Painkillers are all the rave for recreational drug users the world over nowadays; in Nigeria, the favourite of them is tramadol, an over the counter pain medication that is at the fulcrum of a very present drug problem.
On Tuesday, Twitter user @KoloKennethK tweeted his account of a major drug bust involving billions of naira worth of Tramadol at Lagos’ Apapa Port.
“39m tablets of Tramadol, worth N3bn with above prescription quantity per tablet seized at Apapa.”, the tweet read.
As astounding as the figures are, it only confirms something that the thousands of empty drug tabs on the streets of cities like Lagos and Kano have been trying to tell us.
Where conversations about drug abuse come up, fingers are most commonly pointed at marijuana and codeine.
Reports like the aforementioned tweet and emerging social trends show that we may have been wrong: Tramadol, a seemingly harmless drug sold over-the-counter to anyone with a buck, may be Nigeria’s problem drug.
What is Tramadol?
Tramadol is an opioid analgesic. It is prescribed to treat moderate to moderately severe pain and is considered a safer alternative to other narcotic analgesics like hydrocodone, and methadone.
It is delivered in two forms. For medical purposes, such as surgeries or for severe pain, it is given as intravenously as an injection or passed as drips.
It is also sold in Nigeria as an over-the-counter medication in green capsules of between 50mg to 400mg.
When taken in pill form at high doses, some of its less desirous side-effects include nausea, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, and dry mouth.
In the inverse, tramadol can produce a euphoric high similar to another commonly abused opiate medication, oxycodone (OxyContin).
In addition to this high, it is also abused for the feeling of numbness from pain, lucidity and extreme alertness that it gives by heightening the senses.
The numbness that Tramadol brings is one of the main reasons why it has become a drug of choice. Users describe the feeling of being high on Tramadol as “forgetting everything that doesn’t matter”.
Why are young Nigerians popping pills?
The reasons for its proliferation are far simpler. First, there’s pricing.
Contrary to what many think, getting high in Nigeria is pretty pricey. While the basic parcel of local marijuana can be bought for next to nothing, the most used drugs are rather expensive.
A bottle of cough syrup with codeine can cost anything from 1000 naira to 2500 naira. Strains of marijuana like Loud can run into 15,000 naira for a small sachet that may or may not last the user beyond a few days.
By contrast, a 10-tablet strip of 100mg Tramadol costs the grand total of 100 naira.
The cheap pricing is made worse by how easy it is to get the drug. Seeing as it is not banned or carefully regulated, most pharmacies still sell tramadol to any and everybody who walks in.
When the pharmacy fails, call on your aboki. Lately, a sub-culture of mobile drug merchants has sprouted in places like Ojuelegba and Lekki.
Most of them sell an assortment of blood pressure pills, painkillers and muscle relaxers.
Because they will sell anything that is in widespread use, they also sell Tramadol. It is from here, not pharmacies, that most drug users get the product.
“Boys buy this Tramadol a lot”, says Hakeem, a drug cart pusher at Ojuelegba, “When I want to buy my drugs, I ask the warehouseman for tramadol and he gives me a lot, even though everybody is buying too”.
“Some people like to buy 100 mg. Others buy like 400 mg. There’s one boy that always come to buy from me. He’ll just buy, open it and throw it in his mouth”, he laughs.
This ease of consumption is at the helm of its proliferation.
While marijuana is still the favourite drug of young Nigerians, save for edibles, it is nearly impossible to use the drug without attracting some undesired attention.
Codeine is much more malleable. However, to maintain a steady high, the user often has to carry it around in cups or in bottles of soda that mask its colour.
Using tramadol is as simple as popping a pill. There’s no odour, no cup to contend with. It is possible to have a dangerous tramadol habit without attracting any attention. Which is why the potential for abuse is higher than any other popular recreational drug.
There's no easy way out of addiction
When he was first introduced to Tramadol in 2014, it came from a friend who had picked up the drug during a rather-long ASUU strike.
Bode had turned down various advances offering his marijuana and alcohol.
For Tramadol, it was different. The perception of pills as manageable designer drugs, the vice of the elite, is a strong one. After struggling to stand his ground, he gave in.
“That was in 2014. My friend moved in around that time so he used to tell me how to use it.”, he tells me.
“We were three in the apartment and we used to pop tram every day”
“It was so much fun, we’d get high and just need around. The drug makes you talkative so I started talking a lot to people, especially girls”
Gradually, one 100 mg capsule turned into two, then to one 400 mg tablet.
By August, they were all addicted. All these of them.
“We stopped going to class or even stepping on campus. We would put tramadol in everything from yoghurt to alcohol”
“In our mind, we were living life", he recounts.
But in reality, their lives were suffering.
Sunday had completely stopped going for classes after mid-semester tests. It wasn’t until final exams were announced that he realized he had spent his fees on feeding his addiction.
Between a crippling drug habit and poor finances, he had no time to bounce back.
Three months and a few exams later, Sunday was forced out of school.
It took an intervention by his parents to get him away from his apartment where he had become a drug-addled recluse.
Bode’s story is not an isolated incident. While he claims he took it out of curiosity, some of the side effects of Tramadol are desired by casual drug users and noobs as well.
One is in the belief that it increases sexual stamina, by numbing extreme pleasure points and increasing the flow of blood to that body part.
Others believe that it gives physical energy and helps with intense concentration during serious work.
Regardless of the Why or the How, the What is that Tramadol use has reached endemic proportions in Nigeria.
The confluence of the factors that have pushed it into open hands and shabby pharmacies have now made it, perhaps, the most abused pharmaceutical product in Nigeria.
This scourge affects the entire breadth of the country, but the spate of drug use in Nigeria’s North is causing serious concerns.
In an interview with THISDAY, Olarewaju Ipinmisho, former DG of the NDLEA disclosed that Kano, Kaduna, Borno and lately, Niger, are among states “with the highest cases of constant drug abuse in the country”. According to him, “if you take an estimate of 10 boys, particularly in Kano, seven will be on drugs”.
There’s enough reason to believe that a fair share of these users call on Tramadol pills to take them to that place of euphoria.
As with most things that do not involve the spending of money, there are no clear statistics of drug use in Nigeria but one need only take a walk through the streets of inner-city Abuja, in towns like Karu, or Fagge in Kano where empty Tramadol sachets litter the floor like part of the scenery.
While we were paying attention to codeine and wondering if the Nigerian government would borrow a leaf from their counterparts in the United States and legalise marijuana, Tramadol became Nigeria’s problem drug.
We need to make progress
Despite consistent reportage of Nigeria’s drug problem and the existence of institutions like the NDLEA and NAFDAC, not much has been done by the government to resolve the epidemic.
The closest we have come was on January 27, 2010. A group of legislators in the House of Representatives, that included Hon. Yusuf Maitama Tuggar moved a motion on an urgent need to check the incessant abuse of syrup with codeine.
The motion expressed worry that many youths now consumed these syrups “as sedatives, drugs and stimulants mixed with soft drinks”.
Not much has happened since then.
It is somewhat obvious that the problem is more institutional than everything else and it is tied to fundamental sectors like Education, Power, Job Creation and more.
As such, doing something about this is now a matter of necessity; there’s only so much between where Nigeria is and a future where our disenchanted youth are stuck between drugs and a brick wall.