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Growing number of young people in Ghana abusing pharmaceutical drugs for euphoric feeling

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The non-medical and illicit use of three pharmaceutical drugs, codeine-based Benylin cough syrup, rohypnol with the generic name flunitrazepam, and tramadol, is spreading among a number of young people living within some local communities.

Preliminary investigation by Ghana Business News has found that these drugs are mixed as a form of cocktail and taken just to get high or euphoric. What is disturbing is that these drugs are easily accessible to young people at community pharmacies with the active connivance of pharmacists and their supportive staff, who are aware that these young people are regular clients.

During monitoring at one such pharmacy close to the Nungua market and transport terminal in the Krowor Municipality in the Greater Accra region, we found that Benylin codeine-based cough syrup is not stocked openly alongside other cough syrups on the shelves but kept away and only dispensed to a certain class of young people, mostly men, and mainly nationals of one of Ghana’s neighbouring countries in West Africa.

The cost of Benylin cough syrup is very high and is sold at over a hundred Ghana cedis at this pharmacy. It is usually dispensed alongside with rohypnol and tramadol to these young men, who appear to be unemployed and are usually seen hanging out in groups within the Krowor community. Clearly, the sale of these drugs appears to be a very profitable venture for some pharmacies.

Ghana Business News has sighted an Executive Instrument (E.I.167) 2018, under the signature of Ghana’s Health Minister, giving details on the restrictions of the importation, manufacture and registration of codeine-containing cough syrups and touches on the abuse of tramadol as well.

The E.I points to the security threats that the effects of and misuse of these opioids pose to the public and adds that there are other cough syrups with lower potential for addictions as compared to codeine-based syrups.

The E.I. therefore places a ban on codeine cough syrups such as Benylin and Diphex syrups and adds that a person shall not manufacture, import or offer for sale codeine-containing syrups.

There are strong indications to suggest that there is a vibrant supply chain in and outside Ghana working in the dark together with a number of drug companies and people who move these drugs from the manufacturers and suppliers to the consumers, who are mostly young men within the local communities.

Dr. Anthony Ameka, the Executive Secretary of the Ghana National Chamber of Pharmacy, in an interview with the Ghana Business News said the Chamber works closely with the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) to address some of these illegal activities that take place among companies operating in the pharmaceutical industry.

The chamber, a private entity, is an association in the pharmaceutical industry and it is made up of business operators and firms among other key players who work together to promote pharmaceutical growth that support national development.

Although the FDA and the Pharmacy Council are in charge of regulations and sanitizing the pharmaceutical industry, the lack of adequate resources and logistics are a challenge to these regulators in enforcing regulations in the industry. The chamber therefore has a role to play to help address the negative practices within the sector.

Dr. Ameka explained that the chamber has been supporting the FDA to clean up the sector and has been involved in alerting and sharing information with the FDA anytime there is information available that a company is involved in practices that compromise the pharmaceutical industry.

According to him, the chamber also conducts research from time to time to check on which drug companies are involved in selling unregistered pharmaceutical drugs.

Despite the checks to regulate the pharmaceutical sector with a number of countries in and outside Africa, banning the use of drugs such as rohypnol and codeine-based cough syrups, there are disturbing reports of a growing trend of the abuse of some of these drugs.

Recent reports are pointing to young men in other African countries such as Nigeria and Kenya also experiencing the same wave of the abuse of opioid drugs such as codeine-based cough syrups, tramadol, including rohypnol amid a thriving supply chain and distribution channels from regions outside Africa such as Asia, which appears to be the suppliers.

These activities have serious security threats due to the high association of crime to these illicit drug use among unemployed youths in Africa.

In Ghana, tramadol has also now been reclassified as a prescription medicine. Codeine is an addictive alkaloid narcotic used as a hypnotic, analgesic and antitussive drug that inhibits or suppresses coughing and tramadol is a synthetic opioid analgesic drug.

However, opioids such as tramadol and codeine are highly addictive, with serious medical implications when used wrongly or for non-medical purposes.

For instance, tramadol is a pain killer belonging to the class of opioids that acts on the central nervous system to treat moderate or severe pain, however, when taken for non-medical reason and in higher doses it produces effects similar to the use of hard narcotic drugs, which has serious health implications.

Rohypnol has also gained a bad reputation and is known to be used as a date rape drug and abused for various purposes including using it for rape purposes since the it can be used to drug an individual and makes the person unable to recollect happenings while under the influence of the drug and therefore can be used illicitly for sexual assault.  Medically, rohypnol has a long-lasting sedative effects and used as a hypnotic and as a premedication for anesthesia. There are also reports suggesting that it is also used by cocaine abusers to relieve side effects. The drug affects the body by acting as a muscle relaxant, but impairs mental functions and is also addictive among others.

By Eunice Menka

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