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Codeine How thousands of young Nigerians get their hands on drug

Codeine makes its way to the streets of Nigeria in a fairly uncomplicated scheme.

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A young Nigerian filmed consuming codeine


With a major drug addiction problem ravaging through Nigeria, an investigation has revealed how Nigerians as young as 10 years old are able to get their hands on codeine.

Codeine is an opiate, classified as a narcotic substance, which is largely used as a pain reliever and cough suppressant. Even though it's not an illegal drug, codeine, which comes in tablet and syrup form, has been largely abused for years by youths in the country.

In October 2017, a report presented to the National Assembly indicated that 3 million bottles of codeine are consumed daily in Kano and Jigawa, as the nation's youth have repurposed the medicine to become a straight drug used to get high.

Even though the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) constantly seizes and destroys large quantities every time, it's not hard for youths to find their way to getting their codeine high.

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A recent undercover report by the BBC has revealed that the distribution chains for the drug go as high up as from the manufacturing rooms of pharmaceutical companies in the country.

In the investigation conducted by BBC Pidgin and Africa Eye, undercover reporters discovered that industrial quantities of codeine leak to the streets through the back doors of pharmaceutical companies.

During the investigation, the undercover reporters were able to easily buy cartons of cough syrup directly from pharmaceutical companies without documentation.

With an abundance of unethical insiders who allegedly have links to street gangs, cartons of codeine make their way onto the streets through hoodlums who are up to the task.

According to an alleged sales representative of Emzor Pharmaceuticals Ltd, one of Nigeria's biggest, who was caught on a hidden camera, it's easy to sell the drug on the streets because addicts are ready to do anything for a hit.

He said, "This is a product I know that if I have one million cartons, I can sell it in a week. You know drug addicts. When an addict comes and there is no money, he wouldn't mind dropping even the key of his motor car just to satisfy that urge immediately. It's a paradise."

When he illegally sold 60 bottles of cough syrup to the BBC reporters who were masquerading as drug dealers, he assured them that it came straight from the company's manufacturing room.

"But hence I release to you, direct from the oven. Look at the carton - it is sealed with Emzor," he said.

Even though only stores with a pharmaceutical licence can buy the cough syrup from companies in Nigeria, highly-placed individuals in three pharmaceutical companies told undercover reporters about how to exploit the system to acquire and distribute the drug.

After buying the syrup directly from a pharmaceutical company without the appropriate restrictions put in place, salespeople at the unnamed company told undercover reporters to sell to young students in schools because they have a good appetite for it and will find the money to acquire the drug.

The head of Doriye Rehabilitation Centre in Kano, Sani Usaini, revealed that when the syrup makes it out of the halls of pharmaceutical companies, it finds its way onto the streets where hawkers and tricycle drivers are used as mules to boost the distribution chain.

Side effects of codeine abuse

A recovering codeine addict is chained while undergoing withdrawal at the Doriye Rehabilitation Centre in Kano play

A recovering codeine addict is chained while undergoing withdrawal at the Doriye Rehabilitation Centre in Kano


Codeine abuse can lead to common side effects such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, and drowsiness. More severe side effects include shallow breathing, low blood pressure, seizures, urination problems, confusion, agitation, and hallucinations.

Further abuse of codeine, such as mixing it with alcohol or other sedatives, can also lead to respiratory depression which can cause an overdose.

Addiction to the drug can lead to physical dependence which occurs when a person's brain and body become so used to the presence of the opiate that if they suddenly stop taking it, they will experience withdrawal symptoms, which could typically involve severe shaking of the body, shock, and even schizophrenia.

Rehabilitation centres, such as the one Usaini runs, bear the brunt of the effects of addiction to codeine as the BBC filmed former addicts who appeared unstable due to being in withdrawal. At the centre, which is described as "a place of nightmare", some recovering addicts are chained to prevent them from being violent.

In recognition of the crisis, Senate President, Bukola Saraki, has already called for an amendment to the NDLEA Act, hoping that it will result in effective methods to curtail addiction to codeine which is predominant among the nation's youths.

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