Murimi Mutiga @murimimutiga
Sometimes in 2015, Hamza Yusuf suffered a persistent cough that defied herbal medication prescribed by his grandfather, a renown traditional healer at Bombolulu in Mombasa. He bought a cough syrup known as Benylin at a nearby chemist.
The syrup contained a substance called codeine which is an opioid drug that treats mild pain and acts as a cough suppressant. When Yusuf later joined his friends to pass time at the Jomo Kenyatta public beach, he noticed one of them buy the same drug—Benylin—from a miraa vendor.
The friend would then pour the syrup into a bottle half-filled with soda, added two diazepam tablets and shook to mix. He instantly became intoxicated. This is when Yusuf’s addiction to Purple Drank started. Purple Drank is a mixture of a prescription cold medication—mostly cough syrup— with a soft drink and candies, often added for colour and taste.
The cold medication should contain promethazine (an antihistamine) and codeine. These ingredients combined make a purple liquid that is then sipped until euphoria. Its effects last between three and six hours. It is also called Lean, Syrup or Sizzurp. When Yusuf learned he could use the syrup to “get high” he used his remaining cough syrup to make the mix.
“I was surprised to learn that the same drug I was using to treat cough was being used as a drug. I decided to use the small potion of my syrup that had remained back at home the next day. I mixed it with soda, the effect was instant. Two years down the line, I am addicted to codeine,” he says.
Treat anxiety Yusuf spends Sh600 daily to buy Benylin and additional Sh200 to buy 10 tablets Diazepam and co-zepam in the afternoon. Diazepam and co-zepam which are sold over the counter between Sh10 and Sh30 per tablet in pharmacies.
The two drugs treat anxiety, acute alcohol withdrawal, and seizures . “If I don’t get money to buy the drug, I end up stealing from my parents,” he confesses, adding that he is jobless. He collects and sells scrap metals and plastics to get cash to buy his daily dose.
He says has also started using bhang to sustain his high. “Today if I don’t take the drug, I will wake up very tired, have seizures, itching everywhere, constipation and stomach cramps. I regret getting myself into this,” says Yusuf.
Yusuf’s case is just one of the many, with the abuse of cough syrups taking root in the country, especially in Mombasa and Nairobi. Anti-drugs campaign agencies have raised alarm with the Pharmacy and Poisons Board over the abuse.
The board is investigating the same. “Here in Mombasa, everyone wants to be seen holding Purple Drank. The youth think it is prestigious and elevates your status above miraa chewers,” said Yusuf. In many towns, many pharmacies sell the cough syrups and the anti-anxiety tablets over the counter or without prescription, contrary to regulations.
Experts say codeine is a dangerous and potentially deadly drug. Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya (PSK) president Paul Mwaniki, says the high demand for the drug is worrying. “Codeine is not very far from cocaine and morphine.
People do not know that drugs sold in pharmacies are to be administered in doses as prescribed by a doctor, hence they can be dangerous when abused,” said Dr Mwaniki. He said there are plans to add the medicine into the category of drugs with high potential of abuse, so that its sale can be monitored and controlled.
Pharmacy and Poisons Board’s Senior Inspector of Drugs Julius Kaluai says co-zepam and diazepam are increasingly being abused by those out to get the effect of codeine in them. “We have arrested several people selling some of these drugs over the counter and those abusing them too,” he said. The board is expected to release a report on a probe carried out on the misuse of the drugs this month.
Abuse of cough syrup is popular in Western nations, especially the US, with some celebrities caught up in the web. According to Nacada, Coast region has the highest cases of drug abuse in the country. In Mombasa alone, close to 100,000 people are hooked on drugs.