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Why some young Nigerians are using cannabis as a normal part of life

By Emeka Dumbili, The Conversation, December 7, 2020

Cannabis is illegal in Nigeria. Its production, distribution and use are criminalised by local laws. Cultivated mostly in southern Nigeria, the drug is affordable and readily available through street drug-running. Cannabis users are also widely seen as social deviants, and are liable to arrest and imprisonment.

Despite the stigma and danger from the law, the use of cannabis in Nigeria is growing fast. Studies show that it ranks just below alcohol as the second most used psychoactive substance in Nigeria. It is mostly used by people aged 25-39 years.

In my recent research leading to two publications, I explored access to recreational drugs, and the factors that encourage and motivate young adults in an eastern Nigerian city to use cannabis. My study also examined cannabis normalisation among users and their social networks. I recorded how the participants connect cannabis to their academic, leisure, social and sporting lives.

It’s important to understand why young people are using drugs, and if policy and legal frameworks are to be effective in reducing any harm. My findings show that cannabis is readily available in the city where I conducted our interviews, and it is easily accessible.

Cannabis has many uses

For my study, I selected 23 young men and women who were either university undergraduates or graduates who use cannabis. I interviewed them to find out their habits and why they use the drug.

Although participants acknowledged that the drug is illegal, access was easy. This was because more people are growing cannabis at home. The networks of users are rapidly expanding and there is a proliferation of street dealers who are aided by corrupt police officers.

My participants said young people offer cannabis to their guests as an act of hospitality. Cannabis is used in social settings such as parties and bars, where it cements relationships and sparks new friendships. In social settings, smoking cannabis also built trust among users. Rejecting an offer of cannabis was seen as a negative act, especially among young men.

Participants also used cannabis with the aim of enhancing academic performance. This motivation reflects social features of Nigerian society, such as high rates of youth unemployment and the championing of masculine ego.

Nigeria’s high achievement culture and the pressure to satisfy parents and potential employers motivated undergrads to use cannabis to boost their confidence and performance in examinations. Some of the participants admitted to smoking large quantities of cannabis as a confidence and performance booster. One said:

Like the day I defended (my project), ‘I cush die’ (I was very high), and my eyes were ‘bitter red’… I went into the hall, and they were asking me questions, and I was answering them. When they ask me the one that I don’t know, I will ask them back. When everybody was trying to get annoyed because I was asking them questions, I cracked a joke. It is confidence that will make you diverse.

Another user said cannabis enhanced their performance in written examinations by aiding alertness and memory retention:

When I finish reading for an exam and then smoke before entering the hall, I write like never before. I mean, I will fill the script, especially theoretical courses (modules) but not mathematical courses. That day I took weed to write a course called ‘Report Writing’; I was asked to explain two methods of writing references. I just kept on writing because the more I wrote, the more I was getting ideas. I think it’s only good for exams when you’ve actually studied.

What can be done

Current drug policies and other legal frameworks in Nigeria criminalise cannabis use. But this hinders harm reduction, as cannabis users who may want to quit or seek treatment say they are afraid of arrest and imprisonment.

Nigerian parents and employers need to reconsider the cultural practice of placing supreme emphasis on academic grades. Students who lack adequate parental and academic help are pressured into using cannabis to thrive in Nigeria’s high achievement culture.

There also is an urgent need to give young Nigerians evidence-based information on addiction and other drug-related harm. This will curtail drug experimentation and the growing culture of intoxication. Young people should be encouraged to channel their energy into less harmful pursuits, such as sports.

Emeka Dumbili is Lecturer, Nnamdi Azikiwe University

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