HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Officials in Zimbabwe, which is facing a growing problem of substance abuse — especially among unemployed youth, say arrests have surged in 2024, with close to 2,400 people taken into custody so far.

Officials say economic difficulties are hampering efforts to curb the problem.

Zimbabwean Information Minister Jenfan Muswere said the Cabinet recently approved a review of fines ranging from $30 to $400 or imprisonment not exceeding two years for any business convicted of selling illicit drugs.

He said that in addition to the 2,373 people who have been arrested in 2024, 48 bases in six provinces have been raided and destroyed.

“The fight against the scourge of drug and substance abuse will continue across all provinces of Zimbabwe,” Muswere said. “Religious organizations have embraced the fight against drug and substance abuse through campaigns encouraging particularly the youths to live drug-free lives.”

Oscar Pambuka, who was recently released from jail after serving time for drug use, said more tools are needed to fight the vice, such as creating more jobs.

He said he started taking crystal methamphetamine after he and his wife divorced and he had no job.

“I began to associate with the new characters,” Pambuka said. “They became my new friends. And within those associations, I fell in love with a drug called crystal meth. … It used to make me feel comfortable. It used to give me temporary joy.”

But his drug use led to losing financial resources and his networks, he said, because many people don’t want to associate with drug users. He also lost weight — 20 kilograms (44 pounds) between 2016 and 2020 — although he started regaining some in jail.

“I thank God for the incarceration,” he said.

Officials say Zimbabwe’s economy has been hurt by U.S. sanctions against the government for alleged corruption and human rights abuses in the early 2000s.

Critics attribute the economic decline to corruption and bad policies by Harare.

Inflation is running at an annual rate of 55% — lower than the hyperinflation that plagued Zimbabwe in the past but still high enough to make the cost of living difficult for most ordinary Zimbabweans.

Representatives from government and United Nations agencies in Zimbabwe are expected to meet with President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare this Wednesday to devise a national plan on drug and substance abuse.

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