Drug abuse in Sudan: ‘the tip of the iceberg’
Contractors who cannot keep construction workers for more than one day, students who might use drugs to spike others’ drinks, street vendors selling ‘special tea’, rumours about police officers selling confiscated drugs. Sudan, in particular its capital, has been witnessing growing drug abuse in the past decade, with an explosive but under-reported increase in the past few years.
“Cannabis has been used for ages in Sudan, but since about 2011 people in Khartoum started taking other kinds of drugs, often chemically produced stuff,” a former police officer, now a rickshaw driver, told Radio Dabanga from the Sudanese capital.
“In particular since 2015, when the economic situation really began to deteriorate, people discovered that drug trade was an easy way to quickly earn money,” he said. “Problems grew over the years, but now there is an explosive increase.”
He estimated that roughly 30 per cent of young rickshaw drivers are using drugs. “They often order a special drink from the many women selling tea and coffee on the streets of Khartoum,” he said.
A building contractor in Omdurman complained that he cannot keep labourers for more than one day “because, once paid their daily wage, they buy bango (marihuana) or pills, and do not appear at the construction site the next day”.
The use of drugs is especially widespread among youth nowadays, various sources told Radio Dabanga. They are often addicted themselves. Several young men and women students selling drugs at secondary schools and universities say that they are mainly driven by poverty.
The sources added that since the October 2021 military coup, many young people lost hope for the future, and are tempted to seek relief in drugs as well.
Absence of official data
Though reports on drugs being smuggled in Sudan already appeared in the 1970s, it was only in 2003 that a specialised department was set up to combat drug trafficking. In 2015, the country developed a national drug control strategy, to enable the authorities to work with non-governmental organisations in combating drug trafficking. Yet, official data on the sale and number of users are hard to find.
Researcher Mohamed El Mahi as well noted the lack of reliable data on the number of abusers in his paper on Substance Use Problem in Sudan in 2018. Data seem to be collected only by treatment centres in the capital.
In a workshop on drug abuse in Sudan, organised by the Awafi Initiative under auspices of Gen Mohamed ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo in Khartoum in February, it was reported that about 13,000 young addicts, aged between 14 and 24, of various educational levels, visited addiction treatment centres in Sudan’s capital in 2021.
According pharmacist in central Khartoum confirmed that this number only represents “the tip of the iceberg”. He said that “many young addicts do not even know that such centres exist, while treatment often cannot be found outside the capital”.
Dr Ali Baldo, director of the El Amal Centre for Addiction Treatment in Khartoum, told Al Jazeera in June 2019 that an estimated 25 per cent of young Sudanese in the capital slip into drugs abuse.
Rehab Shabo, Director of the Hayat Centre for Psychosocial Treatment and Rehabilitation, which is the only government centre for the treatment of drugs addiction, reported in 2018 that they had treated 7,000 addicts that year. She told Al Bayan at the time that the largest rates of drug abuse are found in Khartoum, and lamented the absence of other centres where addicted could find treatment at a low cost.
'Clubs, cinemas and gyms could have played a role in directing the energy of young people away from drug abuse' - Social researcher Mohamed Adlan
Despite the lack of reliable data, El Mahi did report a rapid surge in the use of various substances in Sudan’s drug scene during the past decade, especially among young people. The substances include common prescription medicines, he explained in his 2018 research paper.
Prescription medicines include Tramadol (aka strawberry or pink), an opioid analgesic, benzodiazepines such as Clonazepam, cough syrups which are often used in combination with five grammes tablets of Valium (called khamsa which means ‘five’), and antihistamines. Other substances include trihexyphenidyl (aka kharsha), anticonvulsants and neuropathic pain agents, and antipsychotic medications.
El Mahi added that “solvent misuse is another evolving problem, particularly among poor children and young adults”. A source confirmed recently that many teenagers “who don’t have much money to spend, sniff a mix of glue and gel found inside pampers”.
The former police officer told Radio Dabanga that the police in Khartoum did not receive many reports about the sale and use of drugs before 2010. “Yet, since then, we worked on an increasing number of cases. I remember that I was shocked in 2011 when we found a briefcase filled with ‘strawberries’ and ‘fives’ in a cafeteria near a secondary school. A year later, such findings had already become normal.”
Traditionally, Sudanese consume alcohol and cannabis for enjoyment and relief from the hardships of life. Cannabis is still grown in Sudan, in particular in El Radoom in South Darfur. According to the General Office for Combating Drugs in Khartoum, Sudan was the largest producer of cannabis in Africa in 2016. The trade of cannabis (marihuana, known and grown as bango in Sudan) exceeded $7 billion while its use grew by 34 per cent between 2015 and 2016.
Researcher El Mahi noted in 2018 that amphetamines, methamphetamine, opioids, cocaine, and new psychoactive substances were still uncommon in Sudan, “probably owing to high cost”.
This has definitely changed. Independent Arabiya said in May this year that ‘crystal meth’, aka ‘ice’, is used on a wide scale as well, by both young men and women. Rumours go that many young demonstrators protesting against the military junta in Khartoum are taking this very addictive stimulant. Radio Dabanga recently reported that the authorities are now subjecting detained protesters to drugs tests.
The smuggling and sale of Tramadol and Captagon (containing fenethylline, a synthetic stimulant that is reportedly widely used in the Middle East) has grown rapidly as well, Sudan reported to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in April last year.
Already in 2010, about a million of Captagon tablets were seized in the country. Four years later, a load of more than 1.4 million tablets, to be shipped to Lebanon, was impounded in Port Sudan. About 14 million Captagon tablets, more than 19 million Tramadol tablets, and about 1,300 kilograms of heroin were seized in 2020.
Gen Mohamed El Naeem, Director of the Sudanese Narcotics Control Department, said in April 2017 that “drugs are seized almost every hour”. He mentioned in particular marihuana, qat, Captagon, Tramadol and Oximol, Anadolu Agency reported in February this year.
In 2018, Sudan’s anti-narcotics police found a hidden factory in Khartoum, with a production capacity of 300 tablets per minute.
The abundance of drugs in Sudan may explain the relatively low prices on the market. “It’s a vicious circle as this in turn has led to the excessive increase of drug abuse,” the former police officer told Radio Dabanga.
Human rights activist Yasin El Mubarak however believes that “there are hidden hands that seek to spread drugs among young people in Sudan. He told An Nahar Al Arabi in February that “Despite the high prices of drugs globally, we see them being sold at low prices in Sudan, which reinforces the hypothesis that there are organised parties working to broaden their access to Sudanese youth and facilitate the circulation [of the drugs]”.
Pharmacists often sell prescription medicines directly to the patients. “We do this for some years now as most of the people cannot pay a visit to the doctor anymore,” a pharmacist in Khartoum explained.
“We usually sell cough syrup without a prescription,” she told Radio Dabanga. “Yet we insist to see the patient personally. And if a person asks for the syrup for someone at home, we need to hear the patient’s voice on the phone before giving it.”
Another pharmacist said that she recognises an addict from the way they look. “But what can I do? Many people fake their cough and say that their syrup bottle broke or got lost. I then offer them herbal syrup, but they say that this doesn’t work for them. Others fake their illness in such a good way that you believe them, and there are also people who confess they are addicted to the syrup that includes DM [Dextromethorphan]. Many members of the security forces ask for DM syrup all the time”.
Drugs are also sold by the many people, mostly women, selling tea and coffee on the street. They put pills in coffee or tea, or they sell the drugs straight to the customer,” the former policeman explained. “If you see a tea seller with more than 10 customers and a lot of movement, than you can be sure she’s selling more than just coffee and tea.”
He added that “things are happening more and more in broad daylight. It is well known that you can buy drugs at certain smaller markets in the city. Dealers selling from their homes has also become a common phenomenon. Policemen are easily bribed as their salaries are far from enough to earn a decent living.”
A young tea seller working in El Salha in Omdurman confirmed to Radio Dabanga that drugs are widely sold in the neighbourhood. “In particular the poorest tea sellers combine coffee with pills to attract more customers. Others are even forced to sell drugs by the dealers who know them personally.”
A university graduate who used to sell drugs to fellow students until 2020, told Radio Dabanga that the types of drugs most used are ice, Tramadol, Cosmos (chlorpromazine), flue tablets mixed with coughing syrup, and aspirin mixed with soft drinks.
Older students and also lecturers prefer marihuana (bango) and Ethiopian hashish (called shashmandi, which is quite new and smuggled through Sudan to other African countries), she said. “Heroin and cocaine are used only by the really rich students.”
The source added that “some students are even secretly putting pills in drinks of other students, to pester them if they have a different ethical origin, or to get them addicted so they can sell more”.
She further explained that “Many young people are using drugs for social, economic, and political reasons. They have lost hope on a better future, and want to escape from continuously deteriorating situation here.”
'There are even cases of seven- and eight-year-old addicts' - Doctor Ali Baldo
According to social researcher Mohamed Adlan, the recent explosive increase of drug abuse is probably caused by “the great vacuum in the country” young people are suffering from, as a result of being idle for long periods of time due to the on-and-off closure of universities since December 2018 following the revolution and the emergence of COVID-19.
“This makes them ready to experiment with drugs, especially in a country that suffers from a noticeable lack of entertainment opportunities,” he explained. “Clubs, cinemas and gyms could have played a role in directing the energy of young people away from engaging in destructive activities such as drug abuse.”
Specialist Ali Baldo told the Independent Arabia in February that that there are even cases of seven- and eight-year-old addicts. He further referred to the relatively large proportion of young women using drugs, which according to him is caused by “the violence of men against them, tensions in the political and social arena, economic problems, and daily living pressures”.
Due to the weak border controls and tense internal conditions in Sudan, the drugs trade has found an easy way to enter the country, social researcher Mohamed Adlan said.
Bordering seven countries, with often porous borders, Sudan has become an easy target for the smuggling of drugs, by air, over land, and, more and more, by sea.
Sudan’s 2021 report to the UN on the spread of drugs in the country for instance mentioned that the smuggling of heroin, which used to be confined to Sudanese airports, has shifted to Red Sea ports. Ships are being used more and more to smuggle large quantities of heroin into the country, the report said.
Other drugs were smuggled into Sudan over sea much earlier, whereby allegedly also officials were involved. A former member of the Sudanese Coast Guard in Port Sudan, capital of Red Sea state, told Radio Dabanga that his forces found four containers filled with pills and powder in 2013. “Apparently, it belonged to the son of an official, so we were asked to move the containers to Khartoum and hand over the investigation to the authorities there. We never heard something about the subject again.”
The officer, who worked at for the anti-drug unit in Abu Jubeiha in South Kordofan until 2011, added that it was not unusual to discover that government officials in Abu Jubeiha were responsible for the trade. “Many of the smugglers we caught would later be released following orders from the top.”
The former police officer confirmed that policemen, army officers, members of the Rapid Support Forces and former rebel fighters are among the drug traders. “They all trade and use themselves as well”, he claimed. “Every day, police all over Khartoum receive reports from the anti-drug units. They then seize the traders and their goods, but the confiscated drugs are often sold on again.”
Rebel groups are also involved in the trade of drugs. El Intibaha newspaper reported in July that a load of 1,000 Tramadol tablets of 225 milligrams was seized by customs officers at Khartoum International Airport in November last year. The bill of lading contained the name of the person to whom the goods were sent but the customs officers reported “an unknown person”.
According to El Intibaha, the load was manufactured in Mumbai, India. It was shipped Israel, from where it was sent to South Sudan. The pills were then transported by Ethiopian Airlines to Khartoum.
The newspaper reported that months later, leaders of a rebel group submitted a letter to the customs department, demanding the deliverance of the load, as Tramadol is used by their members for “training purposes”. They were referred to court.
Many thanks to Marwa, Khulood, and the former policeman who preferred to stay anonymous, for their valuable contributions.
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