While every country has its unfortunates who are addicted to behaviour modifying substances, Ghana in the 1970s seemed relatively free of this phenomenon. It might have been one of the rare blessings of poverty that most people lacked the financial resources to fund a drug habit; few people were seen smoking but many others said that they would like to smoke if they could afford it. A cocoa farmer was pictured smoking his pipe on a Ghanaian bank note and this further enhanced the aspiration as everyone knew that cocoa farmers were rich. It was expected that increased prosperity would lead inevitably to increased indulgence.
In the Acheampong days of the 1970s, for most people outside of the military community it was hard to imagine increased prosperity. The high inflation of the Kalebule economy reduced many to poverty. For some the pangs of hunger were repelled by chewing cola, the caffeine containing nuts that revealed over-indulgence by staining the teeth red. Vampire grins were common, and for some, including Moslems forbidden to drink alcohol, the consumption of cola approached the proportions of an addiction.
Apart from stained teeth, the chewing of cola nuts was regarded as a harmless pastime, and the smoking of wee was regarded as only one grade more socially unacceptable. Wee is the Ghanaian word for cannabis or marihuana and might be derived from the English street name ‘weed.’ Everyone knew someone who smoked wee, and although the habit was regarded as unfortunate it was seldom condemned. When in June 1979 Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings seized the reins of government, wee smoking became almost respectable because the new head of state was rumoured to have smoked wee since his schooldays at Achimota.
Although hard drugs like cocaine and heroin were destined to come to Ghana in later decades, in the 1970s there was little evidence of their consumption. No doubt the high cost kept them out of reach of the masses and any soldiers who became addicted were confined to barracks. Even during the Rawlings years of the 1980s, Ghanaians were more likely to be found importing hard drugs into Europe or the USA than making use of them themselves.
The danger of addiction for the man in the street came from alcohol, and more especially from the locally distilled spirit called akpeteshie. Production was illegal, but numerous primitive stills operated besides streams deep in the forest. The raw material was palm wine, a popular beverage brewed from the sap of the oil palm. Unregulated distillation resulted not only in high ethyl alcohol concentrations but the inclusion of other alcohols such as methanol. Akpeteshie was not only addictive but also lethal.
Interaction with akpeteshie might have been merry but it was usually short. Addicts would often boast how fine they looked with a bright orange complexion, but by the time that liver damage became visible in this way, life expectancy could be measured in a few months. So for those who could not face the deprivations of the Kalebule era, it was akpeteshie that provided the cheapest and fastest release.