In Nigeria, a Young Generation Finds Its Way Past Myths About Drug Use

    In the late 2000s, Nigeria witnessed a surge in various kinds of drug use. Tramadol, a pharmaceutical opioid, became increasingly popular. In 2018 BBC Africa documented the use of codeine in the Northern part of the country, focusing on people who became addicted. Cocaine, LSD and MDMA also became more widely available, if more expensive than other substances. Around 14.4 percent of Nigerian adults were estimated to have used any criminalized drug in 2018, with the vast majority (10.8 percent) citing cannabis.

    Cannabis use in Nigeria has expanded over the second half of the 20th century. In the past few decades, it gradually entered the country’s mainstream culture, known as igbo or gbana oja the way Americans might refer to it as “weed.” The Nigerian supply mostly comes from growers within the country, especially in the western states like Ondo, Edo, Delta Osun Oyo and Ogun. Notable strains include Colorado, Skunk, Mali Kush, LOUD and the best-known of these locally grown strains, Arizona.

    Because drugs are so widely criminalized in Nigeria—with even smoking cigarettes being illegal in public places—young Nigerians are often targeted with myths intended to scare them into abstinence. Many believe marijuana induces psychosis, even among people who are not otherwise prone to it. Mariam*, 23, is a music and culture journalist in Lagos who hosts her own radio show. She recalls being told growing up that only “mentally unstable” people use drugs—and that the drugs themselves cause mental illness.

    We were taught that drugs could make you “go mad.”

    In my own middle school, social studies classes taught us that drugs—including marijuana and nicotine—were indiscriminately dangerous, immoral and should be avoided at all costs. We were taught that such substances could make you “go mad”—not just in the short term, but that they would cause us to develop lifelong mental illnesses. Because of this, and because of the stigma against mental illness, people who use drugs in Nigeria are shunned by mainstream culture.

    Such misconceptions thrive seamlessly in a country with a current political climate of oppression, corruption, injustice and poverty. Our president since 2015, Muhammadu Buhari, has spent the past six years trampling on Nigerians’ fundamental human rights.

    Nigeria operates under a gerontocracy, with our ruling politicians far older than our youthful population; half of Nigerians are under the age of 19. Our leaders have not yet changed their attitudes toward psychoactive substances, but our youth are doing so—especially in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. Despite being indoctrinated with years of anti-drug propaganda, many are slowly finding their own truth.

    Micheal, 26, is a writer and content creator in Lagos with a particular passion for telling African stories. began using cannabis during his university years. Because of the “no-drug” policy enforced by his school, he had to eat the weed with a dish of noodles because it was easier to hide that way. He later learned to smoke joints.

    “It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I legit felt like I have been sleeping all my life. I felt like someone opened my third eye. Weed works for me, it’s my thing, it’s my lifestyle as a person.” He has since experimented with MDMA and looks forward to trying LSD. 

    Linda, 24, is an artist and songwriter born and raised in Lagos. She has been using nicotine, marijuana and various psychedelics since she turned 20. She has struggled with “a couple of mental health issues,” she said, which the drugs help her cope with. She still worries about becoming addicted, the way she was always warned would happen by her teachers and elders. “It’s constantly risking my physical well-being for something that takes the pain away for a while.”

    Samuel, 27, is a Lagos-based hair salon owner. In his spare time, he likes to work out and watch sports. He’s been using drugs, especially marijuana, since around 2009. He says it helps him get through his busy day, relieving him of stress and anxiety.

    From using marijuana on a daily basis, Mariam knows it’s been a positive force in her life—helping her manage anxiety attacks, as well as everyday pressures and stress. Though she still avoids other substances out of an abundance of caution, she believes Nigerian society needs to have a better dialogue around the use of drugs rather than simply shunning the people who use them. Such shunning, she said, is stigmatizing, and makes people feel like they have to hide their drug use. And it makes neurodivergent people who use drugs falsely convinced that any mental health complications they face are a direct result of their substance use, and thus their own fault.

    Counterfeit or diluted supply is widespread and often cheaper than the real thing.

    Nigerian drug sellers work both on- and offline. The safest option is often to have weed delivered, but prospective buyers can also find what they’re looking for at a bunk, the generic term for the type of place (house or corner; urban or rural) where different strains of cannabis, and sometimes other drugs, are sold.

    In a country like Nigeria where the economy is prone to sporadic recessions, an ounce of weed could cost as little as the equivalent of a few cents, or up to around $11, depending on the strain. As in other countries with drug prohibition, counterfeit or diluted supply is widespread and often cheaper than the real thing.

    In January, Nigerian lawmakers proposed a bill to legalize the cultivation and trading of medical marijuana, as a way of generating revenue. It is believed that Nigerians spend billions of dollars on marijuana each year; if medical marijuana is legalized, it could generate foreign investment and create jobs.

    If this happens, the myths and misconceptions surrounding drug use—starting with marijuana—could begin to disappear. It would be a watershed moment in country’s expanding drug scene. It gives us hope that Nigeria’s conversations around drug use will become more nuanced in time.

     


     

    *Names have been changed.

    Photograph of a Lagos, Nigeria, market via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Bolaji Akinwande

      Bolaji is freelance writer dedicated to documenting music and culture stories. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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