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South Africa: Heroin is flooding our streets and schools

Iol.co.az, August 21, 2006

By Karyn Maughan and Alex Eliseev

Drug syndicates are eyeing schools as they seek to grow a market of young heroin addicts.

The street price of heroin is now between R30 and R50 a gram - less than a tenth of its price five years ago and half the price of a bank bag of good-quality dagga.

In Gauteng and Pretoria alone, hundreds of heroin addicts - some as young as nine - are dying of overdoses every month, according to a police drug expert.

'The dealers often target kids to deal for them'

Desperate schoolchildren, prepared to do anything for their next hit, are forming criminal heroin "clubs" to beg or steal money for their addictions.

The heroin explosion in South Africa is addressed in the latest annual United Nations drug report. The UN attributes the boom to "spill over" from Southern Africa's increasing role in international drug trafficking.

"The upward trend is particularly noted in South Africa," the 2006 report stated.

Narcotics experts believe the local drug market is being deliberately flooded to encourage addiction among youngsters.

One fix is often enough to trap a child into addiction, with withdrawal symptoms including skin sores, excruciating muscle and bone pain, vomiting and insomnia.

'I think he wanted his mom to know what had happened to him'

Cheap street heroin is being concocted from 20 to 30 percent "Thai white" - which is about 90 percent pure - and diluting substances as toxic as rat poison.

Dangerous mixtures of heroin and Rattex, teething powder and bicarbonate of soda has reached epidemic proportions in KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town.

Meanwhile, Pretoria police have raised alarm bells about "nyaope", a mixture of dagga and heroin that is ravaging township youth in Mamelodi, Soshanguve and Atteridgeville.

In an effort to investigate Gauteng's drug trade, The Star spent several days and nights undercover on the streets of Yeoville and its surrounding areas.

Our guide was a member of the disbanded South African Narcotics Bureau, who spent about 20 years investigating the country's drug syndicates.

While the kingpins, who head more than 100 drug syndicates in Joburg, live in luxury homes in Fourways or Dainfern, their empires flourish in suburbs like Yeoville, Hillbrow, Fordsburg and "Little Baraka" (little Portugal) in Berea.

Having witnessed drug deals, getting caught up in shootouts and speaking to career dealers, a frightening picture emerged - the heroin trade is booming.

Massive busts by the elite Scorpions crime-fighting unit may have left the streets starved of hashish (cannabis resin), but heroin ("brown sugar") was available everywhere.

While the substances added to heroin increase, the intensity of the "high" and its effects are deadly.

No official statistics for the number of heroin overdoses in the country are available, but organisation Drug Aware claims that one Pretoria hospital alone treats 10 to 25 cases each month.

The UN report revealed that South Africa's demand for heroin treatment has multiplied three-fold since 2004.

And six counsellors from the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence have told The Star that they are "overwhelmed" by the number of children seeking help.

Two months ago, the state-run Magaliesoord adolescent rehabilitation centre was forced to stop admitting patients because it could not cope with the demand for in-patient treatment.

It has just recently started admitting patients again.

Heroin is just as easily accessible in schools as it is on the streets, said police Captain Johan Combrinck, co-ordinator for the Gauteng drug-enforcement programme.

"The dealers often target kids to deal for them. They'll get the child hooked and then suggest that they deal in the school in order to earn their own drugs.

"The kids using heroin usually club together so that they can buy the stuff. They choose one child at a time to go out and steal and sell something for money. Once they have bought the heroin, they share it out."

Some schoolchildren are forced into sex work in order to finance their addictions, he said.

Speaking about the growing number of children killed by heroin overdoses, Combrinck described how a nine-year-old Pretoria boy living on the streets managed to leave his mother's phone number on the pavement where he died of a heroin overdose.

"I think he wanted his mom to know what had happened to him."

According to Combrinck, heroin is being used across racial lines - with a growing number of children in the townships becoming addicted to the drug.

After giving an anti-drug lecture at the Pretoria-based Montana High School last week, a 16-year-old girl approached Combrinck.

"My friend Thando is addicted to heroin," she said. "I'm very, very worried."

Combrinck took down her details and promised to follow up. He hopes this is a child he can save.