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Kush – an African dread or worldwide spread?

February 29 2024

There have been recent reports of a ‘new’ drug being used in West Africa going by the name of ‘Kush’. Professor Michael Cole of Anglia Ruskin University has written one such article. So, what is this stuff?

To begin with we need to understand that ‘Kush’ can be a confusing term, as it applies to more than one type of drug material, depending on where you are in the world.

There are strains of cannabis referred to as ‘Kush’, such as Afghan Kush or Hindu Kush, as well as hybrids with other cannabis strains incorporating the term ‘Kush’ in their name. These are not new.

Also, the term is used in America as one of many brands of synthetic cannabinoids which we in the UK would refer to generally as Spice. This is not the new drug either. (As a trivia fact, the term ‘Spice’ originates from the science fiction work, Dune).

The new ‘Kush’ is allegedly a smoking mixture, currently very prevalent in West African countries. Much of the information about this preparation is likely to be anecdotal at this stage and hence to be taken (forgive the pun) with a pinch of salt.

Various reports refer to the material comprising cannabis, fentanyl, tramadol, formaldehyde/formalin, and even ground-up human bones. The term ‘urban myth’ immediately springs to mind to an old cynic of the drugs world like me, but I have learnt to always be open minded and prepared to be surprised.

The above is a concerning drug combination from many angles. Fentanyl and tramadol are opioids (synthetic products with actions akin to natural opiates such as morphine). Both are addictive and fentanyl drugs can be extremely potent, easily leading to overdose even in very small amounts. Indeed, Professor Cole reports that allegedly the preparation ‘is estimated to kill around a dozen people each week and hospitalise thousands,’ seemingly, in the main, due to injuries on passing out or being oblivious to surrounding dangers such as traffic.

Formaldehyde (or formalin, which is a solution containing formaldehyde) is a toxic material.

The human bones aspect is somewhat bizarre and unlikely. It is reported that the logic here may be that the ground bones of dead drug users are included to provide yet more drugs within the preparation. As Professor Cole opines, however, the drug levels in bones would be so low as to not add effectively to the levels of the bulk drugs present in the preparation. As stated, there could be an element of local myth at play here, but equally if people believe that adding bones has an effect, they might add them regardless, if available.

Drug trends vary throughout the world and can be limited to certain regions or groups. For example, around 10 years ago we saw an upsurge of Khat seizures in the UK. Khat comprises the leaves/shoots of the Catha edulis plant containing the stimulants such as cathinone and cathine. This drug is associated with people living in, or originating from, certain African regions.

The use of Kush thus far is focussed within specific groups in west Africa. It is yet to be seen if it will enter into the wider drug-using population in the UK.


Julian Dunnill

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