“There is no political will to fight this war, the government is just tackling it with kid gloves. If a foreign media organisation did not expose this underground codeine syndicate, there would not even be any ban in the first place.

“Government is not doing anything serious either because they are compromised or they don’t show concern. Maybe it is because the issue is not yet like the case of HIV and malaria where they make money from international donors. If tomorrow, donors start making funds available to tackle drug abuse, everybody will wake up. It is just hypocrisy,” Mr Uchendu said.

For Abiodun Essiet, a midwife and community development worker, beyond the ban, there is need to add codeine abuse as a crime.

“We need to sanction medicine stores or pharmaceutical shops that sell the drug without prescription. We can also set up health watch volunteers at community level that can alert security agencies of any act of abuse.”

Aftermath Of Ban – Codeine Turns Gold On The Street

“This ban is a fire brigade approach that can only make codeine a superstar,” warned Charles Idehio, Publisher of Bulletin Press, during a programme on TVC News in the wake of the ban. “It will not stop the sale in the short run but will lead to more smuggling of the substance and make it a big business.”

PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation into the illicit codeine market three months after the ban lends credence to Mr Idehio’s prediction.

“Before the ban, we used to buy C ‘n’ C around N500 or N600 and sell N1000 or N1200,” said James Justin, a patent drug vendor (not real names as he does not want to be named for fear of being exposed). “Now, the prices have almost tripled.”

As local pharmaceutical production remains largely unchecked by government, cough syrups are being produced on a large scale with corrupt staff continuing to take advantage of the high demand by the black market to run parallel drug syndicates, as exposed in the BBC documentary.

“We buy in cartons from distributors of pharmaceutical companies. These distributors run it as their own personal business. Even people selling in the streets get from them,” Mr Justin revealed.

On the price hike, the drug vendor said the ban made pharmaceutical companies review the production and distribution of the drug. “Now distributors that run this deals have reduced but business is going on still.

“There is Benelene, Totolene, Anxolene and C n C. They are different types of codeine and their prices depend on the distributor. Most of them come from Aba, Lagos and Onitsha.”

He refused to detail the current supply prices of the drug but however said C n C now costs N3000 in the open market.

Sale of codeine inside another drug haven in Gwarimpa, a popular satellite town in Abuja, is more discreet. It is an open market dominated by young Nigerians dealing in different kinds of food items. The market is situated within Third Avenue, Gwarimpa.

Normally, one would think meat, fish and oil are the only items sold there.

A teenager who sells provision in the market also doubles as a drug dealer. “C n C is N3000 but I can give you N2,800 because na my brother carry you come,” he told this reporter.

He rejected several requests to bring out the codeine bottles. “We can only show you the bottle after payment,” he said repeatedly in vernacular.

Codeine Diet – Nigerian youth’s ‘New Cool’

The massive patronage of illicit codeine trade largely rests on the shoulders of teenagers, and young adults insatiably looking for a quick high – the current growing trend in Nigeria.

Codeine is a pain killer but also an addictive opioid. Taken in excess, it can cause Schizophrenia and organ failure among other health related defects.

When taken, codeine addicts feel dizzy, slow, numb and can even hallucinate.

Last October, the Nigerian Senate raised the alarm that the 19 northern states were under serious threat due to drug abuse, stating that over three million bottles of codeine syrup were consumed daily in Kano and Jigawa states alone.

Many factors have been blamed for this. Experts pointed out obvious factors such as Nigeria’s porous borders and weak regulation in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry as reasons for the scourge.

Mrs Essiet, the community development worker, said when a country is going through difficult periods like economic recession and conflicts, drug abuse prevalence is always high.

Yet, in recent times, the widespread abuse of codeine might have been partly influenced by Nigerian musicians, who in lyrics promote intake of such drugs as the ‘new cool’.

“Codeine Diet”, the latest street anthem which leveraged on the popular “Shaku Shaku” dance is one of such songs.

In the visuals, a musician is seen holding one of the small brown bottles in which codeine-infused cough syrup is often sold.

The word “DIET” is boldly written on the bottle. You may notice, in much smaller fonts, the message “Say No to Drugs” near the bottom.

“When they drink it a lot their liver is being burdened and so it get damaged with time. It affects their cognitive function and their ability to remember things”, said Mr Uchendu who is also the executive director, Centre For Information and Prevention of Mental Disorders (CIPMED).

“Being addicted to codeine means you cannot do without it. Your appetite for it has increased and you will start taking higher dosage. It becomes more prominent in your daily live activities and you can do anything to make sure you access codeine.

“For such people at that level, there is a need for rehabilitation. The period of rehab depends on the level of addiction; whether there is psychological damage on the body, physical challenges or other medical issues that needs to be treated.”

Mr Uchendu advocated what he called a demand reduction approach to tackle the codeine abuse.

“Demand reduction means there should be a grassroots massive nationwide campaign by people who know what codeine and its effects are – people like neuropsychologists, clinical psychologists.

“There is a need for us to escalate more on trying to reduce the demand by increasing enlightenment in the grassroots, secondary and even primary schools on the dangers of using the drugs early enough before exposure so that the up coming children will not even attempt it. this is in the crux of the objectives of my organisation.”

What Codeine Ban Means – NAFDAC

When presented with findings of this investigation, Abubakar Jimoh, NAFDAC director on media/special duties explained how the ban works

“People say the ban is not enough but what they don’t understand is that what the ban means is restrictive use. People always confuse the two. Codeine can still be bought by prescription within a hospital setting. What is illegal is when you buy it over the counter. We only restricted the importation and production of codeine and not the use.

“We are no longer granting license to anybody to bring in the raw materials, that is why we call it ban. The products in circulation will fizzle out after sometime. It is illegal to buy it over the counter, both the person selling and buying are culpable.

“Once the available product dries up, no pharmaceutical company will have the raw codeine so the plan is to control it from the source.”

On why there are loopholes in implementation and enforcement of the ban policy as well as fight against drug abuse, he said, “Like every government policy, there is need for citizens to also help the government to turn in people that are still in the (illegal codeine) trade. The policy will not work if the masses are not helping us. Health workers, security operatives as well as civic groups have a role to play in making this government policy to work.

“If you know any place they still sell codeine illegally, please kindly report so we can swing into action as a matter of civic responsibility.

“Even journalists like you can reveal those areas to us so we can clamp down on them. What we are saying is that NAFDAC only have 3,000 staff and we can not be everywhere at a time. It’s like asking PREMIUM TIMES to report every single news around the country everyday, which is not possible. All we need is intelligent tips. The laws are there, the policies are there but someone will still flout it. When we get scapegoats then they will know that we are serious.”


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