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  • Istanbul, Turkey

    Istanbul, Turkey | Photo: Reuters

Published 21 January 2015
Bonzai is a cheap synthetic drug that is holding large numbers of youths in Turkey hostage in a life of poverty and addiction.

For several years, “bonzai” — a type of bootleg synthetic cannabis — has been ravaging its way across the lower echelons of Turkish society, leaving little but destroyed lives, addicted youths and shattered dreams in its wake. While the authorities have declared their intention to fight this drug by all means possible, local activists suspect there's more to this story than meets the eye.

Recently, the bonzai epidemic reached such worrying proportions that it led to a "declaration of war" by the country's health minister. In late November the ministry unveiled an emergency plan that would allow for anti-narcotics brigades to conduct regular raids on internet cafes, schools and homes to prevent the sale and spread of this drug, which is being smoked by minors as young as 10-11 years old. However, the declaration by Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu that "we should save our youth from this evil with an all-out war," uncomfortably echoes the rhetorics of the failed, U.S.-led War on Drugs, and so is a less than encouraging starting point. 

Bonzai is a cheap synthetic drug that is holding large numbers of youths in Turkey hostage in a life of poverty, addiction, social exclusion and general suffering. Arriving on the scene as a high-end designer drug in 2009-2010, it only started to attract general attention after 2012 when cheaper, homemade varieties of the drug started to appear on the streets. Soon after that it established itself in no-time as the most popular drug in Turkey: a first choice for those looking for a cheap, guaranteed high that would help forget the struggles of everyday life.

The unprecedented rise of bonzai, which has ruined countless of young lives in the past two years alone, has left many wondering how it was possible for this drug to spread as fast as it did. While government officials and criminologists point to its low price and easy availability as the main reasons for bonzai's popularity, local activists stress the prevalence of the drug in poor neighborhoods with predominantly Kurdish populations which are listed for redevelopment and belief there are other, malevolent factors at play.

Cracking down, rising up

Whereas the first arrest related to bonzai was only made in 2010, the number of people detained on charges of dealing bonzai quickly rose from 334 in 2011 to 1,013 in 2012 and over 5,500 in 2013. Moreover, a special report issued by the police headquarters in Istanbul states that as of 2014, bonzai makes up 50 per cent of the drug market in Istanbul.

Until 2012, most of the bonzai — also known as "Jamaika" in Turkey and "Spice" or "K2" in Europe and the U.S. — entered the country from abroad, with Europe being one of the key suppliers of the type of synthetic cannabis which was first developed in German laboratories little over 10 years ago. At this time it was mainly consumed as an alternative to marihuana, the market of which had recently collapsed due to a series of raids by Turkish authorities on plantations in the country's eastern regions.

"People were considering bonzai as a harmless herbal substance; some cannabis users changed their drug to bonzai because of this misinformation," explains Dr Elif Mutlu, psychiatrist and addiction specialist at the state-run Alcohol and Substance Abuse Therapy and Educational Center (AMATEM).

The real problems started when in 2012 the authorities caught up with this new trend and started to exert stricter customs controls, making it more difficult to smuggle the by-then illegal substances into the country. From 2012 onwards local drug gangs in Turkey started producing imitation bonzai, spraying a range of dangerous chemicals like insect repellent and, according to some sources, rat poison on dried herbs and selling it for as little as a tenth of the price of the original drug. This imitation drug was sold in the same visually appealing packages as the original, but was in fact many times more dangerous.

"There are many different chemicals inside and that’s why it’s really dangerous," Mine Öztürk explains. Öztürk is a psychiatrist at the Balıklı Rum Hospital, which also houses a clinic for the treatment of substance and alcohol addiction. "You cannot anticipate which effect it will have on the body – it may cause heart attacks and death. Also, we really don’t know which chemicals cause these effects." Öztürk conveys that even though they have identified ten different types of bonzai in their laboratory, they often have patients coming in who admit to having used bonzai only the previous night, but whose drug tests turn out negative.

Breaking up communities

The development of imitation bonzai post-2012 not only made the drug many times more dangerous to use; due to the low costs it also became more easy available to a much broader segment of the society. Whereas formerly users had to pay between 250-300 Turkish liras (~$100-150) for a package of three grams, the imitative product would sell for as little as 10-20 Turkish liras (~$4-8) for two or three single-use portions. Unsurprisingly, this is when the real troubles started.

Soon, bonzai began to spread in many poor, working-class neighborhoods across Istanbul. These areas often have predominantly Kurdish populations and are traditionally characterized by high levels of unemployment, poverty and a general adversity against the Justice and Development (AK) Party-led government under whose neoliberal-inspired rule entire neighborhoods have been cleared to make way for shopping malls, business centers and luxurious high-rise apartments. Many locals of these neighborhoods soon made a connection between the redevelopment plans, the strong social cohesion in these areas combined with the popular resistance against these projects, and the sudden, seemingly unopposed spread of bonzai in these places.

Erdoğan Gürbüz, a 32-year old activist in Mustafa Kemal — a neighborhood in central Istanbul generally known by its original, more subversive name "1 Mayis" — who is part of a collective called the May 1 People's Congress points out that it is not correct to say that the government has been directly involved with bonzai. However, he believes that the government is not taking action against bonzai because it has proven to be a useful aid in breaking up the social cohesion in neighborhoods listed for redevelopment, decreasing the risk of organized resistance against forced evictions by the local people. "The government is just using it as an excuse to break the community and to push the people out of the neighborhood."

Even though these claims remain hard to prove, the majority of the people living in poor neighborhoods across Istanbul believe this is the truth and act accordingly. Over the past years, different neighborhoods have seen demonstrations organized by local NGOs and political groups to protest against the apparent impunity with which drug gangs were operating in their area. "We didn't clash with the gangs," says Muharrem Toroman, 25, another member of the People's Congress, "but we didn't allow them any space in the neighborhood." 

Muharrem observed the prevalence of drug gangs in his neighborhood with suspicion. He believes that the reputation of the neighborhood as a leftist stronghold, its predominantly Kurdish population and the fact that it occupies a prime location close to one of the city's booming business districts are the main reasons for the lack of effective state action against the spread of bonzai.

"The point of the government is to open the way for the gangs. They try to create a climate of fear in the neighborhoods," Muharrem explains. "The government doesn't care about the people dying, we are the only ones caring about it. Their only fear is that when many people die, the people's eyes will be opened to the role of the government in this regard."

No hope, no belonging

After more and more bonzai-related deaths started making the headlines, questions began to be asked about why the government failed to effectively address this issue, prompting the authorities into action. New laws were passed allowing for longer prison sentences for both sellers and users of bonzai, up to fifteen years for the former and five years for the latter, all in the context of the recently declared "all-out war" on bonzai.

Government plans to counter the spread of bonzai not only involved tough crackdowns and harsher punishments, but also include free rehab for addicts, campaigns to raise awareness and educational programs. Nonetheless, these measures still fail disastrously in addressing the root causes of the problem.

"[Bonzai users] have no hope for their education, for their future, for their family," Erdoğan explains. "Education is such a big problem in here," he continues, "you can't find many people going to university in this neighborhood. Young boys are being kicked off high school, they feel excluded from society."

As a psychiatrist Mine Öztürk identifies one more factor that she believes is important in understanding the prevalence of substance abuse within Istanbul's poor neighborhoods. "Most of the patients are Kurdish,” she explains. “Their families are from eastern Turkey and these youths are second generation immigrants who were born and raised in Istanbul, but still feel disconnected from and not accepted by the society in which they grew up." 

This lack of a sense of belonging feeds into a disconnection between the youths and their families on the one hand, and their social surroundings on the other. These factors create an environment in which these youths have "no hope to find a job, no hope for a good life. They're hopeless."

From one epidemic to the next

A cheap, locally produced drug that wreaks havoc among marginalized communities; drug gangs allowed to operate with apparent impunity in certain neighborhoods and communities; a government declaring a "war" against this drug, cracking down hard on users and dealers alike, but at the same time refusing to face the root causes of the need for cheap sedatives: where have we heard this story before?

The history of bonzai in Turkey is eerily reminiscent of the rise and spread of crack cocaine in the United States from the mid-1980s onwards; and the Turkish government's reaction to the issue uncomfortably resonates the narratives and policies of the US' so-called "War on Drugs".

In the early 1980s crack cocaine, or simply "crack", started to appear on the streets of a handful major U.S. cities. Crack is nothing but powdered cocaine treated with baking soda in order to solidify it, thus making it smokable and many times more potent.  Crack was easier for dealers to distribute in smaller quantities and for a lower price, thus making it available to a much broader segment of the society than cocaine had ever been. It was not until the mid-1980s that crack started to hit the streets on a large scale, mainly in the impoverished, predominantly Black inner-city neighborhoods of LA, New York and Miami. The devastation it left in its wake and the speed with which it spread across the country have led observers to refer to this period as the "crack epidemic".

In the mid-1990s Gary Webb, investigative journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, published his "Dark Alliance" series in which he revealed the obscure connections between the CIA, Nicaraguan Contras, LA-based drug lords and the crack epidemic. Webb alleged that the CIA went out of its way to support the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan leftist government, even allowing them to acquire the funds necessary to wage their guerrilla war by shipping large quantities of cocaine to the US. It was this very cocaine that lay at the base of the crack epidemic which first touched ground in LA where local drug lord Freeway Ricky Ross cooked up the cheap, pure cocaine he bought from his Nicaraguan partners and sold it on the streets as crack, at some point allegedly making us much as $3 million a day. 

According to Michael Ruppert, a retired LAPD narcotics investigator-turned-whistleblower and investigative journalist, the CIA was “directly responsible for the importation of tons of powdered cocaine into the and the protected delivery of that cocaine into the inner cities.” Moreover, due to the CIA’s close relationship with academic and medical communities, “they knew exactly what the end result would be.” 

A decade-and-a-half after the War on Drugs had been declared by U.S. President Nixon, in which numerous of non-violent drug abusers were framed as criminals rather than treated as patients, the crack epidemic hit in full force. Once again, the government refused to face the facts and treat the epidemic as a public health crisis with socio-economic roots, but rather choose to criminalize its victims, resulting in the unnecessary imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of drug abusers. 

There will always be a new bonzai

The problems arising from the growing number of bonzai addicts in Turkey are a threat to public health, to public safety and to the general social welfare of the population. However, we have to be careful not to fall into the easy trap that leads one to view the bonzai epidemic as the cause of the misery and suffering of marginalized youths in poor neighborhoods. Rather, it is the other way around. A lack of hopes and dreams, opportunities and inspirations stemming from their positions on the fringes of society is the cause of their turning towards cheap sedatives like bonzai. Before bonzai these same youths were sniffing glue and thinner, and after the "all-out war" on bonzai has been won another alternative will take its place.

Local beliefs that the government is allowing such a destructive epidemic to run its destructive course relatively unopposed, just as Webb's conclusions that the CIA was allowing large quantities of cocaine to enter the US to support the resistance against a foreign leftist regime might seem far-fetched. But isn't it even more incredible to suggest that governments honestly believe that criminalizing drug users is the right response, decades after the flawed foundations of this kind of reasoning have been exposed?

The crack epidemic which is currently destroying the lives of tens-, if not hundreds of thousands poor Brazilians is just the latest case in point that shows how governments are more interested in clearing the streets and covering up the real problems of its citizens and social ills of the system than convincingly addressing the root causes of the issue. While crack addicts are being lifted from their beds by militarized policed and forced into treatment, the government continues to demolish the houses of numerous poor families refusing to acknowledge the fact that people most of the time don't turn to such dangerous and destructive drugs to celebrate the happiness of everyday life, but rather to escape from the horrors of their daily struggles.

As long as governments refuse to address the structural flaws of a system that exploits the many while benefiting the few; as long as they require fictive enemies to keep us blind to the real threats to social cohesion; and as long as there will be a need to escape from the suffering, the exploitation and the marginalization, there will always be a new group to victimize, criminalize and ostracize. 

The sad reality is that as long as governments require a sedated, pacified population in order to push through unpopular redevelopment plans, to prevent the unification of the populace and to be able to effectively silence all voices that dare to question authority, there will always be a new bonzai.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine. 

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