Cannabis use is on the rise in Senegal, with more and more people smoking the drug which is grown at home and won't break the bank, while more expensive drugs like heroin and cocaine are still the preserve of a wealthy few, anti-drug campaigners say.
"It's cannabis that is dominating the market and causing the problems," said Abdoulaye Niang, the head of the Illicit Drug Trafficking Prevention Office in Senegal.
Abdoulaye Diouf, the manager of the Jacques Chirac drugs awareness centre on the outskirts of the capital, Dakar, agreed.
"The big problem is cannabis use and solvent abuse with glue or ether," Diouf said.
Those most at risk were young people between eight and 20 who had dropped out of the school system and wiled away their days on the streets, he added.
There are no reliable recent statistics on illegal drug use in Senegal, but the West Africa branch of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is currently carrying out a survey.
Campaigners in this country of 10 million people, where more than half the population is under 20 years old, think that young students and unemployed youths are probably the biggest group of drug users.
Much of the cannabis is grown at home in southern Senegal on coastal islands in the lush Casamance region, but Niang said some supplies also came in from Ghana, Mali and Gambia.
Nearly all of it is sold in the capital, Dakar and other urban centres. And selling at just 250 CFA (50 US cents) for a couple of smokes, cannabis is within the budget of most Senegalese.
The amount of cannabis seized by police has fallen steadily -- from 5.8 tonnes in 2000 to 2.8 tonnes in 2004 -- and the number of drug related arrests has fallen sharply over the same period.
However, anti-drug campaigners say usage on the ground is increasing, even though the number of people arrested on drug-related charges halved nearly to 1,626 last year from 3,000 in 1999, when the government launched a big clampdown on drugs and destroyed several cannabis plantations.
“In the Centre, we see more and more people aged 25 to 35 years that have been taking drugs for 10, 15, sometimes 20 years,” said Galandou Gueye, a social worker at the Jacques Chirac drugs awareness centre told IRIN.
Thirty-one-year-old Max admits to enjoying a joint after a hard day at the office. He reckons he spends at least 7,000 CFA (US $14) each week on the drug but because cannabis use is an offence punishable by jail, he enjoys a smoke in the half light of his bedroom.
"I smoke to re-energise myself," Max told IRIN. But at the mention of drugs like cocaine and heroin, he recoils. "Weed is natural, it's part of us. But I refuse to hang out with people who use hard drugs," he said.
Doctors and police officials in Senegal agree that hard drug use is fairly limited in this Sahelian country.
"You don't very often come across people who shoot up with heroin or snort cocaine," said Momar Gueye, a psychiatrist at one of the main hospitals in Dakar. "It's usually those people whose parents have got a lot of money and who have studied abroad, especially the Lebanese."
Businessmen of Lebanese origin control much of the top end of the retail trade in Dakar.
Niang, the head of the government's anti-drug trafficking unit, believes that hard drugs have not become widespread in Senegal because neither would-be traffickers nor users can afford it. Almost 70 percent of the population live on less then $2 per day.
But dealers keen to introduce cocaine to the local market are adapting to the limited finances of their clients.
"Traffickers know the Senegalese market, and are no longer selling it by the gramme which is anywhere between 15,00 and 22,000 CFA (US$ 30 to 44). Instead they dilute into crack which they sell by the nugget for 5,000 CFA (US$ 10)," he explained.
Crack, a highly addictive form of cocaine, is often heavily diluted with baking soda.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions