University of KwaZulu-Natal Honorary Research Fellow Professor Mark Hunter, from the University of Toronto, highlights the rise of whoonga addiction and the prevalence of Xanax in schools.

Durban - Anti-anxiety medication Xanax has become the new drug in Durban schools, with some pupils taking five tablets at a time.

This week Professor Mark Hunter, from the University of Toronto, Canada, who is also a University of KwaZulu-Natal Honorary Fellow, gave a seminar on Intimate Crimes, Heroin and the rise of Amaphara (drug criminals) at the university, during which it was highlighted that Xanax tablets were currently the drug of choice for pupils.

While doing research in Durban on the prevalence of whoonga and heroin- based drugs, Hunter and his assistant found that in 15 schools, the anti-anxiety tablets and weed (cannabis) were the most popular drugs used by pupils.

“This appears to be a local illicit market, with a ‘dosh’ being a packet of 100 Xanax tablets. A tablet is easy to pop, no hiding behind the shed,” said Hunter, adding the source of the tablets was likely to be local, with a tablet costing R5, and that Xanax users were both male and female.

He said the abuse of drugs in Durban was “a huge problem with a minuscule response”, saying there were only two government drug rehabilitation centres in KwaZulu-Natal. He also traced the rise of the derogatory term “amaphara”, which refers to whoonga addicts, normally a young male involved in petty crime to pay for his habit.

Hunter said at R25 a capsule, “this is really cheap heroin. In the mid-to-late 2000s, there was talk about “sugars” in areas such as Chatsworth, but in 2010 whoonga came to attention as it was linked to antiretroviral drugs.

“Both are cheap heroin, even if cut with different substances.”

He said some addicts started by smoking weed, but were unaware that some was laced with whoonga. Heroin is extremely addictive, so “chasing the dragon” or needing more is the common addiction path.

“Half of the 50 we interviewed, or whose families we interviewed, started at school. They drop out, but we have to ask: Was it a bad school or the young man?

“I call it the other side of the born frees. They were born in 1994 and were 16 years old in 2010 when whoonga came in,” he said, adding factors such as unemployment and lack of opportunity played a role in driving up addiction rates.

Hunter also highlighted that marriage rates had halved since the 1960s, with many young men being unable to provide for a family or even pay lobola.

The word amaphara can also mean parasite, because a whoonga addict typically steals small items or money from his family to pay for a daily fix.

He said while it appeared to be a perception that “real amaphara” live in Whoonga Park (Albert Park) in Durban, most users lived with their families. “Once you are in Whoonga Park, you have lost that family connection, it is the end of the story, you have been ostracised. But whoonga users are all over and will often get money, not only from stealing, but from collecting scrap metal, washing cars. There’s a whole labour market with amaphara that is being exploited,” he said.

Anti-Drug Forum SA director, Sam Pillay, agreed that the abuse of Xanax had become a trend in some schools.

“Yes, in certain areas. While you still find the conventional drugs everywhere, such as cannabis, sugars and rocks, as time goes on new products hit the market. Xanax is new and we first found it in Chatsworth last year.

“The pills are only R5 each, it’s easier to pop a pill than to smoke and there’s no drug paraphernalia. It’s a prescription drug and dealers will have made contact with a pharmaceutical distribution point,” said Pillay.

SA National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Durban director, Walter Petersen, said: "Xanax is being peddled. We are concerned at what is happening in schools.”

Independent on Saturday