Trend in substance abuse now requires everyone’s voice The country could be heading towards an unprecedented public health crisis if the problem of drug abuse is not solved through a litany of measures.

Ruth Butaumocho-African Agenda

Parents with children in schools should have been confounded with shock last week when a Harare private school expelled eight of its learners caught using illicit drugs during a school trip to Nyanga.

A week later, an equally shocking video of a female pupil smoking unknown substance went viral.

The two unrelated, but shocking incidences involving female students, provided an insight into the alarming rate of drug and substance abuse among the youths in Zimbabwe and beyond.

The two sad and unfortunate incidents of substance abuse by school-going youths were a rude awakening to many, who for long had been dismissing drug abuse as a delusional perception by our society and nothing to worry about.

For the first time in a long time, people from all walks of life engaged in riveting public contestations on how deeply rooted substance abuse was.

Unlike the previous years, where such conversations were often hushed and reserved for the “elite”, whose children were often “spoiled”, led extravagant lifestyles and ended up hooked on drugs, it has suddenly become a point of societal engagement, an issue that now requires everyone’s voice.

With no public figures yet to show how many youths could be taking drugs and how prevalent the problem is, it has since dawned on many Zimbabweans that the problem of substance abuse is growing much faster than the corrective solutions that society is putting in place to arrest the challenge. 

Of particular concern has been the upward trend in drug/substance use among adolescents, particularly those that are still in school. 

Commonly used substances include glue, broncleer, mangemba, cane spirit, marijuana, codeine and methamphetamine (crystal meth) also known as “dombo”.

Disguised as muffins, ganja cakes are also being sold in some schools by pupils and students who are working in cahoots with some drug syndicates supplying all forms of illegal substances to the learners.

While reasons for substance abuse may vary from each abuser, family breakdown, stress, peer pressure, a surge in drug cartels targeting the youth and the influence of social media where these habits are glorified are pushing many into drug and substance abuse.

The country could be heading towards an unprecedented public health crisis if the problem is not solved through a litany of measures which calls for fiducial stakeholders’ engagement and involvement.

At this juncture, we do not want to create a scary picture that portrays our nation as the capital of drug and alcohol abuse, because it is not.

This is the reason why law enforcement agents have been aggressively working on intercepting drugs, arresting drug peddlers and the courts giving punitive sentences to those found guilty, as part of a litany of measures by the Government to deter those who may want to use Zimbabwe as a transit or destination point.

However, the problem is growing and now warrants a collaborative effort from all stakeholders to find solutions, while plugging holes of supply chains that are finding their way to school children and youths.

It is alarming to note that the age of first experimentation with substances has dropped from teenagers to children aged between 9 and 10, who are usually primary school children.

Some of the girls expelled from the Harare elite school, had not turned 18, raising questions on how they accessed the drugs. 

That recent and many incidences coming up call for a review on age limits on buying any alcoholic substance and even cigarettes as part of a litany of measures needed to plug all drug outlets.

The World Health Organisation states that reducing the availability and abuse of alcohol requires steps such as changing the minimum legal purchase age for alcohol and instituting restrictions on hours and days of sale.

Stakeholders and the legislatures need to initiate a public debate on whether the country need to review the legal age of buying alcohol from 18 to 21years.

Although the Constitution stipulates that at 18, a person is considered an adult, the situation that Zimbabwe finds itself in on substance abuse particularly among this age, calls for a review on the age of persons allowed to buy alcohol, access bars and night clubs, where all illegal substances flourish. 

If anything the majority of 18 year olds are usually students writing their A Levels or are in their first two years of university, and naturally their peers are often of the same age or younger than them.

Such a situation opens the whole chain to substance abuse, because the law allows an 18-year-old to walk into a bar and buy a pint of beer or a packet of cigarette and other vaping accessories, without any qualms. 

Stakeholders and parents need to appreciate that the public debate is not ill-meaning neither does it intend to amend the existing legal age of majority, but it is a genuine and sincere attempt to find solutions on substance and drug abuse among the youth.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, it should create robust engagement that society needs to find headways and also raise awareness and mitigation measures against this vice.

The recent turn of events clearly shows that there could be several families that are already traumatised and probably need pyscho-support to help them rehabilitate some of their children already hooked on drugs. 

When such situations occur relatives, faith-based organisations, women’s clubs and other societal structures should step in to ease the burden to families, by offering moral support.

The private sector also an important stakeholder in the campaign against substance abuse, in particular alcohol, should work with Government institutions to drum awareness, assist in the setting up of drop in drug centres as well as adopt some of these rehabilitation facilities.

On a more comprehensive level, authorities may also introduce social transformation programmes in communities to remove unfavourable conditions that encourage substance abuse.

Building recreational facilities, where youths can spend their time engaging in various games, interaction and social activities that promote “clean fun”, should be supported through availing resources such as land.

The Government needs to call to order well-known land barons in major cities across the country, who are holding on to thousands of hectares of state land to release it for the construction of well-meaning recreational facilities and centres.

Growing up in high density suburbs some two decades or so ago, every residential area boasted of several recreational facilities, where youth would utilise for various sporting and social activities.

However, the culture of “clean fun” was brought to a halt by the Citizen Coalition for Change opposition political party, through its councillors who started grabbing all open spaces which were set aside for recreational facilities.

Some of the facilities such as football pitches, basketball courts and parks were grabbed by these “mercenaries of fortunes”, and turned into residential stands, leaving thousands of youth wandering aimlessly in residential suburbs without anything to do.

It is not too late to reverse some of these ill-conceived plans, which are albatross to development and well-being of communities.

Communities should also call to order parents who send their children to taverns and bottle stores to buy alcohol for them, a culture that may promote alcohol consumption among the youth.

The nation finds itself in a difficult and sad situation and now relies on community vigilance and pressure to make those parents or relatives who use children in this manner to stop.

What has been happening over the years also shows that the war on drugs is deeply dishonest.  

The law enforcement agents have been busting drug syndicates, seizing piles of drugs, arresting dealers, with some being given lengthy sentences.

However, the proliferation of the drugs on the market actually paints a different picture. 

More drug cartels emerge with each day, forcing some sections of the society to say police never reduce the size of the market, but they merely change its shape and modus operand.

While it may take years to curtail the problem of drugs, the writing is on the walls that days of drug peddlers are numbered.

Speaking at a national drug abuse campaign launch in Harare last year, President Mnangagwa described drug abuse as cancerous, but warned that the days of drug peddlers were numbered.

The President said the Government would do everything to fight drug abuse, including exposing cartels peddling drugs such as guka, broncleer, musombodhiya, crystal meth and cocaine.

This decision to curtail drug abuse should be complemented by community efforts, stakeholders and individual decisions on zero tolerance to drug and alcohol abuse.

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