<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Oxi: A New Drug in the Amazon

Discovered by a Local Harm Reduction Group, it Has Spread Among the Region’s Poor


By Natalia Viana
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

May 13, 2005

As if the devastating effects of crack use – which has spread through the south and southeastern regions of Brazil – were not enough, a new drug was recently discovered in the state of Acre on the Bolivian border. Possibly one of the most potent and dangerous drugs known, “oxi,” or “oxidado,” (“rust”) as known by its users, is a variant of crack. The difference is that, in its manufacture, instead of adding baking soda or ammonia to cocaine hydrochloride (the method for creating crack), kerosene and quicklime are added to produce oxi. “We had an idea that this drug existed, but no scientific study had proven so,” says Álvaro Ramos, president of the Acre Harm Reduction Network (REARD in its Portuguese initials.)


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Between 2003 and 2004, REARD investigated 75 cases people using drugs made from the discarded leftovers of Bolivian cocaine production. In the beginning, the focus of the study was to follow the use of mescla, or merla – a drug widely used in Acre cities – and its users’ vulnerability to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Mescla is a rudimentary relative of crack, produced from discarded cocaine byproducts combined with other chemicals such as lime, kerosene, acetone, battery acid, etc. “It depends on the dealer and the products he might have at hand,” says Álvaro Augusto Andrade Mendes, another member of REARDS.

The project, financed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, ended up discovering a hard reality: in the border cities, oxi had replaced mescla, with even more harmful effects.

Oxi Cities

Brasiléia and Epitaciolândia are cities well known to those who study cocaine trafficking between Bolivia and Brazil. They are poor cities, with surrounding communities living on riverbanks, their inhabitants living in wood houses suspended on posts. It shares the same riverbed with the northern Bolivian city of Cobjia. The most common route used in the production of cocaine, oxi, and mescla, according to sources at REARD, begins in Peru, going towards Bolivia through Brazil, where the roads are better, until it reaches the Bolivian Amazon, where it is transformed into cocaine, crack, or mescla. Then, it returns to Brazil. “The river that separates the two countries is long, and floods in the rainy season but becomes shallow when the rains stop; one can then cross on foot. This greatly facilitates smuggling,” explains Álvaro Mendes.

It was in those two border cities that a REARD team carried out its investigation, working with oxi addicts. The study was not without problems: “Users are accustomed to hiding, we had to search them out and gain their trust,” says Rodrigo Correia, one of the researchers involved in the fieldwork. Correia saw the reality of the neighborhoods where the drug is distributed: “They were very impoverished neighborhoods, and the people were very poor as well. The houses were made of wood, most of them along the rivers, without basic sanitation, without running water, without basic conditions of hygiene. I interviewed people between the ages of 18 and 35, who had already been consuming oxi for some time. All of them, without exception, were unemployed,” though some worked for traffickers in high seasons for as much as twice the minimum wage, or 600 reais (US$243). Among those interviewed, 62.5 percent had children but only 20 percent lived with their families.

Sold in rocks – which can be yellowish or whitish depending on the amount of kerosene or quicklime, respectively – oxi’s major attraction is its price: while mescla costs between five and ten reais (two to four dollars) for a rock that will produce three cigarettes, oxi sells for between two and five reais (one or two dollars) for five rocks. “It is a popular drug, undeniably, but depending on the season the price rises; if it’s the rainy season, or if the police step up their patrols,” Álvaro explains. Aside from the social problems that clearly push these youths into using the drug, their proximity to the smuggling route also opens the doors to them. According to Rodrigo Correia, many of the people they interviewed worked or had worked as “mules” – crossing the border carrying drugs – or as dealers. “Many of them suffer from the influence of friends that consume or are involved in trafficking. But the biggest issue behind oxi is that it is a faster drug, it has a stronger effect, and is the only thing they can see for themselves, as they have no options in life.”

The “Fissure”

This lack of options could not be more deadly. Highly addictive, the rock is smoked, like crack, out of an aluminum can pierced with holes, making the smoke purer and the effect even stronger. But there are also cases of oxi being grounded up and smoked in cigarettes, together with marijuana or tobacco, or snorted as powder. Whichever way it is consumed, it is always accompanied with alcohol – the Brazilian liquor cachaça, beer, or something worse. “Many take it with alcohol – not alcohol meant for drinking, but “blue cap” alcohol, as they call it, mixed with fruit juice.” This “blue cap” alcohol is simply ethyl, used as a household disinfectant.

For addicts, alcohol use is nearly indispensable, as REARD’s researches discovered, because of a characteristic of oxi known as the fissura, or “fissure.” Rodrigo explains what he heard in his interviews: “At the beginning, they have a sensation of euphoria, a high. Then comes fear, feelings of persecution, paranoia.” The drug only produces that euphoria in the moment it is consumed, and each rock lasts around fifteen minutes. Alcohol works between smokes to maintain the high, in a ritual that goes on for more than six hours, usually at night.

To get more of the drug and more fissura, it is common for the users to resort to petty theft or prostitution, which makes them more vulnerable to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The lack of attention from public health authorities has led to little knowledge of safe sex among the population, making the problem worse. “In this investigation we found that both the beginning of drug use and the beginning of sexual activity begin between the ages of 9 and 14, a figure that alarmed us,” says Álvaro Mendes.

Ghosts

Extremely harmful to the body, oxi’s use disturbs the nervous system and produces paranoia and constant fear. But beyond that, “they get nervous, sometimes lose weight very quickly, take on a yellowish color, have liver problems, stomach aches, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and constant diarrhea,” says Álvaro. After more than five years in harm reduction work, Mendes says that he was never so shaken as when he witnessed oxi consumption. “When [the user] had finished smoking the rock, swallowing the smoke in his mouth, he fell down vomiting and defecating, and had his high in the middle of his vomit and feces, until he got up to smoke another.” Another alarming fact, this time in numeric terms: around 30 percent of those the team interviewed died within one year – the great majority from the effects of the drug, although some had also died participating in robberies or smuggling.

Another cause of sickness and death is the paranoia, which causes addicts to avoid getting help. Rodrigo says he came across the case of an 18-year-old boy who was terrified of going to the hospital and refused to be medicated, although he had an exposed wound. “Every time he entered the hospital, he would run away if he wasn’t secured. He was just treating himself, without consulting a doctor. I could see he was wasting away. Skinny, in terrible physical shape, without any personal hygiene, he looked like a ghost. That’s the way you who has been taking drugs for a long time out there, if you pay attention: the one who looks like a ghost.”

“Marked” Users

But something that should be generating concern and care on the part of the government has instead generated disgust and contempt. According to the professionals who studied the drug’s effects, there is still a great deal of prejudice. Álvaro says that many health workers will not even go near the users. “In program I ran, trying to bring health workers to the users, it was all very clear: I stood in the middle of the street, with the users on one side and the health workers on the other.” Álvaro says that in these cities in the country’s interior, users are often “marked,” sometimes by the health workers themselves, for “spreading the problem around the city.”

The police act no differently. REARD’s report makes it clear that in the border cities, users are much more persecuted and suffer from much greater repression than in the state capital, Rio Branco. “In some places, that can’t stay in the street past a certain time, because the police demanded that they go home. If they didn’t leave, they’d be thrown in jail, which is absurd, because you can’t stop someone from being in a public street,” complains Rodrigo. The team related this situation to the Epitaciolândia city authorities, who were quick to say that they would resolve the sitation, as only a few members of the police force had this “habit.”

A Commitment from the State

To fight a drug so damaging, harm reduction work is more than necessary. However, what the REARD personnel found was complete indifference on the part of the authorities. “They need to establish a connection with the users, talk to them about the damage that this kind of drug causes and the cautions they should take when they consume,” says Álvaro. A few simple measures, such as making sure to drink water, taking vitamin C, not consuming “blue cap” alcohol, and taking care of the place where they take drugs would be very positive steps, and could even avoid a “total failure.” REARD has met with state officials to create a specific policy towards oxi users. But, for Álvaro, “there is a lack of commitment from the government, especially at the state level, because generally they accept a demand from above, but not from a nongovernmental organization.”

On May 24 REARD will meet with Acre state officials, representatives of the Health Ministry, and health officials from Peru and Bolivia. And to continue their work, the organization will soon lead an investigation with oxi users specifically. “There are many things we still do not know,” said Mendes, “such as what is that biological cause of the oxi deaths, and what other substances are used in its fabrication.”

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