Nearly four years ago, the Egyptian Ministry of Health warned of a new type of drug that was spreading throughout Egypt; "Voodoo", an obscure synthetic cannabinoid.
According to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, synthetic cannabinoids are man-made, mind-altering chemicals sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so that it can be smoked or sold as liquids and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices.
Synthetic marijuana products are often marketed as "safe" alternatives to marijuana, but are known to cause serious health problems such as suicidal thoughts, seizures, breathing problems and kidney failure, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last month, the Ministry of Health added five new substances to the country’s drug list, bringing the total number of illicit substances added to the list in the past two months to 11.
The decision, which was published in the country’s official gazette on 5 September, was issued based on the recommendation of a tripartite committee of representatives from the ministries of health, interior and justice. The committee was formed in October 2017 to discuss banning harmful substances that are frequently consumed recreationally by young people.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Health Khaled Megahed has said in media statements that these substances and all their compounds and derivatives have been listed as illicit drugs under Law 182/1960, which prohibits the possession or trafficking of narcotics.
Dr Hesham Abdel-Hamied, the head of Egypt's Forensics Department, told Ahram Online that the most popular brands of synthetic cannabis are traded under the names Voodoo and Strox. Abdel-Hamied says that the effects of these drugs vary in severity and are up to 400 times more potent than organic cannabis.
According to a report issued by the World Health Organisation in 2016, Voodoo is a brand name for the drug Pentedrone (also known as methylamino-valerophenone), which is sold as an herbal product sprayed with other compounds, and was originally used as a sedative for large animals such as elephants and bulls.
Voodoo and other synthetic cannabinoids have been rising in popularity in Egypt in recent years, especially following the 2011 uprising and the ensuing lax security environment.
Many have since called for the banning of these substances, although the health ministry has been slow to respond, saying that many of the substances used in making these drugs have legitimate medicinal uses.
However, despite the absence of a legal ban on these drugs, police have arrested many for possessing these drugs, although no successful prosecution has been possible since these substances have not been criminalised.
Abdel-Hamid sayd that “we have been attempting in recent months to identify, track and list all others compounds used in adulterating these drugs."
In the United States, Voodoo and similar drugs like K2, Spice, Mojo have been listed as commercial brands for synthetic cannabinoids.
Last August, the drug was attributed to a mass overdose of 70 people in a Connecticut park near Yale University, according to the Washington Post.
Many other poisoning incidents as a result of consuming synthetic cannabinoids have been reported across the United States.
In 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration warned of significant health risks associated with synthetic cannabinoid products that contain the rat poison brodifacoum, which is added because it is thought to extend the duration of the drugs' effects. Severe illnesses and death have resulted from this contamination.
Some observers have also linked Voodoo and Strox to an increase in aggression and violent behaviour.
Last May, Ghada Waly, Egypt's minister of social solidarity and chairman of the board of directors of the Addiction Treatment and Abuse Fund, revealed that Strox was the third most widely used illicit drug among addicts seeking treatment with the fund, having been abused by 22 percent of patients. The most commonly used drug is hashish at 44 percent, followed be the pharmaceutical painkiller Tramadol at 40 percent.
In 2017, Tramadol ranked as the number one drug abused by addicts who called the Drug Control Fund's hotline.
Amr Osman, the director of the Addiction Treatment & Abuse Fund, also highlighted in a statement in May that Strox is currently one of the most dangerous drugs commonly used by Egyptian youth.
According to Osman, Strox causes loss of concentration, delirium, rapid heartbeats, vomiting, fainting, extreme fear of death, anxiety, heart attacks and lethal convulsions.
The rate of addiction to Strox, also known as 'Satan's Drug,' rose earlier this year to 25 percent among users seeking treatment, compared to 4.5 percent in 2017, Osman said, adding that most Strox users are aged between 15 and 20.
According to media reports, Voodoo found its way to Egypt in late 2010 by smuggling through its western border.
A.M, a 28-year-old accountant, spoke to Ahram Online about his experience with Voodoo.
“In 2010, I was introduced to Voodoo by a friend who told me that it was a new type of marijuana,” says A.M, who has been a regular Hashish user for over five years.
“This friend pulled out a small plastic bag – which he said cost EGP 250 – which had the image of a voodoo doll on the front and a warning that read 'this substance is not for human consumption' on the back,” he said.
“We were a group of nine people, and each of us took three hits from each cigarette," said A.M, adding that the drug caused an "extreme state of laughter and happiness from only the first three hits.”
“The initial effect was as if you were smoking hashish for the first time, but much more intense. I had a similar experience when I smoked Voodoo for the second time," he said.
“The third time was like a nightmare,” says A.M, “it all turned out to be a very bad trip. It was like I had entered a very bad movie; I was watching myself doing things as if I were watching a film.”
“I saw myself fall on our bathroom floor at home and hit my head on the toilet seat, when in reality I was out on the street and had lost my balance, hitting my head on the hood of a parked vehicle,” he said.
“After a little bit I started to experience thoughts about death and the afterlife.”
“The whole experience lasted from 10 to 15 minutes, and afterwards I felt very dizzy and physically exhausted for a couple of minutes while trying to figure out what happened," he said, adding that "this was the last time I took the drug, after which I decided never again.”
N.M, a 33-year-old computer engineer, also spoke to Ahram Online about his experience with Strox and Voodoo.
"In my experience, Voodoo and Strox are not that different from each other in their effect," said N.M, who has been consuming marijuana and hashish regularly for 12 years.
“The most dangerous effect I have seen some other people experience with these drugs is a severe panic attack,” N.M adds.
“I did not like either drug, it is nothing like smoking marijuana or hashish. I would not consider trying any of these drugs again,” he says.
The Ministry of Health is currently paying more attention to the dangers of these substances, especially after the spike in abuse among young people in recent years.
In light of the rising rate of Voodoo and Strox abuse and addiction, the ministry announced earlier this month that it is preparing a new special programme to treat addiction to Strox under the supervision of the Mental Health Department.
Health officials like Rasha Zeyada, who is the head of the Central Pharmaceutical Department at the Ministry of Health, said in a phone interview on Sada Al-Balad TV channel last week that more efforts are underway to ban new substances used to adulterate these drugs, as well as ensuring the proper medical and legal environment to curb the abuse of these substances.