Deadly drug Kush haunts West Africa
11 Jun 2024 - 14:17
Source: Freetown in Sierra Leone ©Viti from Getty Images via

A devastating synthetic drug is catching on like wildfire in several countries of West Africa: Kush. In April of this year, it prompted the president of Sierra Leone, the country hardest hit to date, to declare a state of emergency.  Profound knowledge on the exact ingredients, composition and distribution of the drug have been lacking – preliminary testing of kush starts to shed some light. Together with The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC), The Clingendael Institute calls for a rapid joint approach. 

 The drug reportedly first surfaced in 2016 in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Kush is cheap and insiders say it is the most used drug in the country. It varies in colour between light green, dark green, brown and reddish. It is usually mixed with tobacco and smoked. According to people who use drugs, the drug relieves stress or simply makes all feelings disappear. 

GITOC co-designed a research study into Kush in Sierra Leone with the Clingendael Institute. The research aims to support civil society and authorities in West Africa, and the rest of the world to develop evidence-based responses by providing more data. According to initial tests using an FTIR spectrometer by the Global Initiative, Kush contains synthetic cannabinoids and – significantly - nitazenes. The components are sprayed onto marshmallow leaves, but other leaves are also increasingly used.

There are no official figures on the death toll of Kush in West Africa, but authorities in Sierra Leone say the numbers are tragically significant. There has been ongoing debate as to whether kush ingredients are locally manufactured or imported. More knowledge about the origin and composition of Kush is needed to answer the widespread crisis it causes.

 Most samples in Sierra Leone indicate nitazenes as the main ingredient, while samples from Guinea-Bissau consist mainly of cannabinoids. Nitazenes are powerful synthetic opioids, some of which can be up to 100 times more potent than heroin and up to ten times more potent than fentanyl. Since 2019, nitazenes have been linked to a significant number of overdose deaths in the United States and several European countries.

 As part of the public health response to Kush, there is urgent need to increase the availability of naloxone, a pharmaceutical opioid antagonist which is reportedly effective in reversing overdoses of nitazene. Chemical testing equipment and capabilities are also needed, alongside capacity building to ensure correct usage. Without this, it is impossible to accurately monitor the illicit drug markets, trafficking and revenues, and develop evidence-based responses.

A more in-depth report on Kush in Sierra Leone will be co-published with Clingendael later.

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