Lethal drug hits PMB

2010-12-01 00:00

“WHOONGA”, a lethal drug cocktail composed of anti-retrovirals (ARVs), rat poison, dagga, heroin and detergents — which can cause lung disease, an increase in abnormal sperm cells, disrupted foetal development and even death — is becoming a problem in Pietermaritzburg.

Imbali, France, Sobantu and Ashdown are target areas with soaring numbers of whoonga sellers and users, according to residents in the areas.

About 40 people who live in these areas told The Witness that the use of the drug is rife. They said distributors, sellers and users are known to the communities.

The drug has also made its way into the northern suburbs, where there is already a problem with the abuse of drugs such as Mandrax, ecstasy, dagga and crack cocaine.

Most people in the peri-urban and rural parts of greater Pietermaritzburg like KwaNyamazane, KwaGezubuso and Sweetwaters said they have never heard of whoonga and do not know of any people in their communities selling or using it.

A taxi driver who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Witness that the old Market Square taxi rank is now a whoonga-smoking den for young Pietermaritzburg schoolchildren.

“Young people are going after the stronger drugs available in the market,” he said.

Carol du Toit, a director at the Durban alcohol and drug centres of the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca), said criminal, aggressive and violent behaviour has been associated with the use of whoonga.

Du Toit said the reasons for using this addictive cocktail are very complex. “There is a very complex interplay between physical, emotional, psychological, social and environmental factors,” she said.

“Whoonga initially referred to a combination of dagga and ARVs. However, it appears that many use the name for a mixture of dagga and heroin, and also for mixtures containing dagga, heroin and substances such as rat poison and detergents.”

She warned that the use of these ingredients can result in loss of short-term memory, lack of motivation, paranoia and dagga psychosis.

“In females, the menstrual cycle could be disrupted and foetal development impeded in pregnant women who use whoonga. In males, sperm development is affected with the number of abnormal sperm increasing or sperm production impaired.

“The plant [dagga] also contains a significant amount of tar which, when smoked, is very damaging to the lungs. There is a risk of accidents when a person is under the influence as perception is distorted,” she said.

Du Toit added that the use of heroin, another active ingredient in whoonga, can result in severe mental and physical deterioration, organ damage and convulsions.

Heroin abuse could also lead to coma and death.

Du Toit said the addition of ARVs brings with it the risk of liver damage, which is a known potential side-effect of the drugs used to manage HIV.

“A risk highlighted in the package inserts is the potential for liver damage if not used correctly. Mixed with other drugs, this risk would increase exponentially. ARVs as drugs of abuse are at this stage not widely researched.”

Thokozani Sokhulu, an activist with Project Whoonga, an NGO fighting the use of the drug, said a dose costs between R15 and R35 and is sold mostly from homes.

“Its users would sell almost anything in their possession just to get high. It is hard to spot users,” he said.

The Witness asked the Health Department whether the production of whoonga affects the supply of ARVs to people living with HIV.  Spokesperson Chris Maxon said: “It does not affect the delivery of these to patients in general. What we have heard is that patients are mugged outside Prince Mshiyeni Hospital and KwaMashu Polyclinic in Durban.”

Maxon said the department has not researched the illegal distribution of ARVs.

This is a problem that affects a number of departments and cannot be handled by the department alone,” he said.

Despite widespread public acknowledgement that whoonga is being used in Pietermaritzburg, police spokesperson Warrant Officer Joey Jeevan said no reports have been received of this drug circulating in Pietermaritzburg.

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