Right now Nigeria, as well as countries throughout the world, face an incredible crisis related to drug abuse, specifically tramadol. To understand how this came about we need to understand a bit about human anatomy.

Humans have effectively been kept alive through the human brain’s reward system, a simplified, self-explanatory term for structures within the brain that tell organisms like primates “Good job!” for things like drinking water, taking care of one’s offspring, and eating food. These reward systems rely primarily on the transmission of dopamine throughout the body to send messages to other parts of the brain and in turn experience an enjoyable response.

The more dopamine humans’ neural systems are host to, the more pleasure is derived from activities that produce it. Humans are also encouraged to engage in those activities by their minds’ reward systems, a part of human anatomy that’s as integral to life as the heart or spine.

Opioids like tramadol are so addictive because they, too, release dopamine, though in much greater capacities than their counterparts that are actually necessary for survival (e.g. eating, drinking, reproducing). These synthetic dopamine drugs, in turn, give people less inclination or need for the dopamine-deriving activities that are essential to life.

Tramadol, although it’s very much a member of the highly-addictive opioid family of psychoactive drugs, is generally considered less recreational than its fellow counterparts, like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, heroin, and Dilaudid. However, this widely-held pharmacological preference isn’t as active or readily available in West Africa, as affiliates of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have relied on illegal sales of illicit tramadol to fund their harmful, often-deadly operations.

West Africa, comprised of countries like Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, and Guinea, is home to more recreational use of illicit tramadol than anywhere else on the planet, and is currently considered a health crisis by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

But why tramadol, and not more popular opioids, like heroin or morphine?

Tramadol is widely considered less of a threat than other opioids because most societies don’t have as much demand for the drug than fellow opioids and other psychoactive drugs. As such, most countries’ regulations lump tramadol in with drugs that can legally be possessed without a physician’s prescription or prescribe penalties for unprescribed use and possession far lighter than other substances creating a huge problem for countries like Nigeria where it is rapidly becoming a major issue.

For this reason, tramadol can be transported more easily than other psychoactive compounds. Margins on the illegal tramadol trade plaguing West Africa are typically higher than those for other prohibited substances, goods, and services, due in full to the lesser risk carried by transporting the drug across borders of countries throughout the African mainland. Without recognizing this international issue, we will only fail to resolve it.