High for three days: Kenya’s prescription drugs abuse craze

High for three days: Kenya’s prescription drugs abuse craze

In May last year, Jumaf3 tweeted: “Disaster in my village. There is a drug that one adds to alcohol and becomes drunk for at least three days. Young men are wasting away daily.”

This Twitter post caught my attention. Below the tweet, other people commented, some giving names of different drugs that young people in other parts of the country were abusing.

I have been investigating these claims since July last year. I went to some places mentioned to get the real story.

The drugs, referred to as cosmos, “ma yellow”, or “ma white” in slums, are sold discreetly by back-alley peddlers and chemists.
But not to everyone. It would help if sellers know you. I went undercover in Mukuru Kaiyaba slum, Nairobi, to buy the drugs.

My sources shared information on the chemists that sold the drugs.
However, all my attempts failed. The sellers pretended not to understand what I was asking for – perhaps the failure to speak in fluent ghetto slang gave me away.
However, my source had no difficulty getting the drugs an hour later from the chemists that had turned me down.

“They (chemists) know the calibre of people that use and buy these drugs. It does not matter how you camouflage, they would never sell to you. It is illegal and very risky to sell to anyone,” the source said.
“The other option is to get the drugs from cannabis peddlers who also stock them but getting to the dungeons is a risky affair. I doubt they will trust you.”

"Ma yellow", "ma white"

He bought a few tablets of the “ma yellow” and “ma white”, which turned out to be Benzhexol and Diazepam, respectively.

According to Dr Michael Mungoma, the Dean of the School of Pharmacy at Mt Kenya University, Benzhexol is used to reduce tremors, muscle stiffness and movement problems associated with Parkinson’s disease. It also helps reduce the side effects of using some medications used to treat mental conditions.

Diazepam is a controlled drug that is used in the management of anxiety disorders, short-term relief of anxiety symptoms, spasticity associated with upper motor neuron disorders, as an adjunct therapy for muscle spasms, pre-operative anxiety relief, management of certain refractory epilepsy patients, an adjunct in severe recurrent convulsive seizures and as an adjunct in status epilepticus.

These peddlers, we learnt later, can only sell up to five tablets at once. They get suspicious if one asks for more.
My source, who had no trouble getting the same drugs from two peddlers, added: “These drugs are popular in the neighbourhood because as they are cheap and their ‘high’ lasts long. Many young people are addicts.”
Lizz*, a hairdresser in Mathare, was introduced to the drugs by friends during a party in 2020.

“I had started living independently after a disagreement with my parents. With no one around, I began hanging out with friends who introduced me to maduya (slang for hard drugs). My mind is relaxed and I am in my own world when I take the drugs. No stress. Since then, I pop the pills to get high and feel good anytime I’m low,” Lizz said.

The mother of one takes Benzhexol, Diazepam and a blue pill that we later learnt is Viagra.
“I take the drugs like three times a week. I pop three tablets at once. Some of my friends use them daily. I can take them with hot liquid but mix them with alcohol if I want to get high fast,” she said.
Lizz buys the drugs from peddlers in Mathare Bondeni, where Benzhexol and Diazepam retail at Sh20 a tablet. Viagra goes for Sh50.

Martha*, 25, uses the drugs “to forget my problems”.
The mother of four started using the drugs when she just 20.
She walks eight kilometres to and from Mathare North to Korogocho to buy cosmos and a drug called “red devil”.

“I introduced myself to these drugs because of problems. I was going through a lot in life when I noticed that people who took the drugs appeared relaxed,” she said. 
Martha says she felt dizzy but relaxed the first time she took the drugs. 

Like many other youths we encountered, she pops the drugs as many times as she can, then washes them down with muratina – a traditional brew – and smokes marijuana to get “super high”.

Mixed with alcohol

In Mukuru and Kawangware, our source revealed, “ma yellow” or “ma white” are mixed with alcohol in pubs. The effect on the user wears out three to four days later. 

Here, one buys a 250ml bottle of any hard drink – gin, whisky, brandy or vodka – and the pub operator asks if the client wants the “special one”.
The special hard drinks are often laced with a tablet of “ma yellow” or “ma white” and cost an extra Sh50.
“Ever seen people looking drunk and wasted very early in the morning? These youths, mostly from informal settlements, don’t actually take liquor that morning. It is the effect of alcoholic drinks laced with prescription drugs,” the source said.

“When the drugs are mixed with alcohol, the guys are only supposed to take a hot beverage every morning to get high. They can do that for three to four days and stay high before buying the ‘special’ alcohol again.”
After visiting a few clubs, our source helped us locate one that had a “special gin”.

The Sunday Nation paid for the drinks laced with “ma yellow” and “ma white” and took them for analysis.
The alcohol samples were analysed at the University of Nairobi’s Drug Analysis and Research Unit.
The four gin and vodka samples were 250ml. Results of one sample indicated it had 6.7mg of Benzhexol and 3mg of Diazepam, while the second had 6.9mg of Benzhexol and 3mg of Diazepam.

Abortion drugs

Our findings were corroborated by a study by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada), which revealed that prescription drugs are the most widely abused.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Sunday Nation also learnt that the fastest-growing drug problem in Kenya is not cocaine or heroin but prescription drugs.

Our findings were corroborated by a study by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada), which revealed that prescription drugs are the most widely abused.
Further analysis showed that Diazepam is the most widely abused prescription drug, representing 35.2 per cent of the 68 samples.

It is followed by Benzhexol (Artane) at 22 per cent and flunitrazepam – Rohypnol – at 14.7 per cent.
Others are Amitriptyline at 7.3 per cent, Chlorpromazine – largactil – (4.4 per cent), Codeine (4.4 per cent), Carbamazepine (1.5 per cent), Tramadol (1.5 per cent), Chlorpheniramine (1.5 per cent), Benadryl (1.5 per cent), Haloperidol (1.5 per cent), Propofol (1.5 per cent) and Olanzapine (1.5 per cent).


The study showed that abuse of prescription drugs is widespread across the country.
Twelve of the 18 sampled counties have confirmed results of prescription drug abuse.
The counties are Nairobi, Garissa, Meru, Marsabit, Makueni, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, Busia, Kisumu, Uasin Gishu and Nyeri.

Dr Mungoma, a National Executive Council member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya, said drug misuse and abuse means someone taking medication inappropriately.
“When prescription drugs are abused, they are often taken in a way other than how they were intended. For example, many drugs are crushed and inhaled when taken recreationally, yet those pills were designed to be released slowly over 12 hours,” he said.

He added that when prescription drugs are abused, they end up depressing the brain and slowing things down.
“They can decrease physical reactions, so one becomes very slow in responding to things. They can reduce cognitive functions (reasoning and thinking). They also heighten the risk of acute conditions such as heart attack and stroke and can lead to suicidal tendencies as they interfere with thinking,” the expert said.

During our investigations, we noticed users combining the drugs, which, according to Dr Mungoma, can be dangerous and even fatal.
“One can die from these substances that depress the body. Even for patients, doctors start Benzhexol in very small dosages so that the body can start to adjust. It can only be increased, based on the patient’s response,” Dr Mungoma said.

The doctor explained why these youths might be using Viagra.
“Viagra works by increasing blood flow to specific areas. The side effects include increased heart rate, blood pressure goes up and some blood vessels getting affected. With increased blood flow, some people may at some point get to the desired point of highness quickly,” he said.

The abuse is so rampant that children as young as eight are also hooked.

Brain development  

According to Ms Leah Kuria, a counselling psychologist, drug abuse among children can hamper brain development and leave them retarded.

From the moment a child is conceived, the brain begins growing, becoming more complex with time. The full development of the brain takes years.
According to research, the human brain does not stop developing until we reach our mid-20s.
Substance abuse among young people can cause long-term brain damage. The effects are irreversible in some cases.

“The brain is developing in this age group. As the brain develops and you throw in something else, many things will be interrupted. This child might even retard. If the child’s heart is beating faster than normal, if they are not getting enough sleep, brain development is delayed,” she said.
Ms Alice Mutuma, a director at Nacada, urges parents to spend time with their children as this can help identify behaviour changes early enough.

“If you notice that your son spending more time alone in the bedroom, that should be a red flag. Boys are wired to be out there playing and interacting with friends. You can only tell that if you spend time with them,” Ms Mutuma said. 

She advises parents to pull their children from an environment that has a bad influence on them. 
“That also includes the school. Know your children’s friends and their families. The problem at times emanates from home, like where parents are abusing drugs. When you send a child for a sleepover with friends, he can be gradually introduced to drugs,” Ms  Mutuma said.
She added that other parents allow their children to order food online, with delivery people bringing it to their doorstep.

Strict guidelines

“The sad reality is it is not food being delivered in some instances. It is drugs and alcohol,” she said. 
Ms Mutuma urges the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) to provide strict guidelines on handling prescriptive drugs.

“With the emerging challenge of diversion of prescription drugs for non-medical use, the PPB needs to implement interventions to control this problem. This should include engagement of law enforcement agencies and healthcare providers,” she said.

“In partnership with Nacada, the board needs to implement demand-reduction strategies to educate those at risk on the potential harm and other adverse consequences of non-medical use of prescription drugs.”
The Sunday Nation established that many young people go for prescription drugs as they are considered “legal highs” and better alternatives to narcotics.

If a person is found with narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances without a prescription, he or she can be given a 20-year prison term.

The person is also liable to a fine of Sh1 million or three times the market value of the narcotic or psychotropic substance. They can also be imprisoned for life or pay the fine and go to jail.
“I don’t fear being arrested for taking these drugs. Police can arrest you for having heroin, cocaine or marijuana. But I can get these drugs from a chemist or hospital,” a 21-year-old man said.

The drugs are affordable, readily available and easily accessible in a country a third of its young adults remain jobless.
According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, some 5,341,182, or 38.9 per cent of the 13,777,600 young Kenyans are jobless.

“With only Sh20, I can buy a few tablets to make me feel good. If I don’t have money for heroin, I can buy ‘ma-white’,” Mwangi, a 32-year-old man, said.
Prescription drugs first came to be abused as a way of “knocking off” the effects of stimulant medicine and overcoming insomnia.

“After chewing miraa (khat) for many hours, I cannot sleep. I have to take ‘C5’ (street name for Diazepam) to sleep,” said 30-year-old Stephen.
According to the Nacada report, prescription drugs were being used to enhance the psychoactive effects of narcotics. 

It was perceived that the use of two or more drugs with a similar psychoactive effect on the central nervous system enhanced the intensity of intoxication.
“I top my dose of heroin with cosmos (benzhexol) to feel high,” David, 31, said.