Pubdate: Tue, 22 Mar 2011 Source: Sowetan (South Africa) Copyright: 2011 Sowetan Contact: http://www.sowetan.co.za/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/4558 Author: Asmaa Botmi HEROIN IN A NEW GUISE When Thieves Broke into Nonhlanhla's Home, They Took Her Most Valuable Possession: Her AIDS Drugs, Which in Urban Legend Are a Key Ingredient in a New Narcotic Called "Whoonga". Experts say whoonga doesn't actually contain Aids medication, but is rather a combination of heroin, rat poison and other chemicals. That hasn't ended the public perception that whoonga is laced with antiretrovirals (ARVs), sowing fear among people who depend on them for survival. "I don't know who the dealers are, but I know that they use kids to steal ARVs for them. In the township you see kids stealing the medication of their parents and selling it to the people who make whoonga," Nonhlanhla said. South Africa has the world's largest HIV-positive population, with 5,7million of its 48million people infected with the virus. For many, the theft of their medicine feels like a death sentence. Nonhlanhla lives in KwaMashu, one of Durban's sprawling townships that last year claimed more murders than any other neighbourhood in South Africa, which is battling one of the world's highest crime rates. That has compounded the fears surrounding whoonga, which have grown so strong that President Jacob Zuma personally addressed the problem on Tuesday in opening a national conference on substance abuse. "Experts from the University of KwaZulu-Natal have found that whoonga does not contain ARVs, but is made up of heroin mixed with rat poison and other chemicals," Zuma said. "Perpetuating such inaccuracies is dangerous as it may make drug addicts steal ARVs, which would put the lives of people on treatment for HIV at risk." But drug dealers like Tami Langa actively perpetuate the myth. He started smoking drugs in 2007. The next year he became a dealer, and now he's trying to change his life and finish a rehab programme. He says he's bought, smoked, made and sold whoonga, which sells for R20 and is crushed into marijuana joints for smoking. "What do we put in whoonga? We put ARVs, rat poison and other things." The urban legend has taken on a life of its own, said Bridget Beauchamp, who works in a pharmacy in KwaMashu, Durban. "They don't come to the clinic and tell us straight, 'I've been robbed'. But we know it, and sometimes they don't even get robbed - they are selling it," she said. Anwar Jeewa, director of the Durban rehabilitation centre Minds Alive, tested six samples of whoonga from different parts of the city, which found no traces of ARV. Jeewa doesn't doubt that in rare instances ARVs are abused by drug addicts, but says whoonga's popularity is mainly a product of marketing by dealers. Because heroin is expensive, dealers cut the drug with other substances to make it more affordable and sell it under different names, he said. "A few years ago, the same drug was called 'sugars'. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.