by Andrew K. Arnett

“Bonzai is the problem, and it is spreading like wild fire across Turkey,” Ahmed told me as he served me a Turkish coffee.

Ahmed works as a barrister in a coffee shop in Gaziantep. He is an immigrant from Syria and has been living in Turkey for two years.

“Bonzai is what people are smoking here (in Turkey). They think it is a safe and legal form of marijuana, but it is more dangerous than heroin.”

Marketed as “synthetic cannabis” or “legal marijuana,” bonzai is in fact a designer drug who’s effects are more akin to methamphetamine than genuine marijuana.

Created from an ever changing plethora of synthetic cannabinoids for the purpose of avoiding illegality, synthetic cannabis often contains cannabicyclohexanol, JWH-018, JWH-073, or HU-210.

Often times, these chemicals are diluted in brake fluid or acetone, then sprayed upon an inert herb like chamomile.

“Bonzai causes serious levels of anxiety, paranoia, delusion and chest pains,” states Hamit Aytar, a neurosurgeon at Acibadem Health Group, “It leads to heart failure and uncontrollable bleeding, and in most cases it ends with a painful death.”

Since bonzai hit the streets of Turkey in 2009, it has made quick gains in the underground drug market.

The first arrests for bonzai possession occurred in 2010. Since then, it has leap frogged over all other drugs in crime statistics. Data from a 2013 report by the Turkish Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (TUBIM) indicates a nine-fold increase in bonzai seizures and a 58-fold increase for arrests during a one year period.

Gaziantep, Turkey (2014). Photo by Andrew Arnett

Numbers for 2014 are still forth coming but a special report from police headquarters in Istanbul estimates that bonzai now makes up 50% of all illicit drug trade in that city.

The bonzai epidemic, deemed a “serious social problem in the country” by the Turkish Ministry of Health, prompted an “all out war” against the synthetic drug in November of last year. Turkish Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu unveiled an “emergency plan” that includes forming a “social media team” to monitor the online sales of bonzai.

Oft referred to as “the poor man’s heroin,” one dose of bonzai can be purchased for under 3 Turkish liras, approximately $1 U.S.

I Googled “banzai” and was directed to an online site where bonzai was available to ship for US $0.008 – 0.058 /Piece at 1000/Pieces. The product was coming from ShenZhen, China.

“We won’t wait for the deaths to increase day by day,” stated Muezzinoglu. “We won’t show any more tolerance. Each death is a tragedy for us. We should save our youth from this evil with an all-out war.”

Last year, over 230 Turks died from drug overdose, most of them while using bonzai .

This “all out war” begins in eleven “high risk” provinces including Istanbul. Squads of anti-narcotics agents will sweep through schools, homes and internet cafes suspected of trafficking bonzai. High tech x-ray machines will be set up at airports and border crossings to scan for presence of the drug, while known hangouts of drug addicts such as abandoned buildings will be raided and demolished.

Critics of this policy however, are likening the police crackdown to the infamous U.S. led “war on drugs,” which many have deemed a failure.

Indeed, despite billions of dollars spent battling drug abuse, drug use in America is at an all time high, with a tangible result being the creation of the largest prison population in the world.

When psychosis inducing drugs hit an area, it tends to foster a climate of fear and paranoia. Perpetrators emerge, real or imagined.

Conspiracy theories alleging government complicity behind the bonzai epidemic have been spreading, especially in economically depressed, Kurdish communities.

“The point of the government is to open the way for the gangs. They try to create a climate of fear in the neighborhoods,” Muharrem tells Contributoria.

“The government is just using it (bonzai) as an excuse to break the community and to push the people out of the neighborhood.”

However, no proof of a government conspiracy as such has been provided to back these allegations. The evidence on the ground, in fact, suggests the Turkish government is bent on eradicating this dangerous scourge from its streets.

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey (2014). Photo by Andrew Arnett

In addition, it is making big efforts to accommodate Kurds as best they can. For example, a brand new refugee camp has just opened in Suruc to house up to 7000 Kurds recently displaced by ISIS aggression in Kobani.

The bonzai epidemic is not isolated to Turkey alone but rather, it is spreading throughout the region. A similar epidemic is sweeping through Russia, the difference being the cannabinoid in Moscow is marketed under the label “spice.”

“It’s a tsunami of synthetic drugs,” said Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s anti-drug agency FSKN.

“It’s unpredictable, like a roulette,” said a Russian spice user to Al Jazeera, “One time you are happy, next time you want to jump out of the window or hide under the bed.”

On February 3, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill which bans all possible variations of “spice,” with concomitant severe penalties for violators.

Al Jazeera has reported that the FSKN has recently blamed Ukraine for this proliferation of spice by organizing drug cartels inside Russia, then channeling proceeds towards its war against pro-Russian rebels.

This report noted that the FSKN had “arrested some 50 mobsters, part of a transnational criminal community that kept its money in a bank owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, the billionaire governor of the Dniepropetrovsk region.”

Synthetic cannabis has been an international problem since it was first introduced in London in 2004. In the U.S. it goes under the name “K2” and is often associated with the dangerous designer drug “bath salts.”

Negative fall out from synthetic cannabis can be far reaching, not the least of which upon hemp itself. There is a danger the line between designer drugs and hemp can become blurred, potentially hampering the legal progress hemp has made in the U.S. and Europe.

This story by Andrew Arnett was originally published on February 26, 2015 @ The Stoned Society