The 'Silent Pandemic' - The Battle of Drug Abuse in Zimbabwe

 By Mwarianesu G. Makosa 


Kutsomwa[1]’, and ‘ubanjiwe’, are some of the trendy vernacular terms used to describe the dire intoxication states experienced by substance abusers in our teapot-shaped nation.

Image credit - Global Press Journalism 

The malignant cancer that is substance abuse has been ravaging the country for decades now, with the youths being the most affected demographic. Worldwide, about 36.3 million people suffered from drug use disorders in 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that about 500 000 deaths are attributable to drug use on an annual basis.

Between July and September 2021, at least 100 young men and women appeared at the Harare Magistrates Court on the back of charges of either possession or dealing in the infamous crystal meth[2]. Further, during the month of August 2021, detectives from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) nabbed three students from a local university whom they had found in possession of crystal methamphetamine worth about US$ 15, 000 and a further 108 grams of cannabis.

These statistics show how rampant substance abuse is. Whenever the question pops up, the mind rushes to think about marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco, but are these the only substances being abused? Why is our generation held hostage by drug abuse? What are the consequences, if any, the mental health and legal implications, and what measures should be put into place to nip the ‘silent pandemic’ in the bud? I will succinctly address these questions in this article.

What is substance abuse?

·       Substance abuse refers to the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs[3]. Psychoactive substances include alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, and specific pain relief medicines. Cannabis (mbanje/yinsango[4]), crystal methamphetamine (mutoriro/ntash[5]), unprescribed broncleer and cocaine are the most common illicit substances within the Zimbabwean setup. The abuse of these substances is usually marked by a physical dependence on them and recognised by a tolerance to, and withdrawal symptoms from the drug of abuse[6].

Why substance abuse?

Bla Tino[7], a popular character in the ghetto suburb where I grew up always sat by the corner smoking with his ‘soldiers’ who idolised him because of his ability to arrange a quick fix. I always wondered why? I was fortunate enough to have dodged this scourge because of the values instilled in me at tender age. Even though this was my case I often wondered why?

On a rare occasion I spoke to Bla Tino and he narrated his ordeal to me. He spoke of how he had graduated from college five years prior and had never gotten gainfully employed. Him being 30-years-old and still living with his parents who expected him to take care of them when he was even failing to take care of himself didn’t make his situation any better.

Bla Tino’s situation is reflective of a majority of drug abusers in Zimbabwe, who take illegal substances as a form of escapism from the pains and troubles of the day, particularly unemployment. With the economy in dire straits and the presence of thousands of unemployed graduates, empathising with substance abusers and addicts is quite understandable.

Development experts such as Henry Hamandishe[8] have reiterated that the country’s harsh economy spurs drug abuse, which is a sentiment I agree with. For some, it stems from curiosity and one ends up hooked to the addictive substances. For others, particularly with drugs such as meth, it begins with regular usage as a means of sustaining consciousness over long periods, but the continued use usually breeds abuse and addiction to the detriment of the user. With substances such as alcohol, one may indulge for recreational purposes to gain “Dutch courage”, but the unregulated use becomes problematic for reasons I will detail later. The list of reasons I have given is inexhaustive but provides a clear picture of the depth of the problem at hand.

Red flags of substance abuse

Due to their proximity to substance abusers, family members, friends, and colleagues are usually quick to notice behavioural changes or other physical alterations in these victims, which point to substance abuse. I’ll just outline a couple of the common red flags. Meth addicts tend to lose weight rapidly due to the drug’s hunger-suppressing components and may sleep for longer hours than usual. As such, unexplained weight loss might be a substance abuse red flag. Some substance abusers withdraw themselves from their normal associations without reason. When this happens, those close by should be swift in seeking help for the victim. Bloodshot eyes, bad breath and shakes, are examples of physical changes that should never be ignored but be promptly acted upon.

Mental health implications

Abuse of hazardous substances may have significant short and long term mental health implications. This is a serious cause of concern particularly in an already overwhelmed and underfunded mental healthcare sector. As of 2021, the country had about 23 practising psychiatrists serving a population of close to 15 million, with the majority of them being in Harare.

The probability of a poor drug addict living in Chisumbanje getting attended to by a psychiatrist is close to zero. These health care professionals are overwhelmed and are unable to serve a bulging population of drug abusers. Some of the short term effects of substance abuse include changes in cognitive abilities, a temporary state of euphoria, slurred speech and loss of coordination. The dangers of chronic drug abuse range from depression, anxiety, panic disorders, paranoia and hallucinations.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has not made life any easier for substance abusers and Zimbabwe’s mental health system. The WHO[9] reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted critical mental health services in 93% of the countries around the world, showing just how difficult it has become to access these vital services during the past two years. With African countries spending just 1% of their budgets on mental health[10], victims of drug abuse are left in a precarious position concerning their rehabilitation and treatment within the country’s mental health institutions.

Legal Consequences

Unlawful possession, use, trafficking or dealing in illegal substances will more often than not have detectives from the Zimbabwe Republic Police breathing down your neck. This is understandable, since illicit drug dealers and traffickers are fuelling the substance abuse pandemic at an unprecedented rate. And also given the fact that almost every modern capitalist state, developed or underdeveloped, mimics America’s ‘War on Drugs’.

However, it is unfortunate that only the small fish are caught in the net whilst the giant white sharks are left to roam the oceans, undeterred. The challenge with legal enforcement or prohibition is that the trade in drugs has become an ecosystem which many people benefit from – we are talking about high level politicians to lowly vendors who sell airtime. As a result, to disturb such a setup will have unfavourable consequences.

Regardless, one should always be aware of the criminal penalties that accrue when one is found guilty. The courts will sentence anyone convicted of unlawful dealing, possession or use of dangerous drugs from anything between a fine to twenty years in prison. Before one considers engaging in any of these illicit activities, they should have been cognisant of these dire consequences.

Solutions & recommendations

It is difficult to suggest solutions and recommendations aimed at preventing substance abuse. This is due to the plethora of reasons that fuel this pandemic. The first step to solving this pandemic would be addressing the national question. One would be pardoned for suggesting the availing of employment opportunities as a method to curb the rampant substance abuse. There is also a need to establish community-based support systems that assist men and women in navigating life’s challenges which more often than not lead to substance abuse.

Once there is mention of the establishment of such support systems, it becomes impossible to omit the pertinence of adequately funding Zimbabwe’s mental health care sector. This becomes a long term solution to curbing substance abuse. Substance abuse prevention programs which are backed by scientific evidence are also an effective way of dealing with the problem. Such programs can target families, schools and the workplace environment.  Government, civil society organisations and other private players should direct investment towards anti-substance abuse awareness campaigns using different platforms that include but are not limited to social media, seminar presentations, radio and television shows.

Such campaigns should be inclusive of substance abuse survivors. The Ministry of Education should also make a deliberate effort to increase material within its curriculums dealing with substance abuse prevention. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health and Child Care must fund preventative initiatives such as behaviour change programs in community health centres. Like the reasons behind substance abuse, the solutions for the same cannot be exhausted.

On a tad radical note, other viable solutions that may be considered include decriminalization and legalization. These should be implemented with the goal towards killing the black market. The latter is responsible for many other social ills that flow from illicit drug trade such as crime, lethal drug overdoses, and violent enforcement of drug prohibition laws. Decriminalization involves a partial repeal of  drug prohibition laws for example allowing the sale of designated drugs while outlawing recreational use. Legalization means the total repeal of drug prohibition laws with a broader scope to change attitudes about substance use for the better.

Where can one get help?

Several centres around the country assist persons fighting substance abuse and addiction. The assistance they give comes in the form of counselling and rehabilitation services. Highlands Halfway, Ruwa Rehabilitation, Tariro Rehabilitation Centre, Harare and Tirivanhu Rehabilitation are some institutions that provide such support. Besides these rehabilitation centres, the Ministry of Health and Child Care runs the following psychiatric institutions: Sally Mugabe Psychiatric Unit (Harare), Parirenyatwa Annex Psychiatric Unit (Harare), Ingutsheni Psychiatric Hospital (Bulawayo) and Ngomahuru Hospital and Halfway House (Masvingo). In addition, the Friendship Bench which mainly operates within Harare uses the talk therapy model in helping substance abuse victims and other mental health care users. Substance abusers should approach these institutions in order to acquire alleviation of their conditions.

Conclusively, substance abuse is a severe societal vice that needs to be prevented, managed and eradicated. Its effects are far-reaching and present significant challenges to all those affected. Dealing with substance abuse is not a one-man job, but requires a multi-stakeholder based approach, which, if effected will change the fortunes of the ailing victims. The mental health cost is unimaginable, and the legal consequences dire. Something has to give lest the silent pandemic obliterates an entire generation.


Author: Mwarianesu G. Makosa (A registered legal practitioner passionate about human rights and mental health who writes in his personal capacity).



[1] In Shona & Ndebele: Terms common amongst Zimbabwe’s youth which describes a state of extreme intoxication wherein the user experiences drug-induced hallucinations and an inhibition of normal body functionality.

[4] Shona and Ndebele equivalents of cannabis/marijuana

[5] Shona and Ndebele equivalents of crystal methamphetamine

[7] Pseudonym

[8] Jeffrey Moyo, Zimbabwe grapples with mental illness amid rampant drug abuse, Anadolu Agency, August 2021

[10] Supra

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