Whoonga is developing into a huge multi faceted problem.
South Africa is in the grip of a dangerous new drug craze that could threaten the country’s battle against AIDS. The street drug called “whoonga” is a cocktail that includes the anti retroviral (ARV) medication prescribed to people with HIV. Demand for the substance has prompted a wave of thefts of AIDS drugs across the country.
Users crush the ARVs and smoke them with a mixture of rat poison, detergent and marijuana to get high. The powder is said to be so addictive that users are hooked within days. “If I don’t smoke it, I get pains and I can’t sleep until I get some more,” 31-year-old Jomo said, his eyes red and glazed after a few deep drags on a joint. He and his fellow whoonga addicts, huddled in the grounds of a church in one of Durban’s side streets, smoke up to 30 “packets” of the drug every day at a cost of almost $160.
“I just rob people to get the money. I don’t have a job, this is all I do,” Jomo said, rolling another joint. “I sell my body to get whoonga,” a young woman said with a shrug. In the back streets of Durban, whoonga dealers tout the powder for $5 per packet. The highly toxic drug has been blamed for the deaths of scores of addicts across South Africa over the past year and has fueled a spate of thefts of AIDS medication.
In the township of Umlazi, near Durban, officials say dozens of patients are being robbed of their anti-retroviral drugs every week. However, the country’s Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS lobbying group, has described the belief that the drugs have recreational value as a “myth.” Group spokeswoman Caroline Nenguke said: “We are not even convinced that whoonga contains ARVs. The dealers just say it does.”