Hard reality about taking ‘soft’ drugs

Drug-taking, for many people, conjures up the image of a filthy, emaciated person passed out in a seedy alleyway with a heroin-laced hypodermic syringe sticking out of his arm.

Yet the consumption of mind-altering drugs — or recreational drugs as they are referred to — is far more commonplace than most people realise. Poly-drug abuse, which refers to the consumption of a combination of two or more drugs, is also common.

The most commonly consumed recreational drug probably isn’t even considered a drug at all, namely alcohol.

The appalling level of alcohol abuse in South Africa – among the worst in the world — is well documented and government is planning to introduce a raft of measures to try to curb its enormous health and social costs. A cold, hard fact: 130 South Africans die every day from alcohol-related causes.

Even though there has been successful government intervention regarding tobacco use: a blanket ban on advertising, a prohibition on smoking in all public areas and health warnings on packs, tobacco smoking still kills more than 45 000 South Africans every year. A cold, hard fact: tobacco is the most addictive recreational drug known, even more addictive than heroin.

Now, as we move on to drugs that are considered “drugs”: cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, tik and heroin, the dangers of abuse are equally alarming.

Dagga Abuse
Marijuana or dagga is not as benign as many regular users like to believe it is. Regardless of the fact that it is used in certain parts of the world for medical purposes, the consequences of dagga abuse can be dire. Especially in South Africa, where it is double the global norm.

On a psychological level, depression and anxiety are commonly associated with the drug. Of course, the physical dangers that are associated with smoking – damage to the lungs and the respiratory system – are obvious. Some cold, hard facts: the short-term dangers of dagga include difficulties in problem-solving and learning; long-term dangers include serious mental health problems and an irreversible loss of intellectual capacity.

Cocaine — which is psychologically addictive — has been shown to cause blood clots and sudden heart attacks. The main health risk of cocaine, however, is overdosing, which induces convulsions, heart failure and the depression of the vital brain centre controlling respiration. A cold, hard fact: long-term use of cocaine doubles the risk of having a stroke.

Another commonly used drug in South Africa is the stimulant crystal methamphetamine. Known on the streets as “tik”, it is cheap and often deadly as it leads to argumentativeness, aggression and at times violent behaviour. It is described as intensely psychologically addictive. A cold, hard fact: tik has the fastest addiction rate in South Africa and has reached pandemic proportions on the Cape Flats.

A worrying trend, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, is the emergence of a cheap, highly addictive new drug called “whoonga” (which means “sugar” in one of the Tanzanian languages). This drug is a cocktail manufactured from rat poison, antiretroviral drugs, heroin and even domestic detergents. Its use has the potential to turn the fight against HIV/Aids into a catastrophe.

Perhaps the most insidious of all the drugs is heroin, an opiate derivative of morphine. Heroin is an extremely powerful painkiller and users experience exhilaration, euphoria and a sense of wellbeing, whether it’s smoked, sniffed or injected. Coming off it is another thing entirely. Withdrawal symptoms including extreme pain, nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, shaking, twitching and an insatiable craving for the drug.

The terms “recreational drugs” and “soft drugs” are misnomers that lend an air of false respectability to an issue that can have serious ramifications on a person’s health. People need to be far more aware of the risks involved and be more circumspect about consuming any drug.

Recreational drugs will be the topic of Bonitas House Call on April 30 on SABC2 at 9am

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