MONROVIA, Montserrado – Zaza Zubah is a drug peddler in a local market in Paynesville who sells medicines to the public, with no protection from the hot sun.
He admits that he and others like him lack knowledge about the drugs they sell but for now, this is the only option he has to earn a living.
As Liberian authorities intensify efforts to reduce the supply of counterfeit drugs and other medicines that are not in optimal condition, Zubah is concerned. He said he only sells drugs as a means of survival and cannot afford to lose his business.
In 2016, he said the Liberia Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Authority raided several illegal drugs peddlers and confiscated their goods.
“The crackdown on illegal drug peddlers have a long way to go because we are unemployed,” he said. “I do not want to do drug business and need support to go back to school or money to do another business.”
For now, he understands he is risking his investment by continuing to sell drugs that may not be in good condition even after the regulatory authority has repeatedly said it is illegal to sell drugs under such settings.
The past few weeks have seen much publicity generated about the issue of substandard drugs.
At a recent news conference, David Sumo, who heads the Liberia Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Authority, called on the Liberia National Police, Immigration Service, Drug Enforcement Agency, Liberia Revenue Authority to help his agency arrest and confiscate the goods of drug peddlers and forward them to court.
Sumo said the illegal actions of people like Zubah is endangering the lives of the public.
He said often, these drugs are transported from across the Liberian border among items such as palm oil, pepper, plantain, and other commodities. Because they are often not kept in a cool location, these drugs often lose their potency.
Sumo has labeled neighboring Guinea as a major source through which the substandard drugs enter Liberia.
“Substandard drugs entering Liberia is a national security issue and should not be taking lightly by the Liberian authorities,” Sumo said.
According to him, those traders who mostly come from Guinea then supply the illegal drug peddlers who sell in buckets, plastic bags, and market tables at markets in the Monrovia metropolitan area.
“Some of these drug peddlers do not even know the names of the medications they are selling least to talk about the education to give the end users,” Sumo added.
The ECOWAS parliament made the issue of counterfeit and expired drugs a major issue on their agenda when they met in Monrovia from April 10-14. The discussions explored ways through which the parliament could address the flow of the substandard drugs through the region, which allows citizens to travel without a visa between member states.
The law that established the Liberia Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Authority in 2010 requires any person or organization that intend to bring medicines into Liberia to obtain a permit or license from the authority.
Sumo has urged the public to watch out for signs of substandard or tampered drugs, including relabeled medication, which is usually done in the case of expired drugs.
He also appealed to workers at the port to identify cases of substandard and partially used medication being brought into the country via ship. Sumo said the LMHRA has seen some of these medications used by patients in the United States which did not finish, packed on containers, brought to Liberia and placed in pharmacies for sale.
Sumo said his agency faces many challenges in executing its duties, including budgetary constraints, lack of logistics, and insufficient human resources.
With all these hurdles, partnerships and coordination with other government agencies are likely to help the LMHRA to accomplish its goals on limited resources. However, while the Drug Enforcement Agency has been making several arrests of illegal health products – including one in an unfinished building located in the Johnsonville community and Grand Cape Mount – the Liberia National Police has not yet done the same.
Sam Collins, the spokesperson for the Liberia National Police, said the police have made no arrests of illegal drug peddlers since Sumo’s recent pronouncement.
The Bush Chicken’s investigation revealed that many peddlers are stationed at the Gobachop Junction in Paynesville’s Red Light Market. A recent visit to the area showed that several Liberians were purchasing drugs from the peddlers instead of the nearest pharmacies where the prices are higher.
While some drug peddlers were stationary, others were moving around transacting their business.
Most of the drug packages being sold appeared old and the color of some of the drugs was discolored.
Not far from these drug peddlers were several police officers who appeared unaware of the announcement by the LMHRA against peddlers of substandard drugs.
Featured photo by Zeze Ballah