On 14 September 2020, the Hawks swooped down on a drug trafficking network operating from a luxury estate in Ballito north of Durban on South Africa’s east coast.
Inside one of the units, officers from the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation found an estimated 3.9 tons of methaqualone powder (called Mandrax in South Africa), 170 800 heroin capsules, and 7.5 kg of heroin powder.
The huge bust had an estimated street value of R154.9 million. But of greater interest and concern to law enforcement authorities, was the discovery of one ton of anthranilic acid – the main precursor in the manufacture of Mandrax.
There is a high likelihood that methaqualone was being synthesised from the chemical starting material, says Richard Chelin, Researcher at the EU-funded ENACT project.
In the ’60s and ’70s, the drug was commonly marketed as Quaalude and Mandrax and quickly gained notoriety as a recreational drug, Chelin said.
It was eventually placed under Schedule 2 of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances due to abuse, addiction and the high potential for dependence among users. Methaqualone is now predominantly produced in clandestine labs due to its illegality.
The fact that synthesising methaqualone is not a complicated process makes it appealing to criminal networks and illicit drug manufacturers, Chelin points out.
He says it usually involves chemical reactions that can be simply performed in clandestine labs.
One of the primary precursors essential for this process is anthranilic acid, Chelin added, which is also a key ingredient in the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, and colourants, among other things.
When clandestinely produced, methaqualone has a brown, grey or black tacky powder of between 30% to 70% purity.
Drug dealers also use the powder as a cutting agent for heroin. (Cutting increases bulk, dilutes, complements or enhances the effects of the illicit drugs.)
In South Africa, methaqualone was introduced into the pharmaceutical market under the trade name Mandrax.
By the time the drug was listed on the 1971 Convention, it had already gained a market in the country, which criminal networks capitalised on. The 2018/19 South African Police Service annual crime report recorded various major seizures and the dismantling of clandestine labs in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.
In South Africa, Mandrax is usually sold in small colourful tablets with a logo imprinted on them under various street names such as ‘buttons,’ ‘MX,’ ‘lizards,’ and ‘flowers,’among others. While Mandrax was originally meant to be taken orally, users tend to smoke (mixed with marijuana) or inject the drug for a faster onset of effect.
The preferred mode among South African Mandrax users is a ‘bottle neck’ or ‘white pipe.’ This is when Mandrax is crushed and mixed with cannabis, after which the mixture is placed in the neck of a broken glass bottle and smoked.
What makes the drug so popular in South Africa?
For users, the drug contains similar effects to those of other central nervous system depressants, including calmness, and the relief of stress, anxiety and tension.
A former user told the ENACT organised crime project that Mandrax is taken to calm down and is often referred to as ‘downers.’
It is not like your ‘uppers’ drugs such as crystal meth or ecstasy (MDMA) which makes one euphoric and energised.
Depending on the dose, the effect of the drug can last for up to five or more hours when taken orally and one to two hours when smoked.
Mandrax is said to be extremely addictive and can become dangerous when mixed with other substances.
Side effects include dry mouth, headaches, dizziness, chills, and diarrhoea. There have been instances where an overdose of the drug has resulted in delirium, convulsions and even death.
For criminal networks, Mandrax is popular for quite different reasons.
While not as common as heroin or methamphetamines, Mandrax occupies a good share of the illicit drug market, a police officer remarked to ENACT under condition of anonymity.
“Simply put, organised criminal networks deal in Mandrax so they can benefit from the illicit drug market.”
Often these networks find it difficult to break into or control the heroin or meth market and so venture into the Mandrax space.
Since organised criminals aim to make a profit, Mandrax presents an ideal opportunity to do so, although not on the scale of heroin or crystal meth, sayd Chelin.
For instance in KwaZulu-Natal, the reach of the drug has expanded from Durban to surrounding areas, the ENACT researcher says.
Seizures have also been reported in Phoenix, Umhlanga, Sydenham, Chatsworth, Newcastle, and Port Shepstone.
The lack of data on drug usage makes it difficult to estimate the size of the Mandrax market and its users, Chelin points out, but adds that business is booming in the the so-called ‘underworld.’
“But as long as South Africa has a sizeable consumer market for Mandrax, it will remain a key target for illicit drug criminal networks.”
Addition of anthranilic acid a huge concern
One way to stop the proliferation of Mandrax in South Africa is to disrupt and dismantle the criminal networks involved in the market, Chelin says.
“While dismantling clandestine labs and seizing the drugs is necessary, law enforcement should also target key individuals in the criminal chain such as the manufacturers and suppliers of the drugs and their precursors.”
There is little evidence that precursors such as anthranilic acid are produced in South Africa.
Countries such as India and to a lesser extent China are the common sources for these.
In its response to the challenge, the government needs to balance actions that stem the criminal market with those that could criminalise people who use Mandrax for health purposes, Chelin says, adding that “one way is to provide a more regulated market with standard supply which will effectively help control the flow of illegal Mandrax trafficking.”
Strengthening drug detection at key points of entry into the country such as harbours and airports is also essential to curb the illicit drug market, he adds.
“Customs and law enforcement officers at these points need to be trained to detect precursors of methaqualone as well as other synthetic drugs.”
While the Mandrax market is not as lucrative as the heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine trade, it nonetheless provides an opportunity for organized criminal networks to make a profit, says Chelin.
“In the process, it has a devastating impact on the health, social, and economic aspects of society. Unless the problem is curbed, the white pipe may continue to burn.”