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Diazepam: The prescription drug sweetening miraa in Hola

Sunday July 7 2019

Miraa trade in Tana River

Women prepare miraa for sale at a market in Hola, Tana River County. PHOTO | STEPHEN ODUOR | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Packages of short red-green stalks on sale at various shops in Hola, Tana River County, are a sign of a booming miraa trade driven by the young generation

With more than 40 percent of the 60,000 residents addicted to miraa or khat, according to the latest survey by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada), it is not unusual for chewers to go to great lengths for a 'high'.

Some skip meals while others borrow money or sell their animals and other property, even for the smallest portions of the product.


The day begins at about 10am with residents meeting in Hola town, anxious to see the red, striped double cabin car that transports the miraa from Meru County.

Some boda boda operators wait for the vehicle at Makutano Junction and accompany it to the town a few kilometres away.


The town then turns noisy as both men and women negotiate the best prices for different portions of the product, with retailers taking large stocks to their outlets.

Miraa trade in Tana River

A customer negotiates the price of a miraa at a market in Hola, Tana River County. PHOTO | STEPHEN ODUOR | NATION MEDIA GROUP


In this town, the addiction is propelled by a special stimulant that makes the miraa sweet.

Diazepam is the special drug chewed with miraa to enhance stimulation and keep the buyer coming.

It is a prescribed drug in a group known as benzodiazepines that is used to treat anxiety, alcohol withdrawal and seizures; relieve muscle spasms and provide sedation before medical procedures as it calms the brain and nerves.

In Hola, however, it is regarded as a stimulant.


Mr Kofa Hiribae, once an addict, says chewers are so attracted to the sweetness brought on by diazepam that they do not consider its side effects.

“The few chemists in Hola and its surroundings are making huge profits. They sell the drug secretly as it is illegal to dispense such a drug without a doctors' prescription,” Mr Kofa says.

He adds that women and youths usually befriend attendants at the chemists for easy sales while others simply pay higher prices to keep them quiet.

“The attendants tend to avoid strangers who visit their shops for the drug. It is now official; most miraa users in Hola cannot 'chew' without such a drug."

A diazepam tablet costs Sh10, the recommended retail price, but some pay as much as Sh50 in Hola due to the high demand.

The Nation learnt that one can use three to four tablets per chewing session to enhance stimulation, not considering the possibility of addition.

Miraa trade in Tana River

A customer negotiates the price of miraa at a market in Hola, Tana River County. PHOTO | STEPHEN ODUOR | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Mr Kofa's life took a turn when he realised he could not chew miraa without the pill yet it was becoming too expensive for him to buy often.

“I used to spend more than Sh400 every day on miraa, diazepam tablets, chewing gum and soda. This was very expensive considering I was jobless," he says.

"I had to sell household to get the drugs, resulting in consistent conflicts with my family members. I am happy I overcame that. I am now an ambassador, urging my friends to stop using miraa and diazepam.”

Mr Kofia says his relatives did not understand his nature while he was on the drug.

 “My health deteriorated and I could not maintain relationships with my wife and children. Diazepam as a stimulant is a killer."


Dr Khatib Shukri, a psychiatrist, urged addicts to seek medical help as they need to undergo intensive detoxification and counselling.

“Many addicts are willing to stop using the drug but that cannot happen overnight. They should do it gradually to avoid seizures and even death," says Dr Shukri.

Dr Timothy Mwangi, a Nacada officer based in the county, says cases of drug abuse are on the rise in Tana River, with miraa and bhang taking the lead, and cocaine and morphine following closely.

“We have a serious drugs problem down in the county ... it never used to be like this hence the need for measures to reduce the number of cases."

According to the Coastal baseline survey that Nacada conducted in 2018, Tana River has 39 per cent of the population that abuses drugs and alcohol abuse, a figure that Dr Mwangi says has shot up since then.