The term “drug cocktail” can have a number of different connotations. In the case of treating HIV or AIDS, doctors have developed a plan of attack in which patients take at least three antiretroviral medications (ARVs) at once. This strategy, known as “highly active antiretroviral therapy” (HAART), has been effective in helping reverse the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, a country which has the world’s largest population of individuals infected by the disease. But a more pernicious type of drug cocktail has hit the streets of South Africa: “whoonga,” a potent mix of marijuana, heroin and ARVs.
Reports of whoonga abuse first began to surface at the beginning of the 2010’s. The drug is most widely abused in the KwaZulu-Natal province, the country’s poorest region, as well as the area with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Whoonga users crush the antiretroviral medication into powder and smoke it in combination with street drugs. Efavirenz, one of several ARVs typically used in HAART, can elicit hallucinations and is believed to enhance the effects of substances like marijuana and methamphetamine. Whoonga is highly addictive and long-term abuse can prove fatal.
The growing whoonga problem presents a myriad of consequences for South African society. Drug gangs have been known to rob HIV/AIDS patients leaving clinics with refills of their antiretroviral medications. Addicts commit thefts to continue feeding their habits. Perhaps most cruelly, individuals who get hooked on whoonga can develop strains of the virus resistant to ARVs. These strains can then be passed on to others.
Like the population of South Africans infected with HIV/AIDS, whoonga users tend to be black. Since the end of apartheid in the early 90s, black South Africans have worked hard to undo the social injustices wrought by a century’s worth of racial oppression. Whoonga represents yet another hurdle in the march to take back their country.