A Look Inside Nairobi's Drug Culture

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When we talk about drug abuse in Kenya, the first place one thinks of is the Coast, with its numerous overt addicts.

However, Nairobi also has its own set of drug problems, and a new, easily disguised type of addict is emerging – the one who moves in stealth because they do not look like a drug addict. And their addictions of choice are varied and sophisticated.

Lillian* had been five years free from alcohol and cocaine abuse. Out on a camping and hiking trip in August of 2013, she slipped and severely injured her back. She was airlifted back to Nairobi and was told she had a slipped disc, compressing on her spinal nerves.

“When you are in recovery, you are advised to let every doctor know that you are an addict so that they are mindful of the meds they give you, even if you just have a cold,” she says. But a week of physiotherapy while on regular pain killers was too much to bear. “It was tricky situation,” she explains. “I had to take opioids and risk slipping back into active addiction, or I living with too much pain for me to do physio, which meant my back wouldn’t heal.”

She eventually agreed to a small and controlled dosage of Demerol – an opioid pain killer that comes with this warning: “Demerol can slow or stop your breathing. Never take this medicine for longer than prescribed. Never share this medicine with another person, especially someone with a history of drug abuse or addiction. Demerol may be habit-forming, even at regular doses.”

Though the meds allowed her do physiotherapy and yoga and thus recover faster, she regrets the fact that after her prescription time was done, she continued taking the medication. “I was hooked the same way I had been hooked to booze and cocaine.” She would continue to pop the pills for two more years, this time delivered by her previous cocaine dealer and obtained across the counter from two local pharmacies.

“The consequences were that I might as well have been snorting coke. The emotional, mental, social and physical anguish was the same!” In 2015, she went back to rehab. Since then, one of the measures she has taken is to go to pharmacies she used to frequent and personally ask them to never sell any pills to her. “I told them they were never to sell me anything even though I were dying. That helps – although if I wanted I could have them delivered in the next 15 minutes. But I want to stay clean.”

“You only need to know a cool pharmacist,” Mwangi, a 26-year-old university graduate tells me about how to access prescription pills. “You don’t need a prescription! Some of them, kwanza the ones huko downtown, don’t even ask you for one. But if they do, you just tell them you forgot it or something. Weka poker face!”

Mwangi first had a tablet of speed (an amphetamine / stimulant) at a night club in town when he was a second year student. Since then, alcohol and bhang seemed like ‘too much work’, “All you have to do is pop it. No mess, no fuss.” Although he no longer pops speed because he is scared of its adverse effects, “one or two Valiums are not bad to relax. I have trouble sleeping and they help,” he smiles and shrugs. Mwangi has a regular pharmacist who supplies he and his friends, ‘no questions asked’.

I have been many years in the media industry, and in the beginning I spent many of those years as the editor of an entertainment magazine. In the course of my job, I had the chance to witness many celebrities in the throes of addiction.

I once had an interview with a very popular rapper one afternoon, hours before he went on stage for a show. During the interview he was sober, gentlemanly, hilarious, present, impressive. When I saw him a few hours later at the show, being physically held up by his best friend because his legs had given way, he was a drooling, empty shell of his former self. It was clear he was high on something – and it was not alcohol.

Back then, cocaine was the drug of choice for many, followed by marijuana, and then codeine. It has been many years since I have been exposed to these shenanigans, but I recently had a chat with a friend who is still part of the scene to find out if there is still an endemic drug problem in media and entertainment circles.

“Oh yea,” he shrugs. “But people have moved on from things you have to smoke, sniff or inject. These days they pop pills because it’s cleaner and more efficient, and you don’t have to take a toilet break to do it.”

“What kind of drugs are these?” I ask. “Mostly MDMA,” he says.

I ask how easy it is to access these drugs. He gives me the lowdown. “They are celebrities and because they are always getting invited to clubs, parties and come with an entourage, dealers follow them around and give them freebies so that they can pass them onto their friends and in the process, the dealers can net new customers.

The dealers follow the social media accounts of everyone who is a party animal – DJs, singers, celebs, socialites – so they always know where the party is.”

Another common tactic is for the dealers to organise their own ‘Tupperware’ parties. This is where they hive off a section of a club and invite celebrities and all their ‘squad’ to attend. “They slip a few people some drugs. The people like it and they want more. Numbers are exchanged, deals are made, new customers are acquired,” says my friend. It’s that simple.

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I ask how one identifies possible dealers. “If they are always in the club, spending money and throwing parties, and you don’t quite know how they make their money or know all these famous people, they are probably dealers,” he says.

Marijuana goes by many street names in Kenya; bhangi, weed, ndom, kush and gode. It’s accessible but the dealers are cautious. It was easy to get the phone number of a supplier but I had to be ‘vetted’ before this dealer agreed to meet me. When I finally met him in Umoja Estate in Nairobi, the first thing I noticed was how young he looks. He refused to say his age but from his looks and mannerisms, he is barely in his 20’s.

“Do you want it pure or mixed?” he finally asked when he was sure I could be trusted.

“Mixed with what?”

“Chemicals.”

“What kind of chemicals?”

“Just chemicals,” he said, waving the questions away.

Davie bakes marijuana laced cookies in the home he shares with his mother. A cookie made from pure marijuana goes for Sh40 per piece. His clients are mostly men and women in their early 20s. “Weed doesn’t know gender or weed. Even corporate women smoke it,” says 28-year old Nelly.

Not very long ago, Nelly was a marijuana seller. Now, she just smokes it to control her bi-polar symptoms. She smokes rolls which she buys for anything between Sh10 shillings and Sh150 depending on where she buys them.

So what is it sometimes laced with? “If you buy from the slums, sometimes they put petrol and it’s bad. The more upmarket sellers mix it with cocaine. Cocaine from Brazil is the most pure. When I was a seller, I used a glass of water and bleach to test the purity,” she offers.

Lacing it makes the marijuana more potent such that its effects last longer. The plus for the seller is that users get hooked faster so they keep coming back.

Nelly tells me that it’s easy to tell someone who smokes weed and one who doesn’t, something I find very hard to do when I meet 33-year-old Muthoni. Muthoni is beautiful, classy, with a good job in public relations. She doesn’t fit the image I have of a bhang smoker.

She had her first puff 10-years ago at a house party. “I was experimenting, just like I had experimented with alcohol years before,” she says. First it was just a few puffs every other evening, then it was every night. Now, it is a roll every other night, maybe four times a week.

She prefers to smoke alone; she does not consider it a social activity. Also, because of a bad experience she had, she prefers to prepare it herself. “I smoked a laced roll once and I almost went crazy. I had hallucinations, and I caused a lot of fracas. Luckily, I was home alone with my best friend,’ she says. Now, her cobbler supplies her with loose marijuana. “It’s cheaper to buy the rolls but sometimes they are not pure,” she says.

“My job is very stressful. Weed is quite relaxing. If you don’t overdo it, it’s harmless,” she adds.

(This article originally appeared on nation.co.ke)