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The global synthetic drugs crisis has hit West Africa, where people are digging up human bones to make a drug called 'kush'

Rebecca Rommen   

The global synthetic drugs crisis has hit West Africa, where people are digging up human bones to make a drug called 'kush'
  • Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency over widespread drug abuse.
  • One drug causing particular concern in the West African nation is the synthetic drug "kush."

Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, is a bustling African port city on the Atlantic Ocean, where even the dead can't rest, say its residents.

Cemeteries are bolstering their security measures because gravediggers are stealing human bones to make powerful synthetic drugs, local journalists told Business Insider.

Sierra Leone, in West Africa, declared a state of emergency in April over rising cases of synthetic drug abuse due to the spread of "kush," which contains ground human bones, locals say.

Addressing the nation on April 4, Sierra Leone's president, Julius Maada Bio, said the country was facing "an existential threat" from "the ravaging impact of drugs and substance abuse, particularly the devastating synthetic drug kush."

As with the rise of synthetic drug use in other parts of the world, such as the fentanyl crisis in the US, kush could be set to spread.

International expansion is "almost inevitable," Michael Cole, a professor of forensic science at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, told BI.

While there are no official statistics on the number of users of the drug, they are not hard to spot, reports say.

The streets of Freetown, the country's capital, are said to be awash with young men, often sitting or lying in the spot where they lost consciousness after smoking the drug, Sally Hayden reported for The Irish Times.

Why locals say kush is sometimes made with ground human bones

Kush has been around for years in Sierra Leone, but its exact origin and composition remain unclear.

Cole told BI that kush was a mixture of tobacco, cannabis, tramadol, and fentanyl — but he noted that some believe it can also contain formaldehyde, a preservative used in embalming fluid for corpses.

Formaldehyde also has euphoric properties, says the National Library of Medicine, which explains why kush users could be raiding Freetown's cemeteries.

Mabinty Magdalene Kamar, the editor of a local news outlet, Politico SL, said that kush users had claimed to her that the drugs did indeed contain bones.

"We heard stories about boys breaking into cemeteries and tombs and then taking out the bones of dead bodies, grinding them just to produce kush," she told BI.

The drug has a ravaging effect on users' physical health. Abdul Jalloh, a mental health expert and hospital care manager at the Sierra Leone Psychiatric Teaching Hospital, told BI he had observed kush users suffering from issues such as skin necrosis, ulcers, wounds, oral issues, kidney and liver problems, and eye infections.

It can also be fatal, with one doctor telling the BBC that "in recent months," hundreds of men had died in Freetown after suffering organ failure caused by the drug.

Police guard Freetown's cemeteries

Local media outlets have reported cases of gravedigging for bones to extract formaldehyde and make the drug.

Thomas Dixon, the editor of the Salone Times newspaper in Freetown, told BI that while his publication had not been able to confirm the use of human bones in the drug, "you will see missing bones" if you go to cemeteries in the city.

Fears over grave robbing for kush production have become so widespread in the city that some cemeteries have requested police protection, the BBC reported.

Business Insider contacted the Freetown Police Force for comment.

"It makes you forget"

Jalloh said most kush users were "between the ages of 20 to 34."

Sierra Leonians face soaring unemployment rates, and much of its population lives in poverty — and some seem to be turning to kush in a bid to forget such problems.

Jalloh said that many of the patients he had dealt with cited unemployment, stress, and peer pressure among the reasons they had started using the drug.

"It makes you forget," Salifu Kamara, a 21-year-old kush user, told NPR. "We're under such strain. There's no work. There's nothing here."

Dixon said he believed it pointed to a "systemic failure" in the country, adding that kush turned young people into "zombies."

"Young people don't believe in the authorities anymore. The people don't believe in the political system anymore - they are sliding into taking drugs," he said.

Jalloh noted that the use of synthetic drugs was not unique to Sierra Leone.

"It's a global crisis everywhere," he said.

Synthetic cannabinoids

Authorities have likened kush to synthetic cannabinoids, the Guardian reports.

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemically engineered substances that mimic the effects of cannabis but can be much more harmful and unpredictable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that toxic synthetic cannabinoids can cause rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations.

"Synthetic marijuana" can be up to 100 times as potent as traditional marijuana, inducing extreme physical effects like seizures, psychosis, and even death.

Recent years have seen a worldwide growth of synthetic drugs, marketed as "spice," "K2," "black mamba," or "crazy clown."

Drugmakers change the specific ingredients so fast — and produce the drugs in such massive quantities — that enforcement agencies can't keep up.

In 2021, Kensington, a low-income neighborhood in North Philadelphia, became notorious for abuse of a sedative called "tranq."

Also known as "xylazine," the animal sedative was often cut with other drugs. A side-effect of this drug can be struggling to stand upright, which is why users are commonly described in the media as "zombies."

Last month, the Financial Times reported that tranq had reached the UK.