New whoonga user is privileged, entitled and well-spoken

2013-08-15 00:00

THEY come from privileged backgrounds, but they’re hardened criminals. They’re defiant and antisocial. And their numbers are increasing because of a drug called whoonga, a cheap and easily available form of heroin mixed with strychnine (rat poison).

Susan Spencer, psychologist and manager of the addiction unit at Akeso, a private psychiatric clinic in Scottsville, said since the clinic opened in 2011, they’ve seen a steady increase in patients addicted to the drug which is wreaking havoc in communities around the country (see box).

“So far this year we’ve seen a significant increase on last year’s numbers,” she said. The profile of the whoonga user Akeso is seeing is a black male between the ages of 17 and 24.

“They’ve mostly been involved in robbery and gangs, and they are very street smart. Many have learnt how to hijack cars and rob houses,” she said. “They’re often defiant and tend to have little respect for authority.”

What’s significant is that many come from more privileged backgrounds than the average whoonga user. Because of its relatively low price of R20 a fix, the drug has made huge inroads in poor communities.

“Many have been educated at Model C schools, some have been to university. They are well-spoken and their parents are on medical aid,” said Spencer. “They tend to be very entitled — they want stuff quickly, especially their whoonga.”

She said most of the users they’ve seen have almost invariably been involved in criminal activities and some have spent time in jail. Those who’d committed crimes said that being high at the time helped them think clearly. “Their crimes are not random; they are well-planned and executed.” The drug apparently also increases libido, which can make rape more of a danger during a robbery.

Spencer said the prognosis for recovery for whoonga addicts is generally poor, probably because treating heroin addiction is complicated, costly and takes a long time, and they are difficult to accommodate in a normal rehabilitation environment because of behavioural problems.

“In any addiction, youth is a poor prognostic indicator because until you’ve experienced loss, you are less likely to find the commitment required to kick your habit.”

“And developmentally for people in their teens and early 20s, peers are more important and influential. To suggest that they have to change their friends to recover is often met with staunch resistance,” she said. Involvement in criminal activities makes the chances of recovery even less likely.

Spencer said whoonga addicts are difficult to deal with in an environment where they come into contact with people dealing with other kinds of addiction. “Because of their deviant behaviour, our unit sets in place very strict boundaries.”

She said she has observed that when more than one whoonga addict is in the rehab a “gang vibe’’ emerges. “They connect easily over their shared addiction and all that goes with it.”

Because of these difficulties, the clinic had at one time considered not taking whoonga users for treatment, and now accepts only one at a time.


‘Whoonga is poison’

WHOONGA, first mentioned in South Africa three or four years ago, is similar to sugars and nyaope in that it is heroin-based. It hit the headlines when it was rumoured that it contained antiretrovirals, although according to a Health-e report published in The Witness in January, 2011, samples of whoonga tested by a Durban scientist found its main components to be heroin, morphine and strychnine, the main component in rat poison.

Dr Thavendran Govender, a senior lecturer in pharmaceutical sciences at UKZN’s School of Health Sciences, said in the report that the mix keeps the addict trapped in a vicious cycle because the heroin and morphine, which are highly addictive, deaden the pain of the muscle cramps caused by the strychnine. He said those peddling whoonga should be tried for attempted murder and murder because strychnine is a known poison and those who sell the drug know that.

Whoonga has been blamed for fuelling crime in and around Durban, where the concentration of users is the greatest in the country. According to Joey du Plessis, founder and co-ordinator of Careline Crisis and Trauma Centre in Assagay, the drug makes users irrational and paranoid, and because the cravings are so severe, they tend to be prepared to use violence to get it. “If you try to block them, they get aggressive,” she said. However, how users behave will also depend on the influence of their environment and upbringing. “Not everyone turns to crime. [And] it also has a lot to do with whether [they] have access to money.”

How whoonga addiction is treated

TREATMENT is continued for a long time after the initial detox and withdrawal, and the addict needs ongoing monitoring by his or her doctor, long after discharge, as the medication is gradually reduced. Ongoing treatment with suboxone or subutex helps support recovery as it reduces cravings and preoccupation with whoonga.

Even addicts who are highly motivated to maintain their recovery will experience a very strong drive to use. Ongoing medical management and aftercare are vital. Akeso provides aftercare groups several days a week to provide the necessary support with NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and TAG (The Akeso Graduate) groups.

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