Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Lowdown on Brown-Brown

April 12th, 2010 · 24 Comments

If you haven’t read it already, Jon Lee Anderson’s latest dispatch from Guinea is well worth your time. The piece does an excellent job of conveying the chaos of Moussa Dadis Camara‘s brief reign, which was marred by one of the great atrocities of recent vintage. Suffice to say that Dadis and his cronies come off as dangerously erratic; the fact that they were briefly able to rule a sovereign nation, even one as hardscrabble as Guinea, is an absolute farce.

There is one reportorial observation that jumped out at us in particular:

Drug abuse seemed to be rampant among Guinea’s soldiers; one favored drug was brown-brown, a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder.

Our first thought upon reading this nugget was, “Well, that explains so much.” But the more we pondered this seemingly hardcore drug, the more we came to wonder about its history. What extra kick might gunpowder provide, and what might be the health consequences of sniffing a substance intended to spark miniature explosions?

So we dove into the brown-brown backstory, and would like to present to you the pros and cons—including some evidence that the drug may be more urban legend than regular tipple for West African soldiers. Everything you ever wanted to know about cocaine-gunpowder mixtures after the jump.

First, we should note that the gunpowder used in brown-brown must certainly be of the smokeless variety; we very much doubt that any modern-day soldiers are using the stuff that features saltpeter. That means the powder component of the drug contains either nitrocellulose or nitroglycerin, along with a range of other minor ingredients. Large amounts of smokeless powder are probably toxic if consumed, though we reckon that the body can probably handle a snort here and there. But there is nothing about the substance’s composition that leads us to believe it would have any psychoactive effects.

Digging through the informational crates, we found the earliest mention of cocaine and gunpowder in a 1995 Independent report from Sierra Leone. The mention isn’t quite what we expected, though:

Drugs were a major part of Foday’s life, as they are for most soldiers in Sierra Leone, government or rebel. “Our superiors put gunpowder in our food and gave us brown pills which they called cocaine to take with our drink,” Foday recalled. “The drugs make your heart strong, make you feel that you are not afraid of anything.”

The “brown pills” sound like amphetamines, rather than cocaine. Which would make sense—in Sierra Leone of the 1990s, cocaine must have been incredibly difficult to source. The gunpowder-in-the-food bit, meanwhile, strikes us as a straight-up psychological ploy; there is nothing in smokeless powder that seems capable of inciting aggression. (Stomachaches, yes; aggression, no.)

The next mention we could find was five years later, again in a piece about Sierra Leone:

The children’s accounts paint a chilling picture of how the RUF and its AFRC allies systematically abducted children, became the children’s surrogate family and forced them, under threat of death, to wreak havoc. Often the children, mostly boys, have scars on their temples where, they said, cocaine and gunpowder were inserted in cuts that were then covered with plaster or adhesive tape. The children also talked of being given small blue pills and drug injections. The effect, they said, was that they could go on murderous binges for days.

Okay, getting closer, though this report (which attributes everything to the child soldiers) doesn’t posit brown-brown as a drug of abuse. Instead, it’s more of a ritualistic treatment, one in which the powder is meant to serve as a talisman of sorts—an embodiment of aggression, rather than something that actually causes aggression. We bet those “small blue pills” were the real chemical motivators.

Then things get confusing. This 2005 report by a Norwegian NGO is the first document to use the term “brown-brown”; however, the report states that this term refers to heroin, rather than gunpowder mixed with cocaine. After that, “brown-brown” is next used not in a news report, but rather in the 2005 Nicholas Cage vehicle Lord of War; Cage’s arms-dealer character gets high off the stuff in one scene. Two years later, brown-brown was mentioned in Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, a book that has been the subject of a credibility dispute. (Beah’s response to the critics here.)

Since the Beah book, popular references to brown-brown have exploded—the memoir got the drug into the public echo chamber, and it’s been rattling around ever since. But that doesn’t mean the drug’s use is widespread—only that its obvious nuttiness has captured the public’s imagination.

Our best guess is that brown-brown may be used on occasion, amidst drunken hijinks that lead to “I’m tougher than you” contests. But as a regular drug of abuse, it just doesn’t make sense.

That said, we are open to hearing about eyewitness accounts about brown-brown. If any Microkhan readers have encountered the drug during their West African travels, please advise.


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24 Comments so far ↓

  • Brian Moore

    Wow, nice work. I get the feeling that a lot of African reporting suffers from this kind of stuff: a tall tale gets repeated enough that it becomes “fact” and too few people are willing to find out the truth.

    This is compounded by the fact that there are some things that we would all like to be horrific tall tales (like child soldiers) but are unfortunately actually true. 🙁

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian Moore: Thanks, and excellent point. Because the issues at hand are so tragic, I think we tend to forgive/overlook hyperbole in the service of bringing attention to the cause.

  • Jordan

    One potential theory: nitroglycerin would balance the vasoconstrictive effects of cocaine.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Interesting. But would there be any negative side effects? And would there be a difference between powder based on nitroglycerin versus one based on nitrocellulose? (As you can tell, I know next-to-nothing about chemistry.)

  • Jordan


    Nitroglycerin is a common treatment for angina. It helps to open up veins to reduce blood pressure and work load on the heart. On the other hand, it also tends to increase heart rate, which would be synergistic with cocaine. Little from column a, little from column b. With that said, it definitely wouldn’t have any psychoactive effects, other than maybe a head trip from the initial decrease in blood pressure.

    From Wikipedia: side effects of nitroglycerin include lack of sexual desire, headache, painful urination and increased bowel movements. Chronic use can cause dependence. Withdrawal can (rarely) be fatal; withdrawal symptoms include headaches and heart problems.

    Nitrocellulose is just cellulose (basically purified plant fiber) that’s been soaked in nitroglycerin to provide it with a solid substrate. So snorting it would probably just muck up your nasal passages even more than normal.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Awesome, thanks for the learned breakdown. The bit about nitroglycerin’s addictive qualities actually lends some credence to the brown-brown story. Perhaps use begins because of myths that correlate gunpowder consumption with aggression, and then persist because of nitroglycerin’s potential for creating dependence?

  • The Wolf

    I think you all are missing the mark. What is in question here is whether or not this “brown-brown” exists. Determining whether or not gunpowder enhances the cocaine cannot be taken as very substantial evidence when considering that cocaine is commonly cut with inert substances such as cornstarch to begin with. It is, in fact, more likely that an armed soldier have gunpowder available to cut the cocaine with than most any other powdered substance. It furthermore need no more than a psychological effect–we cannot, in example, deny the existence of such substances as ‘snake-oil’ simply because they are ineffective.

    Nevertheless, I admit that this “brown-brown” seems far-fetched, at least with reliable references to its use.

  • The Wolf

    edit: …at least with _no_ reliable references…

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @The Wolf: Many thanks for the thoughtful comment. Point taken.

  • Wes

    @ Brendan

    The effect of the nitro is irrelevant as far as it’s addictive qualities. The cocaine is way more addictive then the nitroglycerin. If you do take into account that addiction is a factor then you may want to observe the fact that the officers providing the drugs need them to rely upon them ergo need their officers so they will not rebel or seek out their families. Also increased HR and vaso-dilation will aide in small aggression, combined with cocaine this may hold some merit. I personally think it is more of a ritualistic thing. In “A long Way Gone” he says something about snorting brown-brown and it’s basically interrupted as when you take in the gunpowder you are defeating it, in defeating it you are defeating death. Didn’t want to try to quote it don’t remember to well.


    The USA is the singularly most morally devoid and principle retarded and virtue-less country and people in the world. While ‘children’ and used as killing tools, and ‘traded’ as sex-slaves and worse, the Greatest Military Machine the world has ever seen, does little more than nothing…….. Yet, you expect and say god help those who you decide are ‘EVIL and SATAN REINCARNATE’ if they should even consider the slightest possibility of withdrawing or reviewing a another’s , dont deserve an income, or respsect, or dignity, or decency. Military

  • nyles cota

    I’ve done it, sad to say. Had a period of shitty times a few years ago and after reading “A long way gone” was curious about. I can say that there is a noticeable difference between cocaine without gunpowder as opposed to with. It starts with a massive head-rush followed by lightheadedness and then headache. as far as bowl movements and violence, well cocaine tends to increase those anyway but I did not notice any increase effects. No psychedelic effects at all, I definitely felt as if I could not properly compose my thoughts. A sort of dead feeling going on in my head. I am pleased to done with such an embarrassing point in my life, but was wondering why anyone would do such a thing in the first place. so I came here looking for answers. I can say it would be a tactical error to give this mixture to soldiers as a performance enhancer as all I wanted to do after taking it was hold my head, sit-down, and wait for it to end feeling extremely de-motivated. I would never suggest that anyone try it as there is no desirable or even understandable effect that could come of taking brown brown. Hope my idiotic curiosity helped shed some light on what I am now sure is either a myth or a result of horrible ignorance of those giving it to soldiers in Africa

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @nyles costa: Thanks a million for the first-hand account of the mixture’s effects. I’m sure there’s some neurochemical explanation for the sensations that you experiences, but I’ll leave that up to more learned folks than I. Regardless, good to have a human tester vouch against the stuff–and without suffering any long-term negatives, too.


    Thanks nyles, this might be the best/only firsthand account of anyone using brown-brown I’ve found online. Very interesting. Perhaps the de-motivation and mental confusion you mentioned would aid the “brain-washing” of young children into the child soldiers they become. NOW,

    MORALLY DISGUSTED… Nobody here wants to here that. We’re seeking any truth behind the use of this drug combination and any effects it might actually have, What you said is just plain idiotic.. since when was America responsible for stepping in and reforming entire continents?? When in doubt, look to history.. in recent history that hasn’t worked out so well. Perhaps you’d like to be the one to pull the trigger and kill millions of corrupt officials in Africa and then foot the bill after? Didn’t think so. So shut up.I mean that indefinitely.

    Please respond MORALLY!! I’d love to hear what awful, uneducated garbage you spew about our country next. Everyone else, thanks!

  • Joe

    Morally: Have you ever heard about what happened in bosnia in the 90’s? We stopped genocide there. How about somalia? We intervened there too.

    I guess you can blame the US for the problems in africa. Dont blame england, france, spain, italy, germany, belgium, the netherlands, or even india, pakistan, turkey, or china.

    Just blame the US. I wonder, how many countries in africa has the United States colonized? I dont know, but since you blame the US im sure its a large number. How many countries are we now in control of or have been in control of in the last 100 years in africa? Since you blame the entirety of africa’s problems on the US, it must be alot of countries.

    Africa has traditionally been europe’s problem. I dont know how or why, but thats a fact.
    The united states is the poster child of western civilization. We use drugs, drink alcohol, like technology, and we are very fickle and immature. You would think that countries that have been around 3 to 10 times as long as the united states, would have a better idea about what to do with africa. Lets see ONE other country in the world do more for ANY THIRD WORLD NATION…. than we have done for africa. What thanks do we get? we get no thanks just more blame.

  • MN

    @Joe & TheTruth: Bravo, well-reasoned and true. Being a jealous, spiteful, inadequate world’s go-to whipping boy gets old. People will contort their decision-making to match whatever they want to believe, and of they repeat a lie often enough they cone to believe, and sadly often misguide others into buying into their fantasies. It would be the height of political incorrectness to dare to blame Africans for any of their own problems, so I will refrain even though I accept that we as Americans certainly to blame for most of our problems. Perhaps their future Chinese masters will solve the continent’s problems better than her own people or the Europeans have, you think?

  • MN

    Sorry for the poor proofing; I will blame the small phone keyboard. ; ) BTW, very good article and comments for the most part. Thank you all for your thoughts and experiences. Sad but very thought-provoking stuff.

  • Nej

    @ MorallyD:

    Cool story bro.

    What has YOUR country done?

  • Questioning a Story

    I just heard a talk yesterday from Michel Chikwanine, a supposed former child soldier from the DRC. Parts of his story didn’t seem to add up, and one of those parts was that the soldiers who kidnapped him cut his arm and rubbed “brown-brown” into it. Do any of you know whether brown-brown was used outside West Africa?

  • Colin B

    Perhaps it has spread? and as for brown brown being used for brainwashing, that is what is suspected as the tactics to brainwash a person is keep them off balance, through lack of sleep (keep them awake for weeks at a time using amphetamines, lack of protein, stimuli in the form you want (compliance-> team building and worship of your new master, violence -> nonstop showing of Rambo, etc.). Then when you need them to go on their killing spree, give them an unhealthy dose of drugs for aggression and alertness. perhaps morphine if you want soldiers that can can take a few more bullets before succumbing to shock.

    The brain washing with drugs and violent movies comes from a book, can’t recall which one, the brainwashing from lack of protein is from studying cults in anthropology.

  • Colin B

    Also, having been studying the DRC for the past bit for world issues class, it’s situation can be based on Belgium for it’s colonization then rapid withdrawal, the United States for helping Uganda and Rwanda backed rebels destabilize so that the newly elected leader would sell the Congo’s copper, lumber and oil to them for dirt cheap, even though it was a severe detriment to their own people, and being a corrupt and evil dictator.

    So yes, to say the United States had a hand in making africa a shitty place is true for many of the nations there, Congo (at that time called Zaire) being a shining example.

    “More evidence has emerged that when United States president Dwight Eisenhower met his national security advisers to talk about the situation in Congo two months after the June 1961 independence he said Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister, should be eliminated.”
    — Derek Ingram, 40 years on—Lumumba still haunts the West, Gemini News Service, 1 September 2000

  • Id Rather Notsay

    I came here looking for answers and got none. I have a friend that mixed gunpowder with meth. He became violent & EXTREMELY paranoid for weeks after he has “snorted” the mixture. He was a meth user in the past but none of his behavior even remotely resembled what gunpowder/meth induced. He was clean for a couple of years, met a woman that “turned him on” to the mixture. This is not an urban myth, this is happening in YOUR urban backyards.

  • Mlrs

    Ive used meth and gunpowder. To me it seemed to be less of a psychoactive effect as much as it sped up the delivery of meth into my system. Decreasing the time it took to feel the effects of the meth. If the gunpowder chemicals are acting as a vascular hemodialator then I could see why it would be used by soldiers. You typically go from 0 to 100mph in a much shorter time than using the same drug without gunpowder. Again less of a psychoactive effect and more like speeding up the delivery process.

  • Igor Kleyn

    Now in the age of ISIS/Levanda, a lot has been said about how horrid war gets. Like 12 yo s chopping people’s heads of with a machete while another films it on camera. But from what I just read in connection with brown-brown, shit like this has been going on like forever. I mean, since before I was half the age I am now.

    As for America being to blame, I suspect the person who wrote it lives in that nation. There are people in America who don’t get remotely gung-ho hearing the national anthem, but don’t cry foul when AMERICANS chop people’s heads off overseas, because they are doing it AGAINST the orders of Uncle Sam.

    Though I don’t think torture is the solution. You can find a lot of shit on social networks that you’ll never know through torture. No less important, those who start with torturing terrorists may proceed to torture thieves – and making torture standard, for ANY crime, is unconsitutional. But too many people now have so little understanding of the Constitution, such a dim view of what rights are human rights small wonder American armies get away with helping terrorists massacre Rwandans.