ISTANBUL — On a hill in Istanbul’s Uskudar district, young men loiter on garbage-filled corners in the Selamsiz neighborhood. One man in a black T-shirt stumbles and falls on another man, who leans on a dilapidated car. The graffiti on the walls a few months ago has now been erased, but it told of a community mired in and fighting the tragedy of the illicit drug trade.
“No to bonsai. From the People of Selamsiz.”
“No to death, yes to life.”
Bonsai, a synthetic cannabis, has become one of the most popular drugs in Turkey because it is one of the cheapest — about $3 for a gram. It is also one of the deadliest drugs flooding Europe. A decade ago, bonsai spread through Turkish cities and high schools in wet tissue packages with images of dancing silhouettes in front of a fire. It looked cool, users say, and it wasn't illegal until 2011, when the government realized bonsai was addictive and dangerous.
Turkey — historically a transit route for drug trafficking to Europe — has gradually become a major consumer of illicit narcotics. The country's leaders are alarmed by the rising number of overdoses.
In January, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said he was disturbed by the increase in addiction and drug fatalities in Turkey. In two years, from 2016 to 2017, the number of overdoses doubled to 1,020. Soylu said narcotics police should “break the legs” of drug dealers.
Selamsiz, a lower-income community on the Asian side of Istanbul, has lost at least six men in the past two years to bonsai overdoses, residents said. This month, another middle-aged man died.
Hakan Zal, the manager of a local cafe and bookstore, has watched the demise of his neighborhood as more and more young men become addicts. He said Ekrem Kucuk, a 26-year-old who had worked for him nearly nine years, landed in a hospital on life support after a bonsai overdose and died a few days later.
“Young men were fainting on the streets. People would throw cold water on them, thinking it would help them, when the drug first came to this neighborhood five years ago,” Zal recalled. “We didn’t know what to do.”
Until users become obviously impaired, bonsai use is easily concealed. Drug users replace some of the tobacco in a cigarette with bonsai's green leaves, which look like oregano, and smoke it in the open. There is no strong smell like marijuana to give it away.
But residents have become active, kicking dealers out of the neighborhood, calling the police to take addicts to treatment centers and protesting on the streets for the government to rid the community of drugs. On Sept. 12, police had to save a drug dealer from an attack by a vigilante crowd fed up with drug dealing, Zal and other shopkeepers said.
Mustafa “Bulent” Kucuk, the late Ekrem Kucuk’s father, sat on a plastic bench on a street corner, drinking tea. The bookseller said his son’s death two years ago rallied the neighborhood together, but law enforcement isn't doing enough to clean the streets of criminals.
“My son is dead, but his friend who gave him the bonsai is walking free,” Kucuk said. “The local police know all the dealers here, [yet] few are in prison.”
The Turkish authorities are capturing more drug dealers selling bonsai, according to the 2017 Turkish National Drug Report. From 2015 to 2016, the number of people suspected of being involved in synthetic cannabis crimes rose 30% to reach 20,670.
So, what is bonsai?
Synthetic cannabis was developed in the 1990s by a chemist seeking a nonaddictive formula for the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In 2006 at Clemson University in South Carolina, professor John Huffman and his team published their research on anti-inflammatories, which included the development of hundreds of synthetic cannabis compounds. Huffman warned that these synthetic drugs were not fit for public consumption, but manufacturers keen to turn a profit began making them anyway, especially in China. Experts say it's not a hard drug to make, especially with no quality controls.
Bonsai and other synthetic drugs like ecstasy, meth and Captagon make their way to Turkey through its borders with eight countries, either in transit to be exported, or imported. Drug dealers told Al-Monitor that domestic production of synthetic drugs is on the rise. Yet the purity and quality of synthetic drugs in northern Europe are much better than in Turkey. Chemical toxins from bug repellents such as Raid may be mixed with some types of bonsai, creating a high risk of overdose.
Of the 1.5 million drug users in Turkey, one-third smoke bonsai, according to Turkish government statistics. It's not just a poor man’s drug, as is widely believed, said Zeyid Ustun, a social worker in the private Aybuder treatment center. Students, white-collar workers and the wealthy also smoke bonsai.
A 24-year-old woman who did not want to give her name said she had been a regular weed smoker but tried bonsai at her private high school. She didn’t like the high. It was a “bad trip,” so she quit. “You feel like your brain and heart are shutting down. You feel like your eyes are vibrating. It’s not an enjoyable high,” she said.
Turkey has been at the crossroads of drug trafficking because of its strategic location linking Asia to Europe, and is known as a gateway for Afghanistan’s opium and heroin. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is said to fund its insurgency against Ankara partly with illicit drug money. The wars in Iraq and Syria have also increased drug trafficking to Turkey, as the mafia and other criminal gangs take advantage of the lawlessness inside war zones to recruit traffickers, according to the Turkish National Drug Report.
“Turkey is the route from which drugs go to other places. The addicts here pick up the leftovers,” said Ustun from the treatment center. “But anyone who can tie a shoe can make these drugs at home. They just have to watch online videos. That means no quality control.”
The Health Ministry did not respond to Al-Monitor emails seeking comment.
Synthetic drugs have become a public health issue in the last decade in Turkey, as a growing young population struggles with unemployment and a grim future, stuck with little choice in a polarized political system.
In response, Turkish police have stepped up enforcement, confiscating tons of synthetic drugs on the borders, where walls are being built adjacent to Iran, Iraq and Syria. Regarding prevention and treatment, 40 new rehabilitation centers to treat addicts are opening across the country. Drug education has become a part of public high school programs. The government now trains family doctors to notice signs of addiction and refer patients for treatment.
But Ustun said government treatment programs have a high relapse rate. Some addicts who are also dealers are brought to the centers either by police or family, but end up selling drugs to the patients. For addicts with money, families may spend up to $5,000 a month in private rehabilitation centers. Ustun said Aybuder, the clinic where he works, focuses on a short-term strategy of day-to-day recovery.
The 27-year-old Ustun was himself an addict and quit five years ago. “Addiction is a lifetime disease,” he said. “The best thing for families to do is to teach their children to say no and withstand the pressure to start using drugs in the first place.”
- Turkish journalist Yasmin Bali contributed to this report.
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