Jamaica, 1973. Photo by Colin Jones


2005, we lost a family friend and we had to travel to Warri for the funeral. We did our best to cheer the lads up and decided to also use the opportunity to visit our old drinking spots. I noticed that none had changed in almost a decade I had been away. The smell of poverty was still in the air. The distinctive smell of weed and cheap locally distilled alcohol, the universal smell of misery and poverty. It was the smell I feared the most as a kid and did everything to get far away from.

All weed and alcohol were not created equal, non of them need to be glorified as well. There is however a particular strain of very cheap weed with a sweet sickly smell that those who have gone far round the bend prefer. I associated that subconsciously with criminality and desperation. I was often never wrong. I later learned that sweet sickly smell was the smell of residual cannabis oil from that strain popularly referred to as “Claro”.

While in university, a roommate had people always come to “borrow” his class notes. I found it odd that so many people came to get class notes from him while he was never in class. He was also always trying to sell or pawn one thing or the other, we thought maybe he was selling class notes. We never suspected he was probably the biggest weed dealer in our hall until we tried to take some of the Garri he brought from Sapele and found out that the sack of Garri was actually 80% weed. The “notebooks” people used to come “borrow” we’re courier mechanisms. I think he later became a politician.

My roommate was not an outlier, he was one of many and they were legion. I became more aware of dealers and their mechanisms over time as I could tell from the movement of young men those who were “using”. They were surprisingly calmer than others and they always had a routine. Some of the most intelligent scholars were also “using” and not just the thugs. There were many nicknames for it and there were many pseudonyms for the dealers. A lot of school violence were actually drug turf wars in disguise.

The dealers themselves became wiser and incorporated bad law enforcement officers in their business and it was very organized. The illicit supply chain starts as expected in the agricultural sector. It was typically the very poor that suffered most as land would be annexed with farmers forced to help large scale producers hide their operations. Distribution is largely through motor parks and the trade is apparently stealthy protected by local transport unions.

People see the TV shows “Weed” and “Breaking Bad” then think it is all fiction, I believe reality is scarier and pervasiveness of the drug culture grossly underestimated. Drug dealers are the worst form of depraved humans as they prey on the poor, the miserable and those without hope. Some may start from school selling the drugs for recreational use but they quickly graduate to the real streets where everything is real. Including ruined lives and death.

Those in the know can smell “The Claro” and there is a very big difference between recreational weed use at nightclubs, and use at the motor parks, deserted uncompleted buildings and “parlors”. It becomes deadlier when it becomes a permanent reality distortion mechanism. Paranoia and criminal behavior becomes chronic as well. I also used to associate that smell of Claro with death as it was never far along.

You can’t “smell” Claro until you have encountered the profound depths of poverty and desperation. Until you have lived on the edge of the criminal underworld. Until you make the effort to try to save the weak and hopelessly addicted who sometimes happen to be your blood.

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