By Burcu Ozer
A new illegal drug which has been described as a "chemical bomb" is on the rise among Turkish teens, with one user describing to the Anadolu Agency how dealers are switching from heroin to 'bonzai' -- a cheap, addictive and potent form of a marijuana-like substance.
Recently classified as the most dangerous drug in Turkey, bonzai is derived from a green plant similar to marijuana and contains a chemical called AM-2201, which can be particularly destructive to the brain.
The use of 'synthetic marijuana' or 'phenazepam' is spreading. According to one report, seizures of bonzai in 2011-2012 increased nine-fold, while the number of individuals arrested for dealing and possession has dramatically increased in recent years.
This rise in drug use has spurred politicians into action. In June, the Turkish parliament passed legislation introducing harsher punishments for drug dealers, especially if their victims are minors.
However, preventing the flow of the substance into the country is difficult. Turkey’s reputation as a transit country for drug trafficking has seen bonzai arrive mostly from Europe, China and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, according to Turkey's Association for Combating Drug Addiction and Alcoholism. The drug’s affordability is suspected of driving its popularity, especially in working-class areas of major cities.
"Many dealers are reportedly switching from selling heroin to bonzai, because much more can be sold in a short time," says one Istanbul user, who only wished to be known by the initials F.S.
Twenty-seven-year-old F.S. claims drug users are often happy with their drug use, adding: "They think they are in control of it and that they can give it up at any time, but they just don't want to."
For users like F.S., the drug has many adverse physical effects apart from psychological impacts. Changes in appetite and sleep patterns, difficulty in concentrating, hallucinations, unusual laziness, tremors and shakes are among the physical symptoms a drug-user shows.
"The drug completely destroys the serotonin in the brain which is a contributor hormone to feelings of well-being and happiness," says Ismail Karakas, general manager of the Association for Combating Drug Addiction and Alcoholism.
"Bonzai is famously known to produce extreme feelings of anxiety, causing many victims to die of heart attacks," Karakas adds. "Hence, it is difficult to accurately measure the real impact of the drug. Addicts refer to this feeling as a 'death trip' during which feelings of fear climax in a panic attack, which sometimes leads to heart failure."
Claiming that the bonzai use has increasing day-by-day since 2008, Karakas said: "It is like a chemical bomb which is intent on killing our youth."
According to reports, there has been a major increase in drug use among teenagers across the country over the past four years, with 20 percent of drug users who underwent rehabilitation being under the age of 18.
Mehmet Akif Seylan, vice president of Turkey's community health care organization Green Crescent, said one of the main reasons pushing young people towards bonzai is "socialization anxiety."
A 2014 Turkish Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction -- TUBIM -- report says the 75 percent of drug users did not know the adverse effects of the drug while 92 percent emphasize that they would never have started using if they had known its adverse effects.
The 2014 report provides evidence of drug use displaying an upward trend in Turkey as news points to the use of bonzai and other synthetic drugs being on the rise.
Compared to drug abuse in other European countries, Turkey's overall rate is quite low, the TUBIM report claims. Most bonzai users are males between the ages of 18 and 34, and Istanbul leads in bonzai-related arrests and incidents.
According to the same report, 89 percent of bonzai arrests occurred in Istanbul while 96 percent of the bonzai seizures were made in the Marmara region -- a key transit point between Europe and Asia.
The same data also says 92 percent of people detained in connection with the drug are done so for possession but only 7 percent were arrested for trafficking.
The government and the Green Crescent are now working together on the issue which is gaining a higher media profile.
"Experts say bonzai is a hundred times more dangerous than heroin" president of the Green Crescent, Muhammet Ihsan Karaman, says.
Claiming that bonzai is preferred by the poorer communities in Istanbul’s sprawling suburbs, Karaman said: "It is one of the most dangerous drugs, easy to hide and more effective than marijuana."
Many parents of young teenagers in Turkey have become to extremely concerned about their children's bonzai abuse. Protesting against bonzai due to the escalating deaths blamed on the drug, Turkish families now want the government to take more action against it.
Both Seylan and Karaman say parents should get to know their children's friends and watch for how their young spend their money, where they spend their spare time and in what kind of activities they are engaged.
Parents are strongly advised to seek professional help when they think that their children are taking drugs.
Karakas, warning families against bonzai-related suicides, says parents should watch for "sudden changes in relationships, friends or hobbies; a loss of interest in family and family activities; borrowing or stealing and an unusual need for money."
Stating that it is easy to find a dealer or smokers in Istanbul, particularly in the Tarlabasi area, user F.S. says: "This bonzai combination presents an increased possibility of overdose, especially if the user does not know what they are using."
"If you get offered a drug called bonzai, don't take it if you value your life in the slightest. It is a serious warning" he says.