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.