Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-TOGO: Increased Drug Use Shadows Growing Trafficking

Noel Kokou Tadégnon

LOME, Jul 18 2008 (IPS) - As the Togolese capital becomes a regional hub for drug trafficking, many drug addicts in Lomé are seeking assistance to kick the habit.

"Help us get out of this life." Sourou A. is a 25-year-old drug addict that IPS met in one of Lomé's ghettos. "I have had enough; I can't take it any longer. I know that drugs are ruining my life, but I don't know how to stop."

Togo is being confronted with a growing phenomenon of drug abuse, marked by the concentration of drug addicts in isolated ghettos where access for non drug-users is impossible. There are 40 such areas scattered around Lomé.

In one of these areas, Jean Daniel S. emerges from one of several rough shacks made of rusted roofing sheets and other recycled materials. The 35-year-old addict has a Masters Degree in physical sciences. He recognises that it is not easy to quit, but he intends to fight and get out of his situation.

"It is something dreadful and it is very difficult to leave it," he confessed to IPS. "On a day when I don't take drugs, I don't feel well. And this dependency leads some drug addicts who do not have a job or any other means of buying their usual dose are obliged to steal."

In addition to Togolese nationals, one also meets young people of several other nationalities. More than 3,500 addicts aged between eight and 40 were registered in Lomé last year by non-governmental organizations.

According to Pastor Epiphane Yao, president of the Association for Aid and Support for the Rehabilitation of Drug-Users, there are children who grow up in these ghettos, born to addicts living here.

IPS saw mothers smoking drugs whilst cradling infants. Many of the children who grow up in this environment very quickly follow in their parents' footsteps to become drug-users.

According to Pastor Yao, a hundred or so people died of overdoses or drug-abuse-related disease last year. "The numbers are growing – we counted around 2,000 drug users in 2001, of which 12 have since died; there were 3,000 in 2006, with 68 death and 3,575 in 2007 with a hundred deaths."

Gnassa Djassoua, a professor of psychology who heads the Specialised Unit at the University Teaching Hospital in Lomé, explains that drug users generally die of the effects of the toxic substances in their bodies.

"There are sometimes medical complications like the respiratory depression which requires an emergency intervention. If not, the patients die. There are also psychiatric complications which make them insane," he told IPS.

According to statistics from the National Anti-Drug Committee (the Comité national anti-drogue, or CNAD, is a government body created in 1996 to fight against the scourge of addiction in Togo), 42 percent of the psychiatric patients in hospitals are victims of drug abuse. All kinds of drugs are responsible, but cannabis leads with approximately 98 percent.

In the face of the devastating effects of drug use, Pasteur Yao has succeeded in winning the trust of the ghetto inhabitants. He is the only outsider accepted by the addicts, who freely enters these unhealthy spaces. He organises Bible meetings and does his best to educate people on the need to give up their drug habits.

When IPS visited a group in the heart of Lomé along with the pastor last week, a religious mood reigned. Under the direction of pastor, there was singing and dancing and the reading of passages from the Bible by drug users.

"It is more than a job for us, it is a divine calling. And each morning, we come to visit them and speak about God and they accept us," Yao told IPS.

Some manage to give up drugs; but many others continue to struggle, he said:. "There are more and more young people who devote themselves to drug consumption and often, these young people have trouble quitting drugs."

According to Colonel Wanta Badombéna, permanent secretary of the CNAD, 5.5 percent of Togolese students experiment with drugs. "Some take drugs to stay awake to study. The majority are not aware that they are using drugs – they call it 'fortifying' and when they take these drugs at a certain frequency, they become dependent."

Badombéna indicated that the product currently in fashion among the students is called "caterpillar" – an amphetamine which enables them "to study non-stop from morning through the evening."

For many observers, drug use, particularly by young people, has increased in Togo since 2000, as the West Africa country has become a transit point for traffickers.

Badombéna says that five years ago, one could not find a Togolese national involved in drug trafficking. "The Togolese learned about the drug trade and today, more Togolese are arrested elsewhere than here in Togo, in particular in Europe." He adds that the Togolese police are also arresting many more foreigners involved in drug trafficking, generally in transit through Togo.

According to data provided by the CNAD, 584 traffickers were arrested in 2007 for drug trafficking. They were tried and sentenced to one to five years imprisonment, according to Kalao Kpémoua, the deputy-prosecutor of the Court of Lomé.

The drugs seized in Togo are burned. Just over 253 kilograms of drugs seized so far in 2008, of a total value of approximately $23.8 million dollars, were destroyed on June 28. This batch included 201 kg of cannabis, 50 kg of cocaine, one kilogramme of heroin and a quantity of psychotropic substances. These drugs are destroyed by the CNAD and the Central Office for the Suppression of Drug Trafficking in Togo.

According to CNAD some 1.5 tonnes of cannabis, 37 kg of heroin, and 7 kg of cocaine were seized in 2005; 425 kg of cannabis, 37 kg of cocaine seized in 2006; and 702 kg of cannabis, 12 kg of heroin, and 59 kg of cocaine, last year.

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