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Ugandans Try to Tackle Growing Drug Problem

Ugandans Try to Tackle Growing Drug Problem
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As Kenya and Tanzania have cracked down on drug trafficking, Ugandan police say that their country, in particular Entebbe airport, is increasingly a gateway for heroin and cocaine headed to Europe. Since 2011, more of the illegal substances have been ending up on the streets of Kampala, leading to what health workers have called an invisible epidemic of drug use.

For young heroin addicts like Kelvin Kayimba, 25, the first hit of the day serves as breakfast, and their next thought is where to score the next one.

Kayimba started using drugs when he was still in school. "You feel so good, nothing is disturbing you," he said. "No worries. You don’t think about anything. You’re just thinking about the high, that’s all.”

A hit of heroin can cost as little as 30,000 Ugandan shillings, or about $8.

Former drug addict-turned-activist Syrus Malcolm said addiction is just one of the dangers of drug use.

“A needle-exchange program is not allowed in the country," said Malcom, of the Uganda Harm Reduction Network. "And most of the drug users don’t know that, [when] injecting drugs, they’re exposing their lives to the risk of HIV transmission.”

His organization is lobbying for a needle-exchange program and for treatment efforts for addicts that are currently not available.

“The government has not put in programs which helps [users] transit, like open substitution therapy, like rehab centers, where they can be taken and then have their lives transformed,” he said.

Activists launched an education effort last year, the “Hooked” campaign, warning teenagers of the dangers of narcotics.

“The middle class has more money and all that, so they want the next high," said the campaign's Esther Vihamaba. "Now they want to surpass alcohol and get into the cocaine, the heroin, and it goes as far as you can imagine.”

But kicking the habit can be difficult.

“I’ve seen people who’ve stopped. But stopping involves changing your friends, lots of stuff,” Kayimba said.

And in a society where former drug addicts face massive stigma, quitting may be just the first challenge.