1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sierra Leone declares drug abuse 'national emergency'

April 4, 2024

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio has vowed to combat the polydrug kush, saying that drug abuse in the West African nation is a "national emergency."

Young men roll and smoke Kush inside a drug den at the Kington landfill site in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Social media in Sierra Leone is awash with photos and video clips showing young men caught in embarrassing situations after consuming kushImage: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio said Thursday that the West African nation was facing "an existential threat due to the devastating impact of drugs and drug addiction — in particular the devastating synthetic drug kush."

Scores of young Sierra Leoneans have become addicted to kush, a drug that threatens the lives of its users and others in their communities.

"It is my solemn duty as president ... to declare a national emergency on drug abuse," Bio said in an address to the nation.

A task force would be responsible for prevention, treatment, social services support, law enforcement and community engagement in Sierra Leone, reported AFP news agency.

Bio also said his government was working to take down drug trafficking networks.

Youth drug addiction in Liberia: Inside a Monrovia kush den

The growing problem of kush

At the beachfront on the peninsula west of Freetown, DW was able to speak to some kush users. One of them identified herself as Mosquito Rambo.

"I'm a prostitute. After going out with different men, any money I make, I purchase a couple of kush, smoke it for the day so that I can be joyful and feel fine," she told DW.

Escapism from unemployment, poverty or other traumas is a big draw for the drug. 

Its users are well aware of its dangers. Estimates vary, but thousands have been hospitalized, and kush-related causes kill scores of people every week in Sierra Leone.

"Kush puts our lives backwards; young men are always behind," said Abass Kamara, who added that he used to smoke two joints a day. "Now it's one a day, so I will be able to abandon it. But you cannot just do so from one moment to another."

Common among kush users are the aches and pains that follow the high. Another young woman, who calls herself Sarah, said she would be happy if kush were to disappear.

"That the government plans to eliminate kush, we are happy, because sore feet, swollen feet and robbery would stop. So we would go back to normal life," Sarah told DW.

What is kush?

The exact ingredients that go into kush are not always the same, or even known. It is a synthetic drug, or polydrug, that combines several elements. Similar types of highly-addictive drugs known as nyoape and mandrax are found in southern Africa.

Currently, kush usage has been mostly recorded in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea

By most accounts, it is a marijuana-based conconction which may include anything from fentanyl, tramadol or formalin, a substanstance used to embalm corpses, which seem to make kush extremely addictive. Most users smoke the drug, and joints can be shared.

What is known, however, is that drug is extremely cheap — even in areas where there is little disposable income. For the price of a pack of chewing gum, users can get a short high.

But mental health experts say kush intake can lead to permanent brain damage and suicidal actions. One mental health expert, Dr Abdul Jalloh of the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association, said that in 2023 that cases of drug abuse rose from 2% to 40% over a two-year period.

Young men take kush in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Freetown City Council has urged residents living near graveyards to be on high alert and hand over suspects to the policeImage: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Graves robbed to add embalmed bones to the drug mix

Sierra Leone's Minister of Planning and Economic Development, Kenyeh Barlay, told DW that local investigations have found that kush is the "cheapest drug on the market."

The formalin found in the drug is rumored in local media to have been obtained from exhuming bodies from graveyards and crushing the bones into a powder, though this has not been scientifically proven.

Freetown's municipal authorities earlier this month said they would deploy overnight police patrols to protect cemeteries following a spate of grave robberies involving the removal of bones from dead bodies.

This is one of the reasons why Solomon Moses Sogbandi, director of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone, wants the drug kingpins to be stopped.

"Not much is done about the drug barons, who are financiers of those bringing the drugs or those manufacturing the drugs within the country," Sogbandi told DW.

"If the government should target the drug barons, to ensure that they cut off the supply route, I think the issue of intake will be really reduced, and we can see how we can manage those that are already affected."

African youth on legalizing marijuana

Calls for stronger government response in Sierra Leone

In response to the growing kush problem — which is especially prevalent in urban areas — Sierra Leone's government in February established a rehabilitation center for victims of drug abuse and set up a ministerial task force. 

The vice chairman of Sierra Leone's Human Rights Commission, Victor Idrissa Lansana, told DW that the government should have declared an emergency at the same time.  

"With the public emergency in place, we would have increased awareness, get young people to understand the dangers of kush and how they could avoid it," Lansana told DW.

"We don't have to wait until many more lives are lost to kush. As we have said, it's about the right to life, the right to health and the right to education. We have to intervene as a country, co-ordinately, so as to address this issue of kush once and for all."

Lansana was also not the only voice calling for this measure.

Crushing the kush addiction across western Africa

Religious leaders like Father Peter Conteh, who heads the humanitarian aid organization Caritas Freetown, suggested that the same approach used during the COVID and Ebola health crises could be transferred to the fight against kush. 

"Collaboration between religious leaders and the health sector was instrumental in managing the spread of COVID-19," Conteh told DW. "This same collaboration can be applied in the fight against kush, with the religious leaders working hand-in-hand with the health professionals to provide education, intervention and support to those struggling with substance abuse."

Two recovering kush addicts sit on their beds at the Kissy Mental Hospital in Freetown
Kush is making inroads among Sierra Leone's youth, although the precise composition of the drug is not always the same.Image: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Sierra Leone's neighbors, Guinea and Liberia, are also fighting to contain an increase in kush consumption.

Guinean authorities said that more than 10 young men have died after taking the substance. Many others are undergoing medical treatments due to kush side effects.

In Liberia, President Joseph Boakai declared drug abuse a public health emergency and announced a steering committee to tackle the "existential threat" during his first state of the nation address in January.

This article was adapted by Cai Nebe from a radio report that was broadcast on DW's daily podcast AfricaLink. It has been updated to reflect the latest news about Sierra Leone's president declaring drug abuse a "national emergency."

Edited by: Keith Walker