Experts call for zero-tolerance policy on drug ‘time bomb’

Photo courtesy of Sadock Kaisi @ Pexels

By Wagdy Sawahel

Drug use among adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa, including a considerable proportion of students at African higher education institutions, confirms the importance of an effective drug prevention policy to prevent further harm to mental health and academic performance.

study on substance abuse among adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa conducted between 2000 and 2016 showed (in the regional subgroup analysis) the highest percentage (55.5%) of substance abuse in Central Africa, followed by East Africa (48.99%), West Africa (38.3%) and Southern Africa (37%). The mean age of participants was 15.6 years.

A recent (2021) study focusing on undergraduate students at selected tertiary institutions in Nigeria, found a high prevalence of drug use, especially among men. The researchers found tobacco and alcohol had the highest prevalence, followed by cannabis and cocaine.

Another group of researchers found that 73.3% of students at the Institute of Technology, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, had used drugs at least once, according to a study published in March 2021.

Wamala Twaibu, executive director of Uganda Harm Reduction Network, told University World News that drug use is a growing phenomenon in Africa.

“However, it is a silent time bomb. Most governments in Africa are still living in denial and do not accept that this problem has taken over the lives of many university students and secondary school level learners,” Twaibu said.

“In fact, this phenomenon has been termed ‘a foreign vice’ by the majority of leaders,” he said. Governments are looking at it from a criminal point of view instead of following a public health approach.”

Criminalising drug use pushes people into the shadows, Twaibu said. They are afraid to talk and seek much-needed medical help.

Status of drug use among university students

“There is little information on drug use among university students,” Twaibu said. “However, some studies we have done in Uganda, such as the rapid assessment and population size estimates for intravenous drug users, show a growing number of university students use drugs due to a number of factors.”

In 2020, Dr Alice Masese of the University of Nairobi found an upsurge in drug use among undergraduate university students in Kenya.

Masese investigated the causes and consequences of this phenomenon in the literature, concluding that students abuse drugs due to stress, stimulation of the central nervous system, course load, curiosity, peer pressure, individual and family factors, parental misuse of drugs, lack of knowledge, genetic factors, traumatic life events, socioeconomic status and macro-environmental factors.

She wrote that the abuse increases problems relating to health and wellbeing, such as an increased risk of premature death due to accidents, risky sexual behaviour that could lead to unwanted pregnancy and diseases such as HIV/Aids, as well as academic problems.

In a 2017 study, South African researchers at the University of the Free State concluded that “self-reported use of alcohol and drugs and smoking among medical students is alarming”.

The study recommended that “additional student support, early identification and referral for management and-or rehabilitation should be a priority at tertiary institutions responsible for training future healthcare professionals”.Drug use leads to poor performance

Godwin Samuel, a lecturer in the faculty of health sciences at Bingham University in Nigeria, agrees with Masese.

Drug use leads to poor performance

Photo courtesy of Oladimeji Ajegbile@ Pexels

In a study published in 2020, ‘Opinions of students and teachers on drug abuse among senior secondary schools in Zaria education zone, Kaduna State, Nigeria’, Samuel and his co-researchers found that students who abuse drugs perform well below the level of average students in their respective classes.

Students who perform poorly take longer to complete their studies or drop out completely. “This invariably affects who they will be in the future and their careers,” Samuel said.

“Drug abuse does not only affect academic performance, but it has an effect on the civil behaviour of the students,” he added.

“The nation is at the mercy of student drug use and action needs to be taken to determine realistic solutions to mitigate the destructive outcomes of drug and substance abuse among student communities who constitute the future scientific workforce for sustainable development,” he warned.

Measures to tackle drug use at universities

Samuel said: “To fight the drug use phenomenon and protect students, African universities should introduce a core general course on drug abuse from year one to the final year.”

The content should strictly revolve around the harm of drugs to society, health, their careers, and their academics, he added. He also said that university lecturers should undergo training on drug abuse and rehabilitation.

Tewodros Shegute, a researcher at the Health and Medical Science College at the Kotebe Metropolitan University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, told University World News that, “African higher institutions can start by organising continuous awareness creation activities about the multiple impacts of drug abuse.”

Promoting a variety of healthy leisure activities on the campuses is another intervention because it keeps students away from off-campus activities that encourage drug use, he said.

“The university administration can cooperate with local law enforcement bodies to avoid pubs near the campuses,” said Shegute, who is the lead author of a March 2021 study ‘Prevalence of Substance Use in University Students, Ethiopia’.

“Besides sensitising lecturers, students and other university staff on ways to detect problems, my research also emphasises the significance of changing the knowledge and attitudes of youths about the adverse effects of drug abuse on their health, using appropriate education and counselling programmes,” Shegute pointed out.

Twaibu said: “Universities should prioritise research on drug use to generate evidence-based information for advocacy and programming.”

Roland Nnaemeka Okoro, a researcher in the faculty of pharmacy at the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria, told University World News that it is critical for African universities to use the most effective drug use prevention methods.

Okoro investigated drug use among undergraduate students in Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria. In his study, he recommended that universities should include combinations of interactive teaching and learning, building highly specific resilience skills, provision of educational information, and students’ direct involvement in the delivery of such programmes.

For example, African universities must adopt and implement drug testing and zero-tolerance drug use policies and regulations to make students aware of the seriousness of drug use, said Okoro.

“Students who test positive for drugs should be denied admission to the university, while those who test negative should be required to sign an undertaking that they will not use drugs during their studentship period,” Okoro said.

“Students who violate the university’s zero-tolerance drug policy should face harsher sanctions and punishment, including expulsion from the university.”

Informing university students about the potential consequences of drug use can help them make the best decisions for their future,” Okoro emphasised.

A 2020 study emphasises the role librarians could play to inform students about the dangers of drug or substance abuse and how to avoid them.

“Besides establishing a drug-free student society to encourage positive peer pressure to divert attention away from drugs and prevent new cases from occurring, a mentoring programme and provision of student counselling service must also be set up,” said Okoro.

Many university students use drugs in the hope of becoming more sociable or sexually desirable, Okoro said. “This group of students would benefit from a compassionate mentor.”

Okoro added that universities must partner with parents to encourage drug use prevention at home as students will be much less likely to experiment with drugs if they hear and process the message of prevention both at school and at home.

This article first appeared in University World News,

Published here with permission.


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