Durban hit by ‘sugars’ rush

Chatsworth, Durban, lunchtime: 16-year-old Colin Pillay* staggers out of an alleged drug-dealer’s semi-detached council home, oblivious. An hour earlier, Pillay and his mother had turned up at the Chatsworth Youth Centre seeking a prescription for Subutex (buprenorphine, a schedule six drug) to combat his three-and-a-half-year “sugars” addiction. “I’ve been clean for three weeks,” said the high-school dropout. “I don’t have money and I want to stop smoking.”

Sugars, a mixture of residual cocaine and heroin cut with anything from rat poison to household detergents and baby powder, is a cheap, addictive drug that has swept the youth in this mainly Indian township south of Durban.

It comes wrapped in bin-bag plastic, tied into small Aids-ribbon-shaped “loops” from which a user can get four or five hits. A loop costs between R10 and R35, depending on the quality, and is usually smoked by inhaling the vapour when it is burnt on tin foil.

The result is a euphoric high that 14-year-old Brandon Naidoo*, who has smoked for more than six months, compares with an orgasm: “There’s nothing like the first rush. Your life comes, it’s like you’re in the air the way you feel it.” And it is readily available: “[Scoring] is like going to the shop and buying bread. Sometimes there are 250 people in the line outside the merchant. The line to the grant office is small compared,” said Pillay.

The Anti-Drug Forum (ADF), which runs a rehabilitation programme from the youth centre, was formed 10 months ago in response to the abuse of sugars and perceived apathy by the government health and social welfare departments. ADF chairperson Sam Pillay said 2 600 people joined the programme voluntarily. The programme includes an eight-week course of Subutex in gradually decreasing doses, week-long “art of living” sessions incorporating yoga and meditation, and weekly counselling for affected families.

Kalpesh Ramcharan, a volunteer doctor at the programme, believes the number of participants is just the tip of the iceberg and that holistic treatment is integral to preventing relapse.

“Subutex is just the entry point, where you get abusers out of illegal activity. It’s a substitute for heroin because it binds with the same brain receptors.

“But once you deal with the physical aspects, social factors need to be considered, like motivation. There are so many young people in Chatsworth who feel bored, that they have no scope. Many come from dysfunctional families with no proper role-models, no guidance. Because of our Americanised societies, parents feel their children are adults at an age when [the youths] probably need them the most.”

The quantity of heroin and cocaine in sugars are relatively small, and Ramcharan believes that the disintegrating social fabric is a bigger threat than overdosing.

According to more than 20 addicts interviewed, the withdrawal symptoms — the “roster” — include acute back pains, joint pains, stomach cramps, constipation, sweating, goose-bumps, intense craving and loss of concentration. A 20-year-old who has been smoking sugars for two years compared it to “having a period, only worse. When you go to the toilet your arsehole is bust.”

Nivesh and Lucy Govender* (20 and 18 respectively) were married in March and have a baby, Michael, who is almost two. His parents share a R300- to R400-a-day habit, which they fund by shoplifting and selling their possessions. “I’m scared of my baby depending on sugars, but I believe in God, I know I will give it up,” said Lucy, who started smoking six months ago because of “family problems”.

Nivesh, who dropped out of school in grade nine and is unemployed, says he started through “boredom”. “I met up with one or two bras, and everyday, you got nothing to do so I started smoking. Soon I was only smoking for the roster.”

The roster, like clockwork, kicks in almost every four hours. It is at its worst when the addicts wake up after an eight-hour sleep.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the drug’s main abusers are between 13 and 22. Sergeant Kacey Naicker, head of the Durban Metro crime prevention unit, said the youngest person arrested for abusing the drug was 11.

The South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, funded by the Department of Health, noted last year that 50% of patients in Durban who reported mandrax as their primary substance of abuse were “Indian” but that only 20,3% of the overall figure were under the age of 20. This suggests that what was once the drug of choice in Chatsworth is being rejected by the next generation of drug-abusers. Word on the street is that while many mandrax dealers have also started stocking sugars, a turf war is brewing between pedlars of the two substances.

Naicker believes taxi drivers started bringing sugars into Chatsworth six or seven years ago from Dalton Hostel ±– a known drug den in town. “Once there was demand, it was easy for dealers to set up networks and contacts.”

He said the drug was processed locally and the trade was controlled “largely by Tanzanians and people from Zanzibar”. Ramcharan shares this view, adding that the proliferation of the drug in Chatsworth, as opposed to African townships, may be a result of xenophobia.

The sugars craze may have fuelled the recent crime upsurge in Chatsworth, where police recently launched Operation Zero Tolerance, with more visible policing.

Many addicts admit to participating in or knowing of people involved in crimes ranging from shoplifting to hijackings, to fund their habit. “I used to work as a cashier and steal money from the till. We also used to rob college students for their cellphones with a pellet gun, or a knife, or just with our ‘talks’,” said 17-year-old Jasmine Reddy*. Reddy’s habit eventually cost R900 a day.

Her friend Tiffany Michaels* (19) added: “We used to go to clubs and flirt and chat with the older drunk men, then we would take them outside to a secluded spot and there would be somebody waiting to rob them.”

She added: “If they put you as a cashier you are the happiest person in the world, because you can steal the float.”

“I spent a weekend in jail once, because my boss caught me stealing,” said Jasmine.

Activists and addicts allege that there is collusion between policemen and drug dealers in the township.

Naicker of the crime prevention unit which oversaw the successful arrest and conviction of two dealers last year — the only successful convictions so far — conceded: “At least 50% of our fight against drugs has been against our own people — the SAPS and the Metro Police.”

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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