Two young women, both seemingly unconscious, lie on the sidewalk. “Mama, I’m scared,” cries a child, pulling on one woman’s hair. “They smoked chim,” says the person filming the video. This Creole expression refers to a new synthetic drug, a cannabinoid, that has surfaced on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

“Chemical tobacco” is the nickname used for synthetic cannabinoids, which are synthetic drugs manufactured in a lab that you can buy online. Since 2011, these drugs have been growing in popularity on Mayotte, another French island in the Indian Ocean, but they are just starting to appear in Réunion. The raw product, which is a white powder, is often diluted in alcohol and mixed with tobacco. Then, it is dried and rolled into a joint.

At least two videos showing people under the influence of these drugs have been circulating on social media in Réunion since mid-March. FRANCE 24 decided not to publish these images, out of respect for the people in them.

"Mama, I’m scared!"
The FRANCE 24 Observers team took these screengrabs and blurred them.

The first video, which was published in April, shows two women, seemingly unconscious and sprawled on the ground. The scene apparently took place near the bus station in Saint-Louis, according to the local news site, Journal de l’île de la Réunion.

“Mama, I’m scared!” cries a little boy next to them, while pulling on the hair of the young woman wearing a red dress.

Off-camera, you can hear two men talking. Several times, they infer that the women have been smoking “chim”, the nickname for the synthetic drug.

A second video shows at least one of these two women, recognisable by her red dress and hair cut. “Let me smoke your chemical tobacco,” she says to a young man next to her. “Oh la la, I’m baked!” she says, before asking him to bring her to her car. People reacted with shock and horror to these videos on social media. A man who claimed to be the father of one of the two girls appeared on Radio Freedom, a station with a cult-like following on the island. He claimed that the women had ingested the drugs without their knowledge.

However, the second video circulating online contradicts that.

"He’s drooling, look!"
The FRANCE 24 Observers team took these screengrabs and blurred them.

Posted on Facebook in early March, the second video shows a young man in an unknown location. Surrounded by “friends” who are filming, he takes a few puffs on a joint. He starts to teeter, then collapses on a staircase. His eyes roll back and his mouth twists. "He’s transforming! It’s starting, he started to drool, look!” some of the spectators cry. Laughing, they can’t get over what they are seeing. "Wow, in 30 seconds, look at the change! Did you see his mouth? Oh la la, incredible. Two puffs is enough!”

A recent phenomenon in Réunion

Dr David Mété, the head of the addiction unit at the Felix Guyon University Hospital in the capital, Saint-Denis, watched these videos. He says that the people in the video seem to be showing symptoms of someone who has smoked synthetic cannabis.

"After having seen these videos and hospitalising two people under the influence of these drugs since last December, we can say that it is, indeed, synthetic cannabinoids. The symptoms are clear.”

Dealers sell this drug already rolled into cigarettes, ready to smoke. People have been smoking these drugs for ten years in the United States and since 2011 in Mayotte. However, these drugs have only come to our island recently. We hope that these drugs won’t become as widely used on our island as in Mayotte, where they are already negatively impacting society.

The psychoactive effects of synthetic cannabis are 20 to 200 times stronger than that of regular cannabis. People become addicted to the drug much faster as well. People can even become addicted after one experience, according to Doctor Ali Mohammed Youssouf, a doctor in the addiction unit at the main hospital in Mayotte, another Indian Ocean island where the drug has been around much longer and its use is more widely spread.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, the prefecture of Réunion didn’t want to comment on the videos or talk about the substances currently in circulation on the island, because of pending court cases.