There’s a new drug on the streets of Lagos.
Most users prefer to smoke it, usually mixed with high-grade marijuana and rolled up in papers like tobacco and weed.
Although it can come in almost any color, the backroom chemists who make it often use dried herbs or lawn clippings to make sure it looks closely like the real stuff, so it often appears something between a deep shade of green and damp brown.
In the real sense, it looks a lot like marijuana, but it’s the farthest thing from marijuana that you’ve ever heard of.
It is widely reported that, beneath the surface of daily activity, Nigeria is on the cusp of a major drug problem.
The aggressive emergence of a culture of casual drug use has been supported by the presence of players at every major level of the drug chain.
On one hand, production is high as ever, even as makers of amphetamine have been discovered in Lagos and Rivers.
Nigeria’s status as a transit country is also not in question; since the early years of military rule, large amounts of cocaine have been funneled through the country under various guises.
And now, while the consumption of drugs like marijuana and opioids like Codeine and Tramadol has reached an alarming rate, a new, unfriendly substance is causing convulsions, kidney failure and a ‘zombie-like’ state of intoxication that can lead to death.
Synthetic marijuana, like the name suggests, is a collection of man-made chemicals that mimic the effect of marijuana and are sprayed on dried herbs or similar substances, wrapped in brightly colored packs and sold as an alternative to marijuana that is both ‘legal’ and more potent.
In the United States and the UK, it is sold under three major brand names; "Spice", "K2" and "Black Mamba", for as low as $1 per bag. This is key because it puts it in the ballpark of the most susceptible; the homeless, poor and young students.
In many ways, this affordability is a major reason why the use of the drug is spreading rapidly in areas like Lagos, Port-Harcourt, and Abuja.
But aside that, many other factors, like easy access, are contributing their quota.
Synthetic marijuana is relatively new in Nigeria, so the sale and use are not as ‘elaborate’ as it is on the other side.
It is mostly sold in head-shops here, small outfits that sell accessories used for the consumption of cannabis and tobacco, as well as items that form part of that culture, like weed-branded shirts and Bob Marley bandannas.
Outfits like this are scattered around Lagos and Victoria Islands.
There are also reports that it is sold by dealers of more expensive strains of marijuana and designer drugs in the highbrow areas of Lagos.
Synthetic marijuana is sold in small quantities for a little as 2,000 naira and as much as 10,000 naira, depending on the size of the bag and where it is bought. The substance itself is sealed tight in small, shiny bags about the size of a sugar or tea bag with the brand name written across it.
On the streets where this drug is slowly claiming victims, the tags vary; ‘Colorado’, ‘Black Mamba’, ‘Lamba’ (when mixed with Loud, a highly potent strain of marijuana), ‘Happy Boy’ or ‘Scooby Snax’.
The names are admittedly more colorful than you’d expect; what the packs contain is anything but.
Most of the clamor against synthetic weed has been made by people who have either experimented with the drug, or have seen its effects on frequent, and even first-time users. And as more people come in contact with the drug, the numbers are rising and the voices are getting louder.
On social media website, Twitter, a user @sofireginald recounted her experience with the drug in a series of tweets.
Some of her friends had ‘tried’ the drug and, despite diluting it with large amounts of tobacco, what they got was nowhere near the pleasurable high they were hoping for; according to her tweets, one of them had gone completely deaf for three days, another went so mental that she was held in medical care for three weeks… and counting.
Apparently alarmed by these experiences, she advised users to stay away from "Colorado or comorado or whatever name you people have coined for it"
One of her tweets read, “I’ve seen people cry, convulse, take off their clothes and do other weird shit. You can actually go insane. It’s not remotely healthy.”
Segun (not real name) agrees that synthetic marijuana is very dangerous; he also thinks that it is difficult to explain the true extent of its danger to people who have never tried it or seen it at work.
Segun is an avid marijuana user; he has smoked at least a blunt a day, consistently, for over three years.
One day, while driving home after work, a friend showed him a half-rolled blunt that he had gotten from another friend earlier that day; just two hits had “fucked him up”, but for some reason, he felt he was overreacting.
This friend offered the mystery blunt to Segun and another colleague who was on the ride; ever the adventurous smokers, but unwilling to take too much of a risk, they took three light ‘drags’ each. What came immediately after was an intense, harsh high, and a comedown made in hell.
“I don’t know how to describe it. At first, I was feeling these strange sensations at the back of my head and my shoulders.”, Segun recounts. “My right leg, it felt almost detached. It felt like if it stayed still for long, it would feel like it was not there any more”
“I could only think about one particular thing at a time. My thought process was limited to handling the steering and using the brake. I had no idea where I was driving to, or where I was.”
“I couldn’t just remember. It was as if something crazy would happen if I tried to think of anything else. All I could do was drive and say guy (when my friends talked to me)", he said. “I had to increase the volume of the music to avoid falling into this place that the drug was taking me to”
“When I got home, I ate and bragged a lot about the high, then I blacked out. I don’t remember these things happening. I can only tell you because I was told”, Segun adds.
He is one of the lucky people. There have been reports of people having worse highs while on synthetic weed, sometimes inflicting self harm. In one case, a user jumped off a ledge, broke his leg and carried on, completely oblivious to what had happened and the broken leg he was trying to stand on.
For all the novelty of these accounts, you will be mistaken to assume that they are isolated events.
In recent weeks, various people have reported seeing the distinctive colorful packs of ‘Spice’ in different places, from the Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, to Vantage, a hotel, and lounge, in Lekki.
In the 1990s, John W. Huffman, a chemist from South Carolina in the United States, began researching artificial ways to replicate cannabinoids, the active chemicals that cause the behavioral and psychoactive changes that we interpret as being ‘high’.
Marijuana was a banned Schedule 1 substance in the United States at the time, and Huffman needed to replicate these chemicals for his research on the health effects of marijuana while avoiding the implications of experimenting with a banned substance.
He found some success years after; one of the compounds he developed replicated the desired effects and was shown to help reduce skin cancer and brain tumors in lab mice.
Huffman published his findings in the mid-2000s, complete with instructions on how to re-create the chemical compound he had developed that he said could be followed by a “halfway decent undergraduate chemistry major in three steps” using materials that can be purchased by just about anyone.
Needless to say, there were more than enough capable chemistry graduates at the time. In the years that followed, manufacturers created it in large quantities and began to sell it in head shops, packaged as air fresheners, aromatic leaves or potpourri.
Most experts agree that Spice was first sold as a recreational drug in the UK in 2004.
Huffman’s original compound was the product of years of rigorous research and had been fine-tuned to achieve as little harm as possible, but even at that, it was extremely dangerous.
In time, cities around the US became aware of the health and social risks that it posed. Between 2014 and 2015, New York and other states banned the substance out-rightly.
The manufacturers responded in the most unexpected way.
The original anti-spice laws only recognized the class of compounds close to Huffman’s original template; so the manufacturers set about using it to create their own chemical compounds that could replicate marijuana and evade the laws.
As new laws are created in Europe and the United States to tackle the production of spice, the manufacturers have become more experimental, pushing the boundaries and creating new chemicals that they do not totally understand.
It is why, regardless of the ‘ingredients’ listed on the packaging, no-one ever really knows what is in a spice blunt. Not even the manufacturers themselves.
What they have managed to create is a concoction of random chemicals that can take a user to the fringes of insanity and, as in a case where 33 New Yorkers were rushed to the hospital in July 2016, turn them into living, breathing ‘zombies’.
It then begs the question: What makes a person want to be so high that they use a drug that rids them of control of the mind and body?
Few regular users of synthetic marijuana hardly ever find the words to recount their experience in useful detail; but among those who have ‘tried’ the drug, a number have lived to tell the tale.
They describe the feeling of being high on synthetic weed as something entirely different from regular, natural marijuana.
While regular cannabis gives a feeling of light euphoria, drowsiness, increased sensory awareness (and paranoia among new users), this synthetic high is something between extreme paranoia and a deep, aggressively overwhelming trance.
Users begin to act erratically almost immediately after smoking. Even where two individuals use the same batch, their reactions can be completely different.
Some users are so bemused that they break into spontaneous, intense laughter, others become severely anxious and paranoid that they literally withdraw into themselves and become hostile at any attempt to make contact or have a conversation.
Either way, they enter a world of their own, one where the norms and behavior of sobriety are inaccessible, to put it lightly.
In many ways, it is the case with all forms of recreational drug use and it's eventual, usually unavoidable abuse. Most drug users do so for the euphoria, mental liberty and the feeling of detachment that can come with being high.
In this sense, it is a journey between two extremes; release, euphoria, and weightlessness on one hand and the reality of daily life and its momentary worries on the other.
Users of synthetic marijuana are simply more willing, usually by reason of circumstance or sheer misdirected curiosity, to explore the former extreme to its farthest ends; what they find is usually a chaotic inverse that one can hardly emerge from without any harm.
The compounds that make up synthetic marijuana were never meant to be inside the human body. When they are, the damage they cause is immense.
“Some of the short term effects on the mind include but aren’t limited to; unresponsiveness, loss of consciousness, confusion, altered time sense, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, severe paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, psychosis and potential suicide”, says Victor Ugo, a medical doctor who is the founder of Mentally Aware Initiative, a mental health advocacy program based in Lagos, Nigeria.
In cities like New York and London where spice is already a major problem, there are entire groups of the homeless, poor, delinquent and wanderers who use the drug in groups during smoking sessions in not-so-secluded places.
Locals call them “zombies”.
The name comes from the ‘zombie-like’ state they enter after using the drug, where they seem to lose all capacity to understand, process information and make decisions.
In extreme cases, ‘zombies’ can black out and become almost motionless, falling over whatever is in sight when the high takes effect.
It can take days or weeks for a user to feel completely rid of the feeling. When they regain consciousness, there is usually no memory of these events.
With some medical help and abstinence, recovery can happen at a much quicker pace but, even in the case of a first time user, the drug usually causes permanent damage to brain cells and long-term behavioral changes.
It is not that easy to escape the effects of synthetic marijuana on the body’s anatomy.
According to Ugo, “from medical analyses, it has been found that the active ingredients are dangerous and toxic”.
“The drug has severe short and long term effects of the human body, with no limit to which vital organ it affects.”, he adds.
Short term use can cause “nausea and vomiting, heavy sweating, uncontrolled/spastic body movements, acute kidney injury, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and reduced blood supply to the heart”.
Long-term users face health risks that are far worse and can be, in extreme cases, terminal. “Unlike the non-synthetic Marijuana which isn’t known to be addictive, synthetic Marijuana can be addictive”, Ugo says.
“It can lead to withdrawal symptoms which include craving, nightmares, heavy sweating, nausea, tremors, headaches, extreme tiredness, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, problems thinking clearly and neglect of other interests or duties.”
“After repeated use of the drug, users can experience forgetfulness and confusion. We’ve at times heard of and read about users/addicts experiencing paralysis”, he continues.
Beyond these health concerns, there is also the social implication of dealing with such an addictive drug that is mostly used by the youth and individuals on the fringes of society.
Factors like these have pushed governments in countries most hit by synthetic marijuana to educate the population, enact legislation and provide intensive rehabilitation in a bid to defeat what is fast becoming an epidemic.
The reverse is the case in Nigeria. Despite reports of overdoses, insanity and organ failure caused by synthetic marijuana in recent months, Nigeria’s drug agencies are yet to even show any signs that they are even aware of the drug’s existence.
For now, the full extent of their focus is on often-celebrated cannabis busts that end with press releases and high-definition pictures.
(Efforts to reach the Lagos State Command of the Nigerian Police Force were not responded to)
As they tackle a rapidly emerging epidemic, countries in the West have considered and explored many routes to get synthetic marijuana off their streets.
In the UK, stringent laws have been enacted to discourage the production, sale, and use of synthetic marijuana.
The United States’ approach to solving this problem has involved similar stringent laws, but also a trend where states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana at various levels. While some believe this approach is as liberal as it gets, there are others who feel it is not liberal enough.
In the alternative, certain individuals and pro-Spice groups have called for a more liberal approach to synthetic marijuana around the world.
They claim that the original compound that Huffman developed was the product of years of scientific research, and much safer than what is sold today.
What they advocate is that the government sponsors research into synthetic marijuana with a view to developing compounds that are safer to consume.
Regardless of the many differing opinions, one thing is certain, that more people need to be educated on the perils of using and selling synthetic marijuana.
Unlike regular marijuana, synthetic marijuana is hardly stored in bulk or sold in dark dens under the bridge, so law enforcement agents must drop their usual model of random raids for an approach that relies more on community policing and coordinated investigations.
Anti-Spice laws must also be created, with heavy sanctions for those who violate its provisions.
In all fairness, the spread of synthetic marijuana has come faster than was first feared, but the dangers that it poses demand that efforts against it move even quicker.
Today, it’s just a drug that has put a number of people in the hospital, but there's nothing to stop it from becoming a full blown epidemic.