Fear about WHOONGA might well be misplaced by Nicole Turner

Article Brief
Whoonga is a drug that has allegedly come into widespread use in South Africa, notably in the impoverished townships of Durban and Cape Town. It first entered the public’s eye in 2008, with reports suggesting that anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/Aids were being bought and smoked by teenagers in South Africa to get high.

According to users on the street, “It started in Cape Town and Durban. Some people will crush and smoke anything.” Shortly after news hit the mainstream that ARV clinics were being robbed for meds, and a special Whoonga unit had been formed in KZN, a doctor in Durban was quoted in the papers claiming that those who sold Whoonga (which he tested to find only good old smack and strychnine) should face the strictest punishment. The IOL report put it this way: “Those peddling Whoonga, the deadly drug sweeping through Kabuli-Natal townships, should face murder charges as they are deliberately poisoning people. This is according to Dr Thavendran Govender, who tested samples of Whoonga and found that it was based on rat poison and heroin – not antiretroviral medication.”

More recently experts, including the South African Police Service and drug rehabilitation centers, have downplayed the use of ARV’s in the drug, claiming its just a rebranding of older heroin based drugs like sugars. AIDS experts have been quick to point out that the ingredients of the anti-retroviral drugs are “unlikely to cause the whoonga high” and users might simply fool themselves in that regard. This despite reported side effects of ARVs including (amongst many others): mania, hyperglycaemia, hypothyroidism, and impaired coordination.

We investigate: from word on the street to a more scientific analysis of ARV’s chemical make-up and reported side effects, to ask where one draws the line between use and abuse, poison and medication, “safe” prescribed drugs and dangerous street cocktails.

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