Medicines turned into intoxicants

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Visibly wasted and drunk men are conversing, making wild gestures and arguing under a musau tree at the corner of a street in Mufakose suburb.

Empty bottles and cartons of hystalix syrup lie scattered on the ground.

The litter, which had accumulated over time, showed the men had been using the drug for a long time.

One tends to wonder if they were using the drug for the right purpose, to cure colds and coughs. The men were in fact taking the drug to get high.

The medicine, which the youths just call “bronco” has become popular to the extent that in most high density suburbs, it is common to find empty bottles scattered everywhere. One youth who confessed using the drug, defended his action saying it was different from using street drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.

“This is different from other drugs such as cocaine; in fact a doctor can prescribe the medicine ,so it is not that dangerous. I can take it in front of anyone, it is different from dagga or other drugs.

“The drug makes me feel happy and energised, but if I go for a day without taking it, I go crazy and the craving becomes so strong to the extent that I would sweat and I would not stop until I get the drug,” he said.

Hystalix syrup is not only the drug being abused in the streets; drugs such as Opioids which are prescribed for pain relief and central nervous system depressants which are prescribed for anxiety or sleep problems are common among those who use medicines as drugs. People who are using the drugs said they take high doses to achieve their goal of getting high.

A man who only identified himself as Jeremiah said before he started taking medicines as intoxicants, he used anything he came across to get high.

“It all started as I was living in the streets, because I did not want to get hungry. I used to sniff cleaning fluids, finger nail polish, glue, furniture polish or spray paints,” he said.

According to medical practitioner Mlungisi Ndebele, the substances are easily absorbed into the bloodstream giving an almost instant reaction, but can be very dangerous and toxic.

The problem has been made worse by pharmacies which are allegedly not asking prescriptions from doctors before selling medicines to people. Some people who take the medicines as drugs said they had formed an unholy union with pharmacy staff to get the drugs.

“Sometimes when pharmacy staff become big headed we bribe them, we give them money. In most cases we give them a dollar to get drugs which are not sold over the counter,” explained Jeremiah.

Women are reportedly taking drugs or pills which curb appetite so that they lose weight.

The problem is growing fast worldwide. The problem of abusing medicines as drugs is slowly overtaking that of street drugs.

In the US, prescription drug abuse exceeds that of virtually all illicit products except cannabis. The problem is also said to have necessitated the growth of counterfeit medicine industry.

According to the book, Physicians Desk Reference, taking medicines without a doctor’s supervision and advice or in overdose may lead to addiction.

“Drug addiction is characterised by compulsive use, use for non-medical purposes and continued use despite harm or risk of harm,” notes the book.

The edition also adds that over time lack of control and obsession with the drug develops.
Ndebele, urged people to desist from the practice as it is detrimental to their health.

“People step into dangerous territory when they take medicines for the wrong reasons, take liberties with dosages, use products meant for someone or take a drug in wrong way. For example some pills have to be swallowed whole so that the active ingredients are released into the system slowly. Abusers often disrupt the process by crushing or chewing the pills, by crushing and sniffing them, or by dissolving them in water and injecting them. The result may be a high, but it could also be a first step towards addiction and can be lethal and some people may develop physical dependency on the products,” said Ndebele.

In 2008 Arizona Republic newspaper reported that a popular actor died “from deadly mix of tranquilisers, sleeping pills and pain killers”.

Ndebele said abusing medical drugs such as stimulants can bring heart failure or seizures. He said other products can lower a person’s breathing rate and ultimately cause rate. He added that other medicines can have harmful effects if mixed with drugs or alcohol.

Social commentators blamed the breakdown in the family institutions as the main cause of drug abuse.

“The family used to be the pillar of strength and guidance. Many youths lack father figures and role models in their lives. Most parents are too busy and they never make meaningful conversations with family. Youths turn to drugs for solace and if they do not get hard-core drugs, they will turn everything they touch including medicines which are supposed to make them healthy, into drugs,” said one social commentator.

Another commentator Pardon Taodzera said relying on drugs showed the general frustration among those unemployed.

“The problem of medicines being turned into drugs is just a tip of an iceberg of deep-rooted social problems. When youths turn to drugs it’s a sign that something is wrong among our society. For example poor youths who are always high on histalix are trying to shy away from the reality of life. Many of the people are unemployed and tend to find comfort in unorthodox means,” he said.

“If someone talks to these people, one is bound to find out that they are suffering in silence and they vent their frustration abusing medicines as drugs, it is difficult for the police to arrest the abusers because they are using legal substances, which are sold openly in the country,” he added.