How to tell if a child is using illicit drugs

Boys smoke marijuana at a hideout in Kampala last year. Experts say children as young as 11 or 12 consume drugs and other harmful household products. Photo / File

What you need to know:

  • A 2021 report by researchers from Makerere University list marijuana, cocaine, shisha, heroin, khat (mairungi), cigarettes, and alcohol as the most used substances among Ugandan youth.

The closure of schools to curb the spread of Covid-19 increased the exposure of children to a lot of vices, including drug and substance abuse.

A 2021 report by researchers from Makerere University list marijuana, cocaine, shisha, heroin, khat (mairungi), cigarettes, and alcohol as the most used substances among Ugandan youth.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have now prescribed a raft of methods for schools and parents to keep children from engaging in the vice and how to handle those already initiated and have failed to wean themselves off the illicit substances.

These include spend more time with the children, detecting changes in their behaviour, community involvement in child upbringing, seeking professional care for the affected child and remaining positive, among others.

“Children are inquisitive by nature so most of the first attempts at using substances are due to peer pressure and the need to experiment. This is facilitated by the ease of access to these drugs,” Ms Janet Kantalama, a psychologist with Safe Places Uganda, a private mental health treatment centre in Kampala, said.

She added: “The business people are becoming very innovative and making these easy to reach in forms that are not easily detected such as in cookies.”

The average price of a pair of weed-laced cookies is Shs10,000, a pair of chocolates costs Shs15,000, butter cookies at Shs20,000 a pair, and Shs40,000 for a pack of six cupcakes, according to a recent investigation by this publication.

Past research revealed that drug abuse often leads to criminal tendencies, failure to complete studies, domestic violence, HIV/Aids spread and management disruptions.

Dr Kenneth Kalani, the senior medical officer in charge of psychiatry at the Ministry of Health, said even before Covid-19 wreaked havoc in the country, many children and youth were already using drugs.

“Parents spend more hours at work and less time with their children. But as children are growing up, one of the things they miss is the love of parents,” he said.

“Alternative things to give them pleasure and happiness, become drugs. Drug use becomes some sort of an antidote to comfort them and treat their anxiety and inner pain,” Mr Kalani added.

He notes that the burden of drug abuse is higher in international schools and among children of rich people.


Ms Kantalama said parents need to observe the habits of their children to see if there are any changes in behaviour.

“When a child starts secluding him/herself, fears to be scrutinised, suspicious of anyone looking keenly at them or asking questions and are defensive, this is often born out of their guilty conscience because they live in fear of their parents finding out,” she said.

“When they are moody, irritable, have angry outbursts and are sometimes aggressive, have unexplained change in personality, for example, if a child who was previously reserved is very outgoing or one who was timid is now overconfident, These may point to drug use,” she added.

Ms Kantalama said parents and teachers need to be informed of the new trends in the use of illicit substances so that they can know what to look out for.

“Parents and teachers should have conversations about the use and dangers of substances with the children. The key is to have these discussions where children can talk without judgement. They know a lot and if given an opportunity to express themselves, a lot of issues may come out. For children already using these drugs, education and rehabilitation would help them to stop and set their paths to recovery,” she said.

However, Dr Kalani said being judgemental while engaging the affected children “will just push them farther away because the child is using this substance as a way of feeling better and hence the addiction.”

He said a parent should instead show the child that there is a way out of the problem.

“You can find rehabilitation or a safe place where the child can recover well. The good thing is that children usually recover because they have not taken the drug for a long time so long as they get a good rehabilitation. Expelling the child from school doesn’t address the problem, it disperses it when the child joins another school. Schools should work with the parent to address the problem,” Dr Kalani said.

Regional referral hospitals and some private facilities have psychiatrists and psychologists that provide rehabilitation. Butabika National Referral Hospital is one of the best rehabilitation centres in the country, according to affected people and experts.

“Most of the children with this addiction have a lot of social problems at home. Some of them have single parents. The mother begins to burden the child with her relationship problems. This is a young boy should be playing with his age mates and not be burdened by relationship issues of his mother and over time they look for alcohol and other substances to soothe the unnecessary burden they are carrying,” Dr Kalani said.

Dr Helen Byomire Ndagije, the director of Product Safety at the National Drug Authority (NDA), said drug abuse is among the young and mature people.

 “We have a partnership with the Church of Uganda where we will be reaching out to children in schools. We also hope that through this, we shall be able to penetrate homes. Other faith-based institutions are also involved. We are calling upon everyone who can, to join hands in fighting this problem,” she said.

Dr Ndagije said a significant portion of the drugs in the country come from Asian countries.

“Drug and substance abuse also affect health. We work with other institutions, ministries, departments and agencies. We have done a lot of studies and found that drug and substance abuse among young people is very high. You remember at some point, the Ministry of Trade banned Kuba [illiit drug],” she says.

Church reacts


The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Dr Stephen Kazimba Mugalu, while talking about the partnership with NDA, said the country can reverse the spiralling cases of drug and substance use among children.

He said in Uganda, some children as young as 11 or 12 initiate or experiment with the drugs and other harmful household products.

“According to the African Union report of 2022, drug abuse is mainly a male problem. That is why we need to give attention to boy children because if we don’t, we are losing. Males accounted for 90 percent of people seeking treatment in countries where such information was reported,” he noted.

“We need to give attention to young people. If a person in his or her early age has not begun using an illicit substance, it is more likely that they will not start using when they are old,” he added.