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Burning Mandrax ‘white pipe’ fuelling criminal networks in South Africa

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On 14 September 2020, the Hawks swooped down on a drug trafficking network operating from a luxury estate in Ballito north of Durban on South Africa’s east coast.

Inside one of the units, officers from the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation found an estimated 3.9 tons of methaqualone powder (called Mandrax in South Africa), 170 800 heroin capsules, and 7.5 kg of heroin powder.

The huge bust had an estimated street value of R154.9 million. But of greater interest and concern to law enforcement authorities, was the discovery of one ton of anthranilic acid – the main precursor in the manufacture of Mandrax.

There is a high likelihood that methaqualone was being synthesised from the chemical starting material, says Richard Chelin, Researcher at the EU-funded ENACT project.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the drug was commonly marketed as Quaalude and Mandrax and quickly gained notoriety as a recreational drug, Chelin said.

It was eventually placed under Schedule 2 of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances due to abuse, addiction and the high potential for dependence among users. Methaqualone is now predominantly produced in clandestine labs due to its illegality.

Synthesising methaqualone

The fact that synthesising methaqualone is not a complicated process makes it appealing to criminal networks and illicit drug manufacturers, Chelin points out.

He says it usually involves chemical reactions that can be simply performed in clandestine labs.

One of the primary precursors essential for this process is anthranilic acid, Chelin added, which is also a key ingredient in the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, and colourants, among other things.

Large quantities of bags filled with chemicals and powders used to manufacture mandrax and heroin were found inside one of the bedrooms in the luxury Ballito Bay estate in KZN . Photo: @SAPoliceService via Twitter

When clandestinely produced, methaqualone has a brown, grey or black tacky powder of between 30% to 70% purity.

Drug dealers also use the powder as a cutting agent for heroin. (Cutting increases bulk, dilutes, complements or enhances the effects of the illicit drugs.)

In South Africa, methaqualone was introduced into the pharmaceutical market under the trade name Mandrax.

By the time the drug was listed on the 1971 Convention, it had already gained a market in the country, which criminal networks capitalised on. The 2018/19 South African Police Service annual crime report recorded various major seizures and the dismantling of clandestine labs in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

In South Africa, Mandrax is usually sold in small colourful tablets with a logo imprinted on them under various street names such as ‘buttons,’ ‘MX,’ ‘lizards,’ and ‘flowers,’among others. While Mandrax was originally meant to be taken orally, users tend to smoke (mixed with marijuana) or inject the drug for a faster onset of effect.

The preferred mode among South African Mandrax users is a ‘bottle neck’ or ‘white pipe.’ This is when Mandrax is crushed and mixed with cannabis, after which the mixture is placed in the neck of a broken glass bottle and smoked.

For users, the drug contains similar effects to those of other central nervous system depressants, including calmness, and the relief of stress, anxiety and tension.

A former user told the ENACT organised crime project that Mandrax is taken to calm down and is often referred to as ‘downers.’

It is not like your ‘uppers’ drugs such as crystal meth or ecstasy (MDMA) which makes one euphoric and energised.

Depending on the dose, the effect of the drug can last for up to five or more hours when taken orally and one to two hours when smoked.

Mandrax is said to be extremely addictive and can become dangerous when mixed with other substances.

Side effects include dry mouth, headaches, dizziness, chills, and diarrhoea. There have been instances where an overdose of the drug has resulted in delirium, convulsions and even death.

Criminal networks

For criminal networks, Mandrax is popular for quite different reasons.

While not as common as heroin or methamphetamines, Mandrax occupies a good share of the illicit drug market, a police officer remarked to ENACT under condition of anonymity.

“Simply put, organised criminal networks deal in Mandrax so they can benefit from the illicit drug market.”

Often these networks find it difficult to break into or control the heroin or meth market and so venture into the Mandrax space.

Since organised criminals aim to make a profit, Mandrax presents an ideal opportunity to do so, although not on the scale of heroin or crystal meth, sayd Chelin.

For instance in KwaZulu-Natal, the reach of the drug has expanded from Durban to surrounding areas, the ENACT researcher says.

Seizures have also been reported in Phoenix, Umhlanga, Sydenham, Chatsworth, Newcastle, and Port Shepstone.

The lack of data on drug usage makes it difficult to estimate the size of the Mandrax market and its users, Chelin points out, but adds that business is booming in the the so-called ‘underworld.’

“But as long as South Africa has a sizeable consumer market for Mandrax, it will remain a key target for illicit drug criminal networks.”

Addition of anthranilic acid a huge concern

One way to stop the proliferation of Mandrax in South Africa is to disrupt and dismantle the criminal networks involved in the market, Chelin says.

“While dismantling clandestine labs and seizing the drugs is necessary, law enforcement should also target key individuals in the criminal chain such as the manufacturers and suppliers of the drugs and their precursors.”

There is little evidence that precursors such as anthranilic acid are produced in South Africa.

Countries such as India and to a lesser extent China are the common sources for these.

In its response to the challenge, the government needs to balance actions that stem the criminal market with those that could criminalise people who use Mandrax for health purposes, Chelin says, adding that “one way is to provide a more regulated market with standard supply which will effectively help control the flow of illegal Mandrax trafficking.”

Strengthening drug detection at key points of entry into the country such as harbours and airports is also essential to curb the illicit drug market, he adds.

“Customs and law enforcement officers at these points need to be trained to detect precursors of methaqualone as well as other synthetic drugs.”

While the Mandrax market is not as lucrative as the heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine trade, it nonetheless provides an opportunity for organized criminal networks to make a profit, says Chelin.

“In the process, it has a devastating impact on the health, social, and economic aspects of society. Unless the problem is curbed, the white pipe may continue to burn.”

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Buhari: Why Bishop Kukah is under attack – Catholic director, Achi

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Rev. Fr. Benjamin Achi says Bishop Hassan Kukah is being attacked for his comments on President Muhammadu Buhari because he is a Christian leader.

Kukah had accused the Nigerian leader of nepotism, adding that if a non-Nothern Muslim acted like Buhari, there could have been a coup or war.

Achi, the Communications Director, Enugu Catholic Diocese, said those castigating him were yet to point out the lies in Kukah’s Christmas homily.

He advised religious leaders not to be afraid but factual in criticising the government and officials.

Achi presented his position Thursday in Enugu while reacting to the quit notice the Muslim Solidarity Forum issued to Kukah to leave Sokoto.

The priest wondered why the Muslim group resorted to threat when all Kukah said about the state of the nation were facts.

“Those who have been crying foul about his message have not been able to say, ‘you said this and this and they are not true’. Their problem is why this person should be speaking from his own position because he is a Christian leader.

“But we are not talking about religion here. We are talking about good governance. We are talking about representing the goals, the aspirations and the interests of the people”, NAN quoted him as saying.

The diocesan director reminded leaders of their obligation to be the voice of the people when things are not going well.

Achi insisted that Kukah had the constitutional right to air his opinion on matters affecting the people.

The cleric added that for many years, the Bishop has consistently commented on issues of public interest.

Buhari: Why Bishop Kukah is under attack – Catholic director, Achi

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NMS to Open Newly Built Hospitals in 4 Nairobi Estates

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  • The Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) under General Mohamed Badi will open the first batch of the newly built hospitals in Nairobi estates in late January 2021. 

    NMS said that the first four of the 24 hospitals it constructed will be ready for use in Uthiru, Kiamaiko, Ushirika and Soweto-Kayole.

    The facilities are both Level 2 and Level 3 hospitals. 

    “Contractors are installing equipment. They will be ready next week. 

    An image of Terminus
    Hospital beds outside the Nairobi Green Park terminus dispensary.
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    “We are finalising on the projects,” NMS Director of Health Services Dr Josephine Kibaru-Mbae said. 

    NMS further recruited 600 nurses who will be deployed to the 24 facilities which Badi hope will all be unveiled in 2021.

    The newly recruited health professionals and hospitals will clear the backlog of unattended patients in the county hospitals and the country’s referral Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). 

    “The nurses presented their documents for verification,  subsequent issuance of appointment letters,” NMS added on its website.

    NMS also opened a dispensary at Green Park Terminus at Nairobi Railways. Beds, heart rate monitors and sanitisers were installed to curb the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.

    The terminus will also include police post, restaurants, supermarket, modern ablution block, restrooms for motorists and commuters.

    Former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko handed over health functions to the NMS in February 2020. President Uhuru Kenyatta said that the agency would ensure his Big 4 Agenda, Universal Health Care, was achieved. 

    An image of Dispensary
    A woman having her temperature checked at the Nairobi Green Park terminus dispensary.
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