Sierra Leone Declares State of Emergency over ‘Zombie’ Drug Made from Human Bones

People gather in a Kush drug den in Freetown on June 26, 2023. In recent years Kush, a mix

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio declared a national emergency on Friday over surging abuse of kush, an addictive drug that can be manufactured from powdered human bones. Addicts have been digging up graves to get the bones they need, prompting the police to station guards around cemeteries in the capital city of Freetown.

“Our country is currently faced with an existential threat due to the ravaging impact of drugs and substance abuse, particularly the devastating synthetic drug kush,” President Bio said on Friday in a televised address to the nation.

Bio said it was his “solemn duty” to declare a national emergency against “an existential threat due to the devastating impact of drugs and drug addiction, in particular the devastating synthetic drug kush.”

Kush is a synthetic cannabinoid drug that began circulating in Sierra Leone less than a decade ago. It is mixed and sold by organized criminal gangs, who use a variety of different substances to concoct it, including poisonous chemicals and the ubiquitous scourge of the modern drug scene, fentanyl. One of the ingredients in the most potent kush mixtures is sulfur, which can be obtained by grinding up human bones. Some users also hope to extract formaldehyde from embalmed human tissue.

The presence of human bones in the drug mixture also lends it an aura of supernatural mystique. Early reports treated the use of powdered bone as apocryphal, an urban legend that might have been started by the gangs as a marketing technique, but apparently many users are firmly convinced that human bones are an essential ingredient. As the popularity of kush exploded, so did incidents of grave-robbing.

People gather in a Kush drug den in Freetown on June 26, 2023. In recent years Kush, a mix of various chemicals and plants that mimic the natural properties found in cannabis, according to the National Drug Agency, is increasingly being used by youth in Sierra Leone. At only 25 US cents a dose, the drug is addicting users. (JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)

Kush abuse flourished in Sierra Leone with astounding speed. A local doctor told the UK Telegraph in January that there were 47 known users in 2020, but the number of kush addicts admitted to hospitals surged over 2,000 in 2023, and many more are believed to have died at home or in the streets. 

Government officials today say only a fraction of the rampaging kush epidemic is reported to police or doctors, and even that fraction is overwhelming hospitals and clinics. There is only one dedicated drug treatment center in Sierra Leone, it has been in operation for less than a year, and it only has 100 beds. 

The Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital estimated kush-related illness and death has increased by 4,000 percent over the past four years. Some doctors attributed this explosive growth to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic and its economic disruptions. 

A foreign diplomat told the BBC that a poor and unfocused response by Bio and his administration were also to blame, which is one reason Bio declared a state of national emergency.

“Such is the vacuum left by the lack of adequate response that communities have often had to take the law into their own hands and have responded to the crisis sometimes in a disjointed and crude manner,” the diplomat said.

Kush users have a tendency to experience severe physical and psychological reactions to the drug, especially when they smoke mixtures that include potent toxic chemicals. Many of the victims die from organ failure, and visibly swollen limbs are a common symptom of heavy use.

Most of the users are young men, who say the state of hypnotic, surreal ecstasy they experience is worth the side effects, and the utter destruction of their lives.

“When I smoke kush, I forget my problems. It usually takes me to ecstasy. I used to smoke a couple of slings of marijuana a day but after I was introduced to kush by friends, I never turned back. I sold my clothes and books to satisfy my addiction. I started stealing house-hold items, phones, pots and dishes to buy drugs,” a user who was rendered homeless by his addiction told the Telegraph.

Another reason Kush is so dangerous is the long duration of the dreamlike state it induces. Users have been known to lose consciousness and collapse while walking, slam into walls, or walk right into traffic. Some users compare themselves to zombies, as they lose interest in all other activities and float through what remains of their lives in a perpetual dream.

A woman sleeps whilst sitting in a Kush drug den in Freetown on June 26, 2023. (JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)

“Kush takes you to another world where you don’t know yourself. It’s like it has something demonic in it. They see their friends and people around them dying and yet they still take it,” a user told the UK Daily Mail.

Bio said in his state of emergency address that deaths from kush were approaching the scale of the Ebola epidemic from ten years ago, which ultimately killed 11,000 people in Sierra Leone. He further warned that rampant kush consumption was damaging Sierra Leone’s already impoverished economy.

“Our fight against kush should be a collective effort, which is why I’m setting up a national task force on drugs and substance abuse, with a particular focus on combating the rising kush crisis,” he said.

As with so many of the world’s drug catastrophes, the kush epidemic is a consequence of loose borders, in this case between Sierra Leone and its neighbors Liberia and Guinea. Sierra Leone produces a good deal of cannabis, which is usually incorporated into kush mixtures, but the other chemicals are imported by gangs across the border. Conversely, kush abuse is beginning to spread into Liberia and Guinea.


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