Monday, September 24, 2007

How rare shellfish fuel drug mania

As green rubbery sea creatures are emptied from a bin liner into a sink in the police interview room at Muizenberg, Cape Town, a shabby white man looks on guiltily. He is the first link in an international, multi-million-pound illegal trade that has brought Triad gangs and drugs to South Africa and is tearing the Cape region apart.

The man's flippers and wetsuit lie on the floor. He was caught by game wardens poaching abalone - a saucer-sized mollusc prized as a delicacy in the Far East. He could have earned around £220 for his catch of 12 kilos but now faces five years in Pollsmoor prison. The stolen abalone, an endangered and protected species, would have been eventually sold to predominantly Chinese buyers for around £225 a kilo.


And that's the problem: the enormous value of the delicacy has brought the Chinese Triad gangs to South Africa. In a cash-free transaction, the Triads swap the abalone for the ingredients to make methamphetamine, or 'tik'. Hundreds of tonnes of abalone is smuggled out of the Cape every year, to be exported through Hong Kong, according to Wildlife Department officials who say that the local abalone is on the brink of extinction.

But it is the effects of tik on South Africans that are most noticeable. Already suffering a murder rate of 50 a day, and a rape every 26 seconds, the Cape is gripped by an epidemic of tik - a highly addictive crystallised form of speed - that has resulted in a 200 per cent surge in drug-related crime in two years. It's driving the region mad - literally. 'Tik has a high propensity for causing neuro-psychiatric problems. We were seeing about 40 patients a month, we're now seeing about 180 per month. So that's more than a quadrupling of psychiatric patients,' says Dr Neshaad Schrueder, the head of the emergency unit at GF Jooste hospital in Manenberg, Cape Town.

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