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Drug takes toll on Cape Town's teens

The wide use of tik, or crystal meth, by youths has fueled crime and torn families apart in the South African city.

January 18, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — Take a drug said to have fueled the taut aggression of Hitler's fighter pilots and tank crews, scatter it liberally among the children and teens in the slum areas of Cape Town -- and you have a social problem of mammoth proportions.

In the United States, it is known as crystal meth, a highly addictive and toxic drug that makes users feel active, powerful and alert, with no need to eat or sleep.

Here they call it tik, and it has swept through Cape Town schools, fueling violence and crime, tearing families apart and jamming government drug rehabilitation services.

"It's openly available nowadays around every corner. Girls sell themselves for the price of the next hit, 10 rand [$1.40] for a straw of tik," said Venetia Orgil, who runs a support group for families of addicts. The drug is sold in "straws": cut plastic drinking straws with each end melted and sealed.

Ashlene Bergman, 20, used tik with a group of school friends in 2003. "There's this rush which goes down to your toes. You become very agitated and fidgety. It was cool. I could talk all the time, just bubbling along," said Bergman, a former addict who attended the Stepping Stones drug rehabilitation program in 2004 and says she has not used tik since.

"The comedown stage is killing," she said. "I felt like my stomach was being ripped out of my body. Your head is sore, you're aggressive. I used to beat my brother and sister. I used to swear at my mother and father. I was a horrible person."

Orgil said addicts may be as young as 10, sometimes even younger. "This tik is just devastating," she said. "It's something that destroys not just the user but the whole family."

The drug is widespread in the Cape Town Flats, a sprawling area ruled by gangs where unemployment is as high as 80%. Some teens support their families selling tik. Other teenage addicts steal money, clothes -- anything that can be sold for a few rand.

Methamphetamine use among American teenagers has declined, according to a University of Michigan study, but its growth among teens and preteens in Cape Town has been explosive.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in tik use in the past couple of years," said Grant Jardine, director of the Cape Town Drug Counseling Center. "It is increasing every year, and the age at which people start using is getting younger and younger each year."

Just three years ago, tik users accounted for only 5% of clients at the center. By 2005, the figure had rocketed to 47%. A report this year by the national Medical Research Council found that it was the first or second drug of choice for 66% of drug rehab patients younger than 20.

The drug, which releases feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin, is manufactured from ingredients easily bought in drug and hardware stores, with plenty of recipes on the Internet.

A sense of power

Jardine said tik is attractive to adolescents because it offers a sense of confidence and power.

"Tik gives adolescents exactly what they want," Jardine said. "Adolescence results in a certain amount of awkwardness and lack of confidence, which is exactly what tik compensates for."

"You can do everything better, at first," said Albertyn Schalk, a former user who is studying commerce in college after apparently shaking a three-year addiction. "You've got all the energy in the world. You think you can do anything."

Methamphetamine made its first appearance in South Africa in the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, but usage did not surge as it has in Cape Town.

Jardine said one probable reason was Cape Town's dominant gang subculture; another was the fact that the port city is a major export point for drugs.

Most drug users in Cape Town are Coloreds, or people of mixed race, and the group accounts for 81% of Cape Town Drug Counseling Center clients. But 13% of those seen by the center are white, Jardine said, some of them middle-class.

"Tik is a middle-class drug now. You can get it anywhere. It's much cheaper than crack," said Schalk, a doctor's son. When he started using it at age 15, he said, he was spending about $8 a day on the drug. Three years later, he was spending $100.

By then, Schalk said, his world had shrunk to a couch in a friend's house where he huddled, peeking out through the window, counting the cars he imagined were bringing people to kill him.

For regular users, the drug can cause irritability, insomnia, confusion, tremors, convulsions, anxiety, paranoia and aggression. Jardine said it often leads to crime and domestic violence and is strongly associated with HIV transmission because of users' tendency to engage in high-risk sexual behavior.

Orgil's son, Troy, often attacked her during his 10 years of addiction, which began when he was 15. She once had to flee in her car, smashing down her garden gates, to escape him.

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