Kenya’s emerging cocaine market (?)

In the 1990s, Kenya, and particularly the cities along the Swahili coast like Mombasa and Malindi reported spreading heroin use. The switch from unrefined brown heroin which was known as ‘brown sugar’ and smoked, to white powdered heroin precipitated the emergence of injecting practices. Twenty years on the population of regular drug users has spread to Nairobi and to Tanzania. The governments in both countries have introduced new policies to reach out to problematic users and contain the risk of spreading infections via the sharing of contaminated injecting equipment.

Research by a team of US and European researchers has revealed the diversification of Kenyan drug markets. The data presented at the annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy held in Ghent 20-22 May, suggests a shift in preference among some cohorts for cocaine. Injecting is the preferred mode of administration, probably because it offers a longer lasting effect than the more conventional methods of inhaling or smoking. What is not clear, however, is where the cocaine comes from. While Kenya has long been associated with the importation and transit of heroin, even known as ‘smack track’ in some countries, the throughflow of cocaine is undocumented. According to drug scene folklore cocaine comes from Tanzania, but consumers often have little idea about provenance or quality of the gear they are buying. Nairobi is reported to be the distribution centre in Kenya which leads to the conjecture that it is imported by air.

There are two emerging scenarios to account for such a trend. Either, cocaine is now being distributed across Africa from points of importation along the Western sea board, or new routes are emerging from South America into the Indian Ocean. There is gathering anecdotal evidence of cocaine cargos being shipped from Brazil and Argentina to South Africa and Mozambique.

Another possibility is that the new drug is locally produced and cocaine only in name. Methamphetamine laboratories have been found in West Africa and could theoretically be set up in other parts of the continent. Naïve consumers may easily be hoodwinked into mistaking the synthetic analogue for cocaine. Finally, the drug sold as cocaine may not be a stimulant at all, but heroin repackaged, a method familiar to viewers of Baltimore drug scene drama ‘The Wire’.

The qualitative interviews on drug effects conducted by the team send confounding messages. Many of the users when describing how they felt after taking the drug reported they were getting sleepy, getting relaxed, and a growing physical dependence – symptoms associated with opiates rather than with stimulants. Others did talk about sexual arousal and aggression, more typical cocaine effects, but without chemical analysis it is difficult to draw conclusions.

The findings, presented by Jennifer Syvertson, underline the need to get a better understanding of the trajectory of cocaine consignments across Africa through chemical analysis. Getting samples into the lab at different points across the continent would be an invaluable tool for establishing the intra-African connections and help keep abreast of changes in the flow.