Drug abuse in schools spiralling out of control

The officer in-charge of Entebbe Aviation police, Ms Gorret Tindiwegyi (right), displays narcotic drug exhibits in the presence of Ms Juliet Nakitende, the Entebbe Chief Magistrate (2nd left), in Nsambya, Kampala on March 2. Cases of students smuggling drugs in schools disguised as legal items such as toothpaste, juice, among others, are on the rise. PHOTO | FRANK BAGUMA  

What you need to know:

  • Marijuana, cocaine, shisha, heroin, khat (mairungi), cigarettes, and alcohol are among the most abused drugs and substances by school-going children, according to a 2021 report by Makerere University School of Psychology.

Schools across the country are seeing a surge in drug abuse cases by students who have found clever ways to smuggle and consume the drugs without detection.

The most affected are elite private schools, whose students have cash to spend on all tribes of drugs. 

These schools are also targeted by traffickers because of the high net worth clients, who are willing to pay princely sums for the drugs.

For instance, the average price of a pair of weed-laced cookies is Shs10,000; a pair of chocolates Shs15,000; butter cookies at Shs20,000 a pair and Shs40,000 for a pack of six cupcakes. The quoted prices are for the open market, with those selling in schools and university campuses adding a markup for the attendant risks.

Sources tell Sunday Monitor that the elite Gayaza High School—one of the oldest girls’ schools in Uganda, which is church-founded for good measure—has suspended close to 30 students for possession and use of drugs. The other offences which attracted suspension reportedly include lesbianism and possession of unauthorised gadgets like mobile phones. Majority of those suspended, our sources—who preferred anonymity and include parents at the school—are in candidate classes.

Ms Robinah Katongole Kizito, the school head teacher, was, however, quick to downplay the reports.

“This is false information,” she said, adding, “I don’t know where you got it from.”

Pressed on whether the school had either expelled or suspended students in the last one month, Ms Kizito said: “Yes, we suspended but no one was expelled and those numbers are terribly exaggerated. If this information is from affected parents, each parent got a letter for their individual children and may not even know the offence of another child.”

Gayaza High School is not an outlier. Sunday Monitor has learnt that frustrated parents and concerned members of many of the elite private schools have taken to WhatsApp groups and other social clubs to console each other in an effort to find a solution to the rising problem.

Familiar ill

In 2019, the police blew the lid on cartels that supply narcotic drugs to children in schools by preparing it as an ingredient in cookies plus other edibles. 

On Monday, police spokesperson Fred Enanga, told journalists at the weekly police briefing that a secondary school, which he did not disclose, had suspended 10 of its female students who had ordered cookies laced with drugs. Sunday Monitor could not independently verify if Mr Enanga referred to Gayaza High School or indeed another school.

“These ordered for the drug-laced cookies for consumption during a party that had been organised at school. When consumed, the cookies were to allegedly enable them to go “high” and enjoy the party to maximum,” he said.

Police have since arrested four people suspected of supplying the drug-laced cookies and snacks in several schools in Wakiso and Kampala districts. 

Mr Enanga identified the suspects as Rachael Masanga, Sulaiman Kasoozi, Joshua Ayo, and Jovia Mbabazi.

The four have, according to the police, allegedly been making deliveries in schools in Kira Municipality, Wakiso District, Bugolobi, Kulambiro, and other parts of Kampala District.

“The school management alerted police and our officers from the anti-narcotics department from Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID), together with ordinary police, swung into action and arrested one of the suppliers, who led police to her accomplices in Kungu-Kira municipality where they had a factory,” Mr Enanga said.

Police have since recovered suspected drug substances the suspects have allegedly been using to make cookies, pancakes, snacks, and other foodstuffs.

“There was processed chilli packed as Akabanga chili oil mixed with marijuana, drug-laced cookies, pancakes laced with drugs, and daddies laced with marijuana. There was Chapa Mandazi laced with drugs, wheat flour mixed with marijuana….packaged and labeled similarly with those products in the supermarket,” Mr Enanga was widely quoted.

Mr Enanga called on schools to stay vigilant because the indirect consumption of drugs among children is on the increase.

“This is dangerous because these suspects have been targeting young children between 13 and 20 years in high school,” he warned apocalyptically, adding, “We’re calling upon school administrators, parents, and guardians that this is now the indirect way of children consuming drugs, and once our young children are recruited into consuming drugs, it’s a danger to society.”

In 2019, AIGP Grace Akullo—then the director of CID—said the new method of selling narcotic drugs to children is hard for their officers to detect.

“Most of the perpetrators of the drugs now prepare cookies spiced with narcotic drugs and sell them to our children in schools and institutions of higher learning, which makes it hard for detectives to notice the distribution.”

Pandemic blues

Much of the attention around the return to school after more than two years of schools closing their doors to Covid-19 has been on academic losses. 

Reports of students struggling to catch up or engaging in habits adopted during their time away from school have been rife. Substance abuse was one of the bad habits accentuated by the pandemic.

Marijuana, cocaine, shisha, heroin, khat (mairungi), cigarettes, and alcohol are among the most abused drugs and substances by school-going children, according to a 2021 report by Makerere University School of Psychology.

Lawmakers on the Committee on Health have learnt that alcohol and drug abuse are the biggest contributors to the spike in mental illness across the country.

Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital has in the past few years had to contend with a surge in cases of mental illnesses occasioned largely by substance abuse.

The hospital executive director, Dr Juliet Nakku, told the MPs touring the facility in September last year that the hospital was operating way above its capacity.

“We have an imminent pandemic affecting a lot of our young people stemming from abuse of alcohol and drugs like opium, marijuana, khat and in some instances, cocaine,” she said.

Ingenious ways

Mr Ronald Muliika, a secondary school arts teacher working at three schools in the districts of Mukono and Kampala, told Sunday Monitor that the use of

 drugs in schools has rapidly increased.

Mr Muliika added that it is a common offence and acknowledges that students use various substances, which are smuggled into schools using different tactics.

“Various drugs are smuggled into schools and it is even hard to tell whether some are drugs or not,” he revealed, adding, “Students are currently so innovative that some drugs are smuggled as medicine, toothpaste, among others.”

Mr Muliika said it is sometimes hard to identify the drugs since the suppliers and manufacturers keep finding a couple of items that are hard to notice.

“In one of the schools, we had students using cocaine, which they used to package as a remedy for toothache with clear prescriptions indicating that it’s a dental drug. Others brand it like chocolates and some smuggle it through key-holders,” he said.

He added that students usually traffic drugs into schools on their own, while some work with the traffickers to smuggle cannabis and cigars that smell like chocolate. Some of these are usually disguised as scholastic materials, leaving teachers clueless as to what is unravelling before their eyes.

Similarly, Mr Isa Ssenkumba—a secondary school head teacher—explains that there are isolated cases of students smuggling alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes.

“I’m attached to a number of schools and yes, we have isolated cases, but not as common as reported,” he said, adding, “…it could be a new trend but schools are playing their part. All we can confirm is that students usually get access to such drugs in communities.”

Popular drugs used in school

Ms Susan Nalwoga, a clinical psychologist and counsellor, explains that three in five school-going children abuse drugs, especially in urban schools.

She notes that students have mastered tricks of concealing drugs, most of which are hard to identify. The drugs in question, she further reveals, are substances that change a person’s mental or physical state and they come in different types. To her consternation, some of the drugs are even being legally supplied as pharmaceuticals.

Ms Nalwoga tells Sunday Monitor that some of the contraband substances used include drugs that can be snorted, injected, liquids, solubles and those that can be licked just like sweets. She adds that such drugs include Kuber, which has high components of tobacco and nicotine, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and heroin.

She reveals that these drugs are disguised as other substances, which makes it hard for anyone to notice them.

“Because we have always found out the tricks that students use to get drugs into schools, they usually improvise and use legally acceptable items in schools to smuggle the substances,” she explains.

Ms Nalwoga also revealed that some drugs are smuggled through powdered items like milk, sugar, tea flavours, water and pharmaceuticals. She adds that some others punched into ready-to-drink items like juice, energy drinks and plastic bottled water.

Most drugs, Ms Nalwoga proceeds to add, are smuggled into schools by watchmen, gatekeepers (askari), traffickers and—even—teachers.

“Persons who traffic drugs in schools are the employees in the schools, but the most worrying trend is that many teachers sell drugs to students to supplement their income,” she adds.

Why drugs

Ms Susan Nalwoga, a clinical psychologist and counsellor told Sunday Monitor that the vast bulk of students who use the drugs do so under the assumption that they will help them burn the midnight oil while revising for exams. It’s also the belief of others that the drugs help them understand what is taught in classes.

She adds that the number of users increases because of peer pressure and the recruits usually get addicted and also encourage others to join the trend.

Mr Isa Ssenkumba—a secondary school head teacher, shares that the trend could have been worsened by the absence of in-person classes, thanks to the global Covid pandemic. He adds that at the time when schools were closed, students picked a lot of worrying habits from the communities they inhabit.

The law on drugs

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 2015 gives harsher penalties to offenders and drug pushers. The law states: “A person, who traffics in a narcotic drug of psychotropic substance, commits an offence and is liable in respect of the narcotic drugs or psychotropic substance to a fine not less than five hundred currency points or three times the market value of the narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, whichever is greater, and in addition, to imprisonment for life.”

Additional reporting by Gabriel Buule


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