Opioid high: Painkiller abuse sparks fears for Gabon's young

February 5, 2018 by Caroline Chauvet And Herve Bar
This market stall on a Libreville street is piled high with rat poison, but some vendors readily sell kobolo under the table—a cheap, easy but potentially dangerous high

Misuse of a powerful painkiller has spread like wildfire among schools in the west African state of Gabon, where teachers blame it for violent changes in mood among normally placid and motivated teenagers.

Known as "kobolo" by local youths, the comprises high doses of anti-inflammatory medicine, usually washed down with soda or alcohol. In the United States, abuse of such opioid drugs, say experts, has abetted a crisis of addiction and misery.

"It's easier to ask who in our state schools is not taking kobolo," said a young music teacher in a Libreville high school, who gave her name as Chantal.

"It starts at secondary level, from the age of 12 or 13. The children go through changes almost overnight—they become aggressive and violent under the effects of kobolo, which we regularly find when we go through their schoolbags," she adds. "The worst thing is that the kids not only use it, they sell it, too."

Knife fights and arrests

Almost every week, the press report knife fights between pupils, largely blamed on their use of kobolo, and on arrests of drug dealers, often deemed to be connected to the pharmaceutical business or from Cameroon.

"Kobolo is a combination based on painkillers that act directly on the brain. It induces feelings of well-being due to the secretion of dopamine, the pleasure hormone," said Marie-Louise Rondi, who chairs the National Order of Pharmacists in Gabon.

"This explains addiction and the tendency to increase daily doses, until all the safety fuses in the brain have been blown."

When used by young Gabonese as a recreational drug, the painkiller Tramadol or a generic equivalent is taken in large doses, sometimes mixed with alcohol and a range of juices.

In 2017, its popularity began to spread fast in a country where consumption of cannabis and other substances is very limited.

By July, concern had become so great that prescriptions for the drug became compulsory, and social support was beefed up. "We had meetings with the parents of students to warn them of the scale of the problem," Rondi said.

'You're a super-hero'

Under the pseudonym Ted, a self-described "ex-user" of kobolo in his 20s, who comes from a poor neighbourhood, described what it was like to take the drug.

"With a soft drink, it's like you're asleep, having a waking dream. But if you drink it down with a little alcohol, well then...!" he guffawed.

"It awakens your sleeping senses, when you take it you become hot. You can't control yourself, you imagine you're a super-hero, you lose your feelings," laughs the young man. "It gives you too much courage... You don't even feel pain."

Proof of this risk, he displayed a large scar on a forearm—the legacy of an accident when he "went through a car windscreen without feeling hurt."

The legal painkiller Tramadol became a prescription-only drug in Gabonese chemists' stores in July 2017. The version available on the streets has led to alarming behavioural changes including knife fights

Other collateral damage includes loss of appetite and sleep, itching, "epilepsy attacks, liver problems and and memory lapses," he said. Others say is another risk.

'Pink baby'

Despite regulatory efforts, the painkiller is easy to obtain on the streets of Libreville. Known as the "little red", "pink baby" or "kemeka," pills are sold for between 250 and 500 CFA francs (0.40 to 0.80 euros / $0.50 to $1.00) apiece.

Around the bus station, regular traders and ambulant salesmen help make acquiring kobolo a simple formality. In the maze of narrow streets, the drug is sold not only by the usual dealers but also at little stalls that sell medication along with rat poison.

For lack of official statistics, the kobolo business is difficult to put into figures. Since getting high requires no more than swallowing some cheap pills, the phenomenon is more discreet than smoking pot.

The wholesale dealers are above all Nigerians and Lebanese, Chadians and Guineans, people say in the working-class districts. "Everybody sells it under the counter," said Ted, who described kobolo as "the high-school favourite".

The media gives ample coverage to anti-kobolo operations and the police say they are on the job, reporting the seizure of 5,952 illicit pills in 2017.

"But the silence of health authorities is deafening," protests the director of a state-run hospital. "Not even a simple video clip on the TV to raise awareness among young people."

'Right kind of laughter'

By contrast, "Goudronier," a video about kobolo by rapper Don'zer, has given the drug nationwide prominence. It has been even broadcast at meetings of political parties.

"What this song is about, with its words and the video full of violence, is what's happening now in our society and our schools," said the teacher Chantal, distraught.

"The drug has become fashionable—kobolo users are no longer hiding."

Kobolo users are typically aged from 12 to 16 or 17, but there are many who come outside this age range, said a psychologist who has seen many users in her private practice.

"All social classes are affected, including the French and the Lebanese," she said, referring to two large expatriate communities.

The drug has increased the risk of unsafe sex and unwanted pregnancies for girls, the psychologist added.

"Me, I gave it up because of the violence, trouble with my parents," Ted said. "You laugh a lot, but it's not the right kind of laughter. And you lose friends who die in fights, getting stabbed or having their throats cut."

Explore further: Sedative, tranquilizer misuse a strong indicator of future drug abuse

Related Stories

Sedative, tranquilizer misuse a strong indicator of future drug abuse

December 14, 2017
Misusing sedatives or tranquilizers signals a credible risk for the abuse of more addictive substances in the near future, according to new research from the University of Michigan School of Nursing's Center for the Study ...

Does dosing of drug for mom make a difference for baby's risk of cleft lip, palate?

December 27, 2017
Taking a higher dose of topiramate during the first three months of pregnancy may increase a baby's risk of cleft lip or cleft palate more than when taking a lower dose, according to a study published in the December 27, ...

Opioid misuse is increasing in middle-aged Britons – here's how it could cause an addiction crisis

July 31, 2017
The older we get, the more likely we are to suffer with long-term health problems. Life expectancy may be increasing, but so are the number of years we spend in ill health. In people aged 50 and over, the leading causes of ...

Study finds recreational drug users not what we think

December 7, 2017
A James Cook University researcher has been investigating why Australians are among the top users of illegal drugs in the world – and has uncovered some revealing new facts about the motivations of recreational drug users.

Schools reach beyond 'Just Say No' on opioid dangers

January 27, 2017
Schools are going beyond "Just Say No" as they teach students as young as kindergartners about the dangers of opioids in the hope that they don't later become part of the growing crisis.

Painkillers often gateway to heroin for US teens: survey

December 30, 2015
(HealthDay)—Three-quarters of U.S. high school students who use heroin first tried narcotic painkillers, a new survey reveals.

Recommended for you

Drug overdose epidemic goes far beyond opioids, requires new policies

November 7, 2018
Most government-funded initiatives to address the overdose epidemic in the United States have targeted opioids specifically and have neglected other drugs that are increasingly implicated in overdoses, such as cocaine and ...

Zebrafish larvae help in search for appetite suppressants

November 2, 2018
Researchers at the University of Zurich and Harvard University have developed a new strategy in the search for psychoactive drugs. By analyzing the behavior of larval zebrafish, they can filter out substances with unwanted ...

FDA OKs powerful opioid pill as alternative to IV painkiller

November 2, 2018
U.S. regulators on Friday approved a fast-acting, super-potent opioid tablet as an alternative to IV painkillers used in hospitals.

Amphetamine-related hospitalizations surged between 2003 and 2015

November 2, 2018
An analysis conducted by Hennepin Healthcare, University of Minnesota School of Public Health and University of Michigan researchers shows amphetamine-related hospitalizations increased more than 270 percent from 2008 to ...

Cocaine-fentanyl overdoses underscore need for more 'test strips' and rapid response

November 1, 2018
Penn Medicine emergency department physicians are calling for more readily available testing strips to identify the presence of fentanyl in patients experiencing a drug overdose, and a rapid, coordinated response among health ...

Combination drug targeting opioid system may help relieve symptoms of major depression

October 29, 2018
Two clinical trials of an investigational drug that targets the opioid system support its safety and effectiveness in reducing symptoms of major depression, when added to standard antidepressant treatment. The results of ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.