15 Février 2012
Drugs in the Peace Corps
Note: Drug use is both illegal and against Peace Corps policy. I am in no way advocating or supporting it, and I want to make it very clear that if you are caught using drugs while in service, you will face both immediate administrative separation and criminal charges upon your return to the US. Peace Corps takes all drug violations extremely seriously, and if you intend to use drugs while in service you are, frankly, an idiot. Here endeth the disclaimer.
Drugs, youth, and overseas adventures: regardless of what the law may or may not say, in today’s culture the three go together hand in hand. Given this, it’s only reasonable to wonder what, if any, drug culture exists in the Peace Corps today. I’ve received a number of queries on the topic, and while I have not responded to any of them to date, now seems as suitable a time as any.
Before I begin though, I feel I should note: I have never been a drug user. I generally think they’re a selfish waste of money, and I don’t have much patience with people who consistently use them. High people are even more annoying than drunk people, with the one redeeming virtue that they tend to puke less often. If you want to light up every now and then, fine; I’m not going to judge. That’s your prerogative. But I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t want to talk about it, and if you try to do it around me, one of us is going to be leaving very shortly.
That being said, on to the discussion at hand.
Although both I and Peace Corps would like to pretend otherwise, there’s definitely some in-service drug use by volunteers. I would call this a problem, but given the sheer size and geographic scope of the Peace Corps (~8,000 current PCVs, 60-some countries) it’s probably more accurate to call it a demographic inevitability. If you take 8,000 people from all walks of life and send them to some of the most remote spots on Earth and leave them there for two years, some of them are going to at least try to use drugs. How successful they are varies from country to country – for example, I imagine that it’s probably cheaper and easier to find certain *ahem* pharmaceuticals in places of origin like Thailand or Peru than it is in remote areas like Tonga or Mauretania – but there’s inevitably some everywhere.
As for the drugs being used…well, I haven’t exactly had the opportunity to do extensive field research on the matter, but what little rumor and comments I’ve heard reflect what I would have thought: marijuana is far and away the most common drug used, with various party drugs and pills coming right after. Hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, etc are all but unknown (at least here in Burkina). There’s probably some prescription drug abuse as well, but since all of our drugs come through the PCMO our opportunities are limited.
Happily, I can definitely report that Burkina is not one of the Peace Corps countries with a major drug problem. When it comes to volunteer drug use, I’ve heard rumors and comments, but I’ve never seen it, heard it, or even been in a situation where I suspected it. Given the demographic realities mentioned above, I’m sure it has happened from time to time, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that it happens a lot less than you might think. It’s not so much a matter of virtue as of economics: PCVs aren’t paid much to begin with, and Burkina is one of the poorest countries in the world. The locals are too poor to have a habit, and we’re not much better off. We just can’t afford it.
And that’s to say nothing of the problem of logistics. I have no way of knowing for sure, but if the drug supply here is like everything else, you can only buy them in Ouaga or Bobo. So you won’t be doing much in village. Besides…if you’re using drugs at home alone, well…that’s just sad. No, people tend to use drugs in company. That’s not going to happen in village, on account of there being no money, availability, or secrets. And when you’re in Ouaga or Bobo, there’s not really any place to go. You’re either at the transit house, which has a guard, or at a hotel, which has your passport. In short, they’re hard to get hold of, and there’s no safe place to use them.
Which is just as well. After all, drugs aren’t just illegal in the US, they’re also illegal here. Massively. As in go-directly-to-a-jail-you-do-NOT-want-to-go-to-and-there’s-nothing-the-Embassy-can-do-to-help illegal. Think “Locked Up Abroad: The Really Crappy Edition”.
Consider: Burkina can barely afford to pay its bills. Food security is an issue here even for the free and extremely hard working. Life is hard even for us relatively coddled and cosseted PCVs. Knowing that, how well and frequently do you think you’ll eat in prison here? How hot and dirty do you think you’ll be? You think figuring out Mooré is tough in your village? Try learning the prison slang. You think your latrine sucks at home? I bet the ones in prison make it look nice enough to eat off of.
I’m not a drug user, but even if I were, just the thought of possibly maybe going to prison here would be more than enough to put me off of my habit. No amount of “stress relief” is worth that. And I’ve seen Locked Up Abroad; almost every one of those “misunderstandings” starts off with some American who is used to a life of privilege finding out that nope, they mean what they say there. And then the Bad starts. Nor is it just here in Burkina; I wouldn’t want to go to jail in Panama, Peru, Jamaica, Morocco, Jordan, Thailand, China, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Albania, Madagascar, etc. either. Peace Corps goes to a vast array of countries, but one thing they definitely have in common are grim prison systems.
I don’t know. I’m sure right now there’s someone reading this who thinks I’m being a whiny conformist, someone who thinks I don’t know how to relax and hey man, it’s no big deal, I know what I’m doing. And maybe you’re right; maybe I’m just old and boring, and you know exactly what you’re doing. But I’ll be honest: given how poor the people are here, I can’t help but see any and all drug use as a beyond criminal extravagance. If you want to blow your money on pot in the US, fine. Go ahead. I could give a damn. But here…to take what amounts to a child’s food money for a month and literally set it on fire because “you had a stressful week”…that’s just beneath contempt.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
 It’s not the drug use, per se. It’s the obsession. I feel the same way about chain smokers, heavy drinkers, compulsive eaters, obsessive gamblers, etc. All things in moderation
 I’ve been offered party drugs on the street, and been propositioned by prostitutes who offered to get high with me. Both happened in Ouaga. I imagine that even hardened users can’t get anything outside of Ouaga or Bobo. That’s just how supply works here in Burkina.
 Although admittedly, given my outspoken and unpopular stances on the matter, it’s possible that I’m just…in invited…to the sorts of parties that might end in drug use.
 Besides, alcohol is cheap, socially accepted, and legal, so why bother?