Since drug dealers started peddling synthetic cannabinoids in Ain Shams, a low-income neighbourhood in Cairo, Egypt, about a year ago, residents have started to feel very unsafe. Our Observer, who calls the neighbourhood home, says that they are routinely harassed and there are far too many knife fights and assaults.
So, last May, this man (who chose to remain anonymous) and his neighbours decided to set up hidden cameras in several different locations throughout their neighbourhood. Their aim was to document what was happening to both show the effects of this dangerous drug and to pressure the police to act.
In the past two years, two new drugs – known as Strox and Voodoo – have hit the Egyptian market.
Voodoo is a combination of an aromatic plant, like marjoram or incense, which is infused with a synthetic cannabinoid that is up to 100 times as powerful as natural marijuana.
The most common brand is "Mister Nice Guy", which is sold in a small bag decorated with a smiley emoticon. The bag has a warning that reads “relaxing incense, not edible”. This drug is legal in several countries, including Israel, where it is notably popular among soldiers.
Strox is also made with an aromatic plant like marjoram and incense, which is then sprayed with active medical substances used as pain relievers in case of cramps or stomach aches, like atropine, hyoscine and hyoscyamine. These substances can have psychotropic effects when taken in large doses.
Usually, these two drugs are mixed with tobacco and then smoked. Using these drugs can result in a wide range of symptoms, including speech impairments, visual and auditory hallucinations and paranoia, which can lead to aggressive behavior.
Our Observer, Mustapha Nasser (not his real name) said the young addicts who wander the streets in his neighbourhood look like zombies.
"Sometimes they collapse in the middle of the street, then get up to start a fight"
We see the users staggering along, speaking in a very confused way. Sometimes they collapse in the middle of the street, then get up and try to start a fight.
The locals are very scared of them. In my street, there are lots of shops, but a lot of people – especially women – no longer dare to come shop here for fear of being assaulted.
This video shows dealers standing on the corner, next to a motorcycle. A man staggers in front of them, then collapses to the ground.
These drugs kill. About a year ago, a 16-year-old kid was killed in a fight with another user. And just two weeks ago, another user died of an overdose of Strox.
These photos show two young men fighting each other before turning on the owner of a grocery store.
Dealers set up shop on my street corner months ago and the police haven’t lifted a finger to bother them. One of the dealers is a boy who is barely 12 years old!
Five cameras to capture everything
To pressure the police to do something about this situation, my neighbours and I pooled our money to buy five different cameras, which we set up on our balconies. They each cost around 7,000 Egyptian pounds, or 335 euros, which represents a small fortune!
This video shows a young man, under the influence of drugs, trying to break down the door of a doctor's office, according to our Observer. A few minutes later, he stumbles to the ground.
After a few days, once we had enough recordings to prove the propagation of drugs in our neighbourhood, we contacted a member of parliament, Mohamed al-Koumy, who is known for his fight against drug trafficking. He has also carried out prevention campaigns in Ain Shams to raise awareness about the dangers of drug use.
This video shows a man who has taken drugs staggering around. Then, he loses consciousness in the middle of the street.
Al-Koumy agreed to help us. At the end of May, he went with us to the police station, where we showed our videos to the officers. They said they would investigate. But, so far, nothing has been done.
FRANCE 24 made several attempts to contact the police station in Ain Shams, to learn a bit more about this drug trade. For the time being, we have not received a response.
Ali Abdallah, the director for the Egyptian centre for the fight against drug addiction, told FRANCE 24 that Voodoo’s chemical formula changes regularly, meaning that the Minister of Health hasn’t been able to put it on the list of banned substances.
According to a study published in February 2017 by Egypt’s Fund for the Fight Against Addiction, 10.4% of Egyptians between the ages of 12 and 60 take drugs, though there is no information about which drugs they are taking. This percentage, however, is much higher than the global average, which is around 5%.
There are no statistics in Egypt documenting the number of victims killed by Voodoo and Strox. Strox does, however, seem to be the more deadly of the two. There are regular reports in the Egyptian media of people who have died of a Strox overdose.