The rise of synthetic drugs in Paradise Island (Part 2)

28 février 2018, 08:09


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The Reform Party conducted two internal workshops and identified that adolescents and persons with limited means are directly targeted by synthetic drug dealers.

The rising tide of synthetic drugs in Mauritius was discussed and four major findings were established in Part 1, published on the 16th February 2018 in l’express. Firstly, synthetic drugs are proliferating at an extraordinary rate in our towns and villages. Secondly, an estimated two out of five youngsters are consumers of synthetic drugs. Thirdly, the supply is abundant due to the ease with which these drugs are imported and also produced locally. And fourthly, the price is really cheap, with a dose (called “pocket”) costing around Rs 100 to Rs 150.

L’express published an article on 16th February 2018, stating that an estimated 20,000 doses were being sold daily in the Port-Louis region only. A quick calculation reveals that the sales revenue must be between Rs 2 million to Rs 3 million per day and, therefore, generating some Rs 700 million to Rs 1 billion annually, in Port-Louis alone!

Drugs are sold for hard cash and the proceeds are either hidden or used through a money laundering process of placement, layering and integration, to acquire assets and property. This is why in December 2015, our Constitution was amended and the law on “unexplained wealth” was enacted. Government is certainly aware that the Integrity Reporting Board chaired by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, KG PC QC, requires adequate resources and appropriate funding to track, confiscate and curb the substantial illicit and unexplained wealth generated by selling synthetic drugs in our country!

In this context, any argument to the effect that we are in a slow-moving economy and disturbance to the money flow and related multiplier effect created by such activity may well decrease consumption and investment is futile. Synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous for the health of our youth, creating addiction, paranoia, zombie-like behaviour and also death. We reaffirm that before it is too late, government has to come up with swift policy decisions and workable solutions. It is indeed a matter of utmost priority!

The Reform Party conducted two internal workshops to analyse the root causes of the proliferation of synthetic drugs. It was identified that adolescents, college students and persons with limited means are directly targeted by synthetic drug dealers. It was also established that a pouliah of cannabis is sold for around Rs 300. This is 3 times the price of a “pocket” of synthetic drug, which can be bought for Rs 100. In short, synthetic drugs have priced cannabis out of the market!

It is not only the higher price of cannabis, which has reduced its consumption, but also because in places like Tamarin, Grand-Baie and in our main towns, cannabis is not sold for less than one gram. This costs between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000 for each gram, depending on the quality. Therefore, a buyer of cannabis needs to have more cash available with him or her. Seemingly, cannabis dealers operate in this way to mitigate the risk of getting caught. They would rather sell one gram to one buyer, instead of having to deal “pouliahs” with 10 different individual buyers and obtain the same amount of money.

After the internal workshops conducted, the Reform Party decided to have more views and suggestions from the public by opening through Facebook and private e-mail the debate on whether the medicalisation, decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis would help in reducing the problem of proliferation of synthetic drugs in our country. The overwhelming response exceeded our expectations as over one thousand persons engaged by leaving comments, sending private e-mails and making phone calls. Of course, with such a delicate and sensitive subject matter, the views and suggestions expressed were deeply passionate.

Most of the respondents are in favour of helping victims through the “medicalisation” of cannabis. They emphasised the positive medical impacts of the plant, suggesting that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol, two of the active substances in cannabis, are increasingly being used to treat cancer. In some cases, even stage 4 cancer has been eased by using cannabis oil. It is also used in some countries to reduce the secondary effects of chemotherapy and to treat epilepsy, sleep disorders, fits and seizures, Parkinson’s disease and bipolar disorders. In terms of the costs of such treatment, they argued that it is more affordable to use cannabis and its derivatives for its medical merits.

“It was also established that a pouliah of cannabis is sold for around Rs 300. This is 3 times the price of a ‘pocket’ of synthetic drug, which can be bought for Rs 100.”

One Mauritian parent whose child suffers from epilepsy explained how she had spent a fortune on conventional pharmaceutical medicines every month, without any success. She explained the reasons why the child needs access to cannabis-based treatment, which is not available in Mauritius. Certainly, there is a need to invest in scientific research in an open-minded way and to raise awareness of the Mauritian population accordingly.

In the same context, it is also possible for the proliferation of synthetic drugs to be addressed by giving access, upon prescription, to medical cannabis and its derivatives. This will not be uncommon in Mauritius as methadone is already being distributed in a controlled manner to hard drug users.

With regard to decriminalisation or “depenalisation”, this would entail making consumption of cannabis a legal activity, which will undoubtedly push up the demand for cannabis. However, the sale of cannabis would remain an illegal activity, which will limit the supply. In pure economic terms, when demand exceeds supply, the price will go up further. Understandably, decriminalisation or “depenalisation” of cannabis may well push users even closer to synthetic drugs, because of the cheaper prices. It will, therefore, not be a “quick-fix” solution to the current predicament on proliferation of synthetic drugs.

It is also true, however, that every time a youngster is arrested with a “pouliah” of cannabis, he gets a criminal record, thus preventing him from having a clean “morality certificate”, which, in turn, limits his prospects of finding a job. He becomes unemployable for at least ten years and very often, such youngsters can’t find decent jobs and decide to earn a living by working for the dealers in order to survive. In fact, this exacerbates the current problem of proliferation of synthetic drugs in our country. It is high time for our laws to be changed to address this obnoxious state of affairs.

With regard to the “legalisation” of cannabis, the proponents explained the disadvantages of repressive laws and policies, which have clearly not worked as intended by policymakers. The rising tide of synthetic and other hard drugs in Mauritius clearly shows this. Prohibition creates a black market, which only benefits drug dealers. As published recently, even when they get caught and are thrown in prison, they still continue their activity, which flourishes more and more due to inherent corruption in the system.

Proponents of legalisation clearly blame the prohibition of cannabis for the proliferation of synthetic drugs in Mauritius. According to them, legal and affordable cannabis would have acted as a barrier against deadly substitutes. They propose that cannabis be legalised and that citizens be allowed a controlled quantity for personal consumption, and/or be allowed to grow a controlled amount of cannabis at home – thus beating the black market.

It is further argued that the arrests, investigations, prosecutions and imprisonment of cannabis consumers have a huge cost for the State and the Mauritian tax payers. Instead, they would have preferred to pay taxes for fighting the import and distribution of deadly class A drugs like synthetic drug, heroine, brown sugar, ecstasy, MDMA, crystal meth, ketamine, LSD and subutex – all of which are apparently available at will and openly sold on our streets and rave parties. It is the opinion of these proponents that the Anti- Drug Smuggling Unit should be more efficient and targeted in their approach. It is also their opinion that cannabis consumers should not be arrested.

It was specifically pointed out that there is a lot of discrimination in the way the law is enforced. Although users of cannabis are to be found in every social class, community and region of the island, arrests are disproportionately focused on people coming from less favourable backgrounds in the cités or résidences.

Another group of proponents argue that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes, which are legal products – and on which the government depends more and more for taxes. There is empirical evidence that cannabis is organic and less dangerous than sugar and saturated fats! Apparently, there isn’t one reported case worldwide where cannabis led to death, as compared to synthetic drugs, hard drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and even sugar!

Alcohol may lead to domestic violence and strong physical addiction, whereas consumers of cannabis tend to be peaceful, relaxed and not in the mood to get physically violent. In this respect, the proponents of cannabis claim that man has this inherent habit of seeking little pleasures of life and different forms of relaxation. These proponents claim their right to use the product in a recreational way, very much like other people consume a glass of wine while having dinner. They agree that, like in Réunion Island, there needs to be mechanisms in place to test road drivers for THC level, very much like it is the case in Mauritius with alcohol testing.

Among those who are against the legalisation of cannabis, there are two categories of respondents. Firstly, those who are not open to debate at all. And secondly, those who expressed their views by stating that cannabis is a “drug” – full stop! They strongly believe that the proliferation of synthetic drugs cannot be solved by relaxing the policies on another “drug”. The argument that cannabis is a “gateway” drug was put forward, i.e. they believe that the consumption of cannabis is a stepping stone for the consumption of harder drugs, such as brown sugar.

They fear that legalising cannabis will lead to more people consuming it and even trying harder drugs. They fear that cannabis consumption will be very difficult to control within the work place, thus impacting on labour productivity. The issues of drug driving were also raised, whereby in the absence of proper controls and testing, more and more drivers would drive under the influence of cannabis, thus increasing the risk of road accidents which have already reached unprecedented levels in Mauritius.

Those against the legalisation of cannabis stated that they cannot trust the government to grant and distribute licences in a fair manner to individuals and/or companies to distribute these products, even in medical form. Some further mentioned that Mauritius is a conservative country, comprising different religions and groups, which would not support such policies. For them, once cannabis is legalised, there is no going back!

We conclude that whether cannabis should be medicalised or legalised (or not) is a decision which belongs to the people of Mauritius. This can only be done through a referendum, if government so decides or through the next general elections as party policy – if a political party/alliance has the guts to include the legalisation of cannabis in its political electoral programme.

The ban on cannabis in Mauritius dates back to the 19th century and was inherited from the British settlers. It was NOT the choice of any independent Mauritian citizen!

The rise of synthetic drugs in Paradise Island (Part 1)

In Roche-Bois yesterday, 210 doses of synthetic drugs were seized by the police.

For some time already, we heard that synthetic drugs were being sold and consumed regularly on our island. During the by-election campaign in Belle-Rose-Quatre-Bornes, our Reformers had the opportunity to engage with people from different spheres of life. They had discussions about their daily routines and problems affecting their neighbourhood. Through this process of engagement, it became clear that the problem of synthetic drugs both in terms of availability and consumption was much worse than we had previously thought.

In fact, we noted an alarming proliferation of synthetic drugs in most areas of Belle-Rose-Quatre-Bornes. The targets are primarily youngsters and these drugs are sold at very cheap prices. The supply is abundant and available at any time of the night. During daytime, synthetic drugs are sold openly at street junctions, bus stops, local schools and colleges, close to ‘tabagies’, corner shops, drinking bars and local football/sports grounds in most areas.

After the by-election campaign, we decided to find out what was happening in other regions of the island. Not surprisingly, we came across the same phenomenon in other constituencies. The synthetic drug problem is clearly spread across the country, in towns and villages alike! We observed with great disbelief that on average at least two out of five youngsters aged between 15 and 25 were users of different synthetic drugs, which represents a staggering 40% of our youth! According to Police sources, around 45% of arrests effected for drug related offences relate to synthetic drugs!

These drugs are a fairly recent phenomenon, which were originally designed in America, Europe and China as chemical compounds that mimic the effects of cannabis. They were principally a mixture of liquid chemical products that were sprayed on dried leaves and plant materials for smoking purposes. As they had a different chemical composition from that of cannabis, they could not be ruled out as prohibited products – and were therefore, openly sold under a variety of names (‘Spice’, ‘K2’, ‘Strawberry’, ‘Black Mamba’ amongst others), as ‘safe legal highs’ on the streets of London and New York! Once the law caught up with a specific product, the chemical formula just had to be slightly altered to create a new ‘unprohibited’ drug, which had the same desired effects, but whose dealers and consumers could not be prosecuted!

This constant alteration of chemical composition led to the development of other forms of synthetic drugs which were aimed at replicating the effects of ‘ecstasy’ and cocaine. Worse, the ease and rapidity with which these synthetic drugs could be produced led to more and more individuals turning their garage or even bedrooms into shady laboratories – experimenting with dangerous chemical products of their own choice, and therefore making synthetic drugs more potent and more destructive, without any kind of quality control or checks.

«Although nearly similar to cannabis in physical form, synthetic drugs are a world apart in terms of effects.»

In Mauritius, synthetic drugs come from two main sources. Firstly, drug dealers import (often through the Internet) the chemicals, generally in liquid or powder form and spray them onto leaf material or ‘herbes de Provence’, bought from any supermarket. Apparently, tea leaves plucked from the Bois-Cheri area is also used and left to dry before being sprayed! Secondly, it was reported that other unscrupulous individuals experiment with the composition of the drugs within their homes. Shockingly, they use harmful and toxic products such as pesticides, rubber, ‘rattex’, ‘javel’, only to name a few. The variety of synthetic drugs sold in Mauritius is astounding.

Abundant supply, as described above, led to very low and accessible market prices. For instance, the price of different types of synthetic drugs on our streets ranges from Rs 50 to Rs 150 per dose, making it much more competitive and cheaper than cannabis. There are cases where young 14-year-old kids have been contributing Rs 25 each from their pocket money to regularly buy and share a dose of synthetic drug for Rs 100.

Although nearly similar to cannabis in physical form, synthetic drugs are a world apart in terms of effects. They alter the function of the brain, leading to paranoia, anxiety, loss of touch with reality, zombielike behaviour, seizures, loss of consciousness and sometimes death. There are reported cases of death following the consumption of synthetic drugs in Mauritius! The synthetic drug user quickly develops a tolerance level and therefore needs higher doses of the drug to achieve the same desired effect. This s u b s t a n c e abuse therefore leads to high addiction and increased danger, as it acts on the receptor sites in the brain and is several times more potent than cannabis.

Our towns and villages are greatly impacted by the upsurge in synthetic drug usage. Recent short videos circulating on Facebook show how many youngsters have been expressing bizarre behaviour using a new synthetic drug known as ‘Flakka’. This drug, chemically known as ‘alpha-PVP’, is similar to other synthetic cathinone drugs popularly called ‘bath salts’. It comes from a foulsmelling crystal, which can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked.

The ‘Flakka’ users’ behaviour is frightening, dangerous and socially damaging. Upon consumption, they feel some kind of ‘superhuman strength’, coupled with a loss of awareness and experience hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, psychosis, severe anxiety, aggressiveness and self-destructive behaviour.

The ease with which these synthetic drugs can be purchased on our streets and also the Internet, coupled with the ability to have the drugs shipped to the purchaser’s doorstep is simply mind-blowing. A quick Internet search carried out by typing ‘research chemicals’ on Google or any web browser reveals all sorts of opportunities to order online and purchase various synthetic drugs which may be transported by worldwide delivery services. A kilogram of ‘Flakka’ is sold for about USD 1,500 in the United States. It produces up to 10,000 doses, as a dose to achieve the desired effect is one tenth of a gram. The cost for a single dose of ‘Flakka’ in the United States is around USD 4 to USD 5, i.e. around Rs 175.

On our streets, a dose of synthetic ‘Flakka’ can be bought for around Rs 150. A quick calculation shows an incredible ‘return on investment’, whereas a kilogram purchased for USD 1,500 i.e. around Rs 50,000, with 10,000 doses per kilo and sold at Rs 150 per dose, generates a revenue of Rs 1.5 million, i.e. a profit of around Rs 1,450,000 per kilo. Some youngsters explained that with ‘Flakka’ they experience a sharp rise in body temperature, they sweat profusely, have an accelerated heart rate, develop incredible strength, making them believe their body is on fire.

Some described that they had poured water on themselves and others had stripped their clothes and run on the roads. Due to the paranoia they experienced, they believed that they were being chased by persons, dogs and monsters who attempted to harm or kill them. According to research conducted, this state of mind is often referred to as «excited delirium».

Although some users stated that they are afraid of the drug, they nevertheless continued using it as it is cheap and highly addictive. The users explained that their family members do not wish to have them anywhere near them when they have taken the synthetic drug due to their bizarre behaviour. They are also aware that if they do not receive immediate medical attention, they are seriously at risk. Others explained to our Reformers that they simply don’t know what they are buying and consuming as the source of the drug is not verifiable. Some feel they have been used as ‘cobayes’. There are also cases where synthetic drugs have been mixed with tobacco and sold to youngsters as pre-rolled cannabis joints, but without any cannabis.

«We observed that (…) two out of five youngsters aged between 15 and 25 were users of different synthetic drugs.»

Government and other political parties have so far turned a blind eye to what is really happening on the ground. If this proliferation continues, in 2 to 3 years’ time, a whole generation will be affected. With the cheap prices at which the drugs are being sold, they are readily available to youngsters and students who have limited means. It is also obvious that currently available resources provided by Government in terms of personnel, equipment, training, rehabilitation facilities and more importantly, funding, are neither sufficient nor upto- date to deal with the magnitude of the synthetic drug problem which our country is facing.

It is also a fact that Government has not been able to come up with appropriate legislation to curb the massive threat that the continued proliferation of synthetic drugs poses to the health and welfare of our citizens. True it is, that enacting legislation to address the problem of constantly evolving chemical synthetic drugs is not an easy task. But, it is also true to say that the current government has been ‘ball watching’ and is left to playing ‘catch up’ with the synthetic drugs problematic. As hard as it may be to accept, the unbelievable rise in the tide of synthetic drugs has to be addressed now! It is imperative to curb the influx and local production of these synthetic drugs. If Government does not propose a ‘Synthetic Drug Bill’ to Parliament soon enough, then disaster looms ahead!

«It would typically require five to six officers to deal with one person under the influence of ‘Flakka’, due to the abnormal strength its users display.» 

In the meantime, it is absolutely necessary for a ‘hotline’ to be introduced as a matter of priority, where cases of ‘excited delirium’ may be reported. A protocol must be established to respond to emergency situations. Police officers must be trained to deal with such situations. It would typically require five to six officers to deal with one person under the influence of ‘Flakka’, due to the abnormal strength its users display. They certainly present a public safety concern and need to be restrained. Such interventions, however, can easily be misconstrued as situations of police brutality, when it is perceived that five to six officers are overpowering one single person. The officers, however, must make a situation safe before paramedics can administer any type of medical treatment to the ‘Flakka’ user.

In our hospitals, the problem is further exacerbated, as synthetic drug overdoses and resulting ‘excited delirium’ cases are extremely disruptive in a hospital emergency room and require additional personnel to control and treat them. This greatly limits the number of staff available for the other hospital patients. Currently, in most of our hospitals, there are huge staffing difficulties and lack of trained personnel to deal with such cases.

We have to ask ourselves several questions: Why are synthetic drugs proliferating with such comfort in Mauritius? Why is it so easy on the supply side? Why are the prices so low? How on earth are these drugs accessible to kids aged 14 to 18? What will happen in 2 to 3 years’ time? And more importantly, what can possibly be done to protect our society and reduce the harmful impact that these drugs are having on our youth?

After 50 years of Independence, we should be mature enough as a country to forget taboos, to be aware and understand the problem, rise up to the challenge and find real solutions, which would work and be sustainable over time. It is our humble opinion that any caring government should address this problem as a matter of utmost priority and urgency. Our youth deserves much better!