How sensationalism around the emergence of ‘new’ drugs can distort perceptions of the drug market and have a real-world impact on policing and prosecutions.

Media reporting and public discourse about illegal drug markets tend to be almost universally sensationalist.1 ‘Scare stories’ about drug markets – often coloured by moralistic perceptions about illegal drugs and the people who use them – regularly announce that a ‘new drug’, which promises to be uniquely addictive or deadly, has hit the streets.

However, this anxiety can be both misplaced and premature. ‘There is a general failure to properly investigate what these “new” substances might be when they emerge,’ said Julia Buxton, a drug-policy expert at the University of Manchester, referring to the global context. ‘There is so much scope for media exposure and pushing a conservative moralistic agenda … [that] influential people jump on the bandwagon without considering first principles. This happened [in the UK] with legal highs and even fictional drugs.’2

These sensationalist accounts can have real-world effects, as several examples from eastern and southern Africa attest to. ‘The media is a reflection of our society, which is largely uneducated on drug matters,’ said a Kenyan drug researcher and activist, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity surrounding debates on drug issues in Kenya.3 According to this activist, it is not just the media that is prone to misconceptions: ‘MPs, magistrates, judges … many are not educated on these matters.’

A Kenyan craze: Shashamane

Around late 2020, several reports emerged in the Kenyan press of a drug called shashamane, named for the Shashamane region of Ethiopia,4 where it is believed to have originated.5 One headline from the widely read Kenyan newspaper Nation claimed that the drug was ‘turning youths into zombies’ when mixed with ‘custard seed oil and cannabis’ before being rolled and smoked.6

The majority of these articles suggested that shashamane was simply a form of cannabis. A cannabis strain of the same name is discussed on online growing sites as originating in East Africa and is said to produce a ‘strong cerebral high’.7 Other news sources referred to shashamane as a type of bhang (a Kenyan term for cannabis).8

Yet other reports made different claims, asserting, for example, that shashamane was a ‘blended narcotic’ with an effect akin to ‘cocaine and opium’.9 However, as cocaine (a stimulant) and opium (a depressant), naturally have very different physical effects, this is an impossible claim.

Until a chemical profile of shashamane is conducted, it cannot be known for certain what the make-up of the substance is, although experts suspect that it is probably a strain of high-THC cannabis, which may on occasion be cut with other products.10 It is likely that shashamane is a broad term for cannabis that is mixed with other substances on an ad-hoc basis but does not have a singular make-up.

A term lost in translation: Nyaope in South Africa

Late in the first decade of the 2000s, researchers and media reports began to identify what was believed to be a new street drug in South Africa, named variously whoonga or nyaope. As is seen in reporting around shashamane, media articles and reports described nyaope as ‘highly and uniquely addictive’, made up of a cocktail of substances including crushed antiretroviral (ARV) pills, illicit drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines, and other substances ranging from rat poison to cement powder.11

Nyaope or whoonga (heroin), ready to be smoked. The emergence of new terms in South Africa for the substance led to misconceptions around the drug.

Nyaope or whoonga (heroin), ready to be smoked. The emergence of new terms in South Africa for the substance led to misconceptions around the drug.

Photo: Bongani Siziba/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Yet the reality is far simpler. ‘Nyaope (whoonga) is heroin,’ said Colonel Jaco Westraat, head of the chemistry unit at the South African Police Service Forensic Science Laboratory in the Western Cape. ‘It may often be cut with other substances, but that has always been the case with hard drugs on the street.’12 Many have made this argument since the terms first emerged.13 Speaking to the media as early as 2010, experts, police, and even dealers claimed that whoonga and nyaope were simply the new terms for what were previously known as heroin ‘sugars’, despite the mythmaking around these supposedly new drugs.14

Nyaope and whoonga are both derivations of Swahili words, meaning ‘white’ and ‘flour’ respectively, used to described the appearance of crushed heroin.15 Neither term refers specifically to heavily adulterated heroin,16 and the presence of specific adulterants, such as ARVs, is inconsistent in test samples.17 Similar concerns about drugs being cut with ARVs also emerged when methamphetamines (known locally as tik) became more widely used in South Africa around 2005; these claims were later found to have been exaggerated.18

These erroneous beliefs have had consequences for how nyaope/whoonga is understood, both in popular discourse and in academic circles. One research team even went as far as manufacturing their own nyaope based on what they believed its components to be. The purpose of the study was to find ways of chemically profiling the cocktail. Ironically, a street sample obtained by the same research group had different ingredients to the lab-made substance (notably, the street sample did not contain the ARV drug efavirenz, which was considered to be a common ingredient), but this did not deter the group from proceeding with a chemical analysis of the latter.19

When misconceptions meet limited analytic capacity

In Kenya, there is very limited forensic testing capacity with which to analyze street-drug samples and that which does exist is under-utilized. ‘All 47 counties are supposed to have labs for testing, but due to lack of funds, only the Nairobi lab is functional,’ said the Kenyan drug researcher.20

Samples from other counties can be sent to Nairobi, but this is often forgone and trials rely instead on the testimony of law enforcement. ‘Samples’ are often manufactured ‘evidence’ presented by police officers with the aim of soliciting bribes from accused persons and are not sent for testing.21 ‘Sometimes a prosecutor will rock up with some plant material and claim it is cannabis, or some dangerous drug, without sufficient evidence,’ said the Kenyan activist. ‘Astute magistrates will throw out the case, but others may rule to convict based on preconceived ideas without sufficient evidence-based research.’22

Synthetic cannabinoid seizures, Mauritius, 2013–2020.

Figure 3 Synthetic cannabinoid seizures, Mauritius, 2013–2020.
Note: The sharp increase in synthetic cannabinoid seizures by Mauritian authorities since 2016 is one indicator of how this class of drugs rapidly emerged in the island state. Reports suggest use was initially concentrated among youth populations.

Statistics Mauritius, Crime, Justice, and Security, 2020,

Kenyan drug legislation distinguishes between cannabis and other narcotic substances, with much greater penalties for the latter. Under the law for narcotic substances, the accused could be jailed for 20 years to life (as opposed to 10 to 20 years for cannabis) or fined Ksh1 million (US$8 600 or triple the market value of the substance), depending on their intention.23 This is a crucial distinction in the case of shashamane, which is likely to be a form of cannabis but may be believed to be a stronger narcotic.24

South Africa, by comparison, does not face the same challenges as Kenya when it comes to testing capacity. In trials of drug-related offences, samples are tested and positively identified prior to trial. However, as Westraat explains, ‘[South Africa has] a backlog of about 44 000 cases, mainly due to difficulties acquiring the necessary chemicals due to the pandemic,’ This backlog leads to delays in due process. ‘[For example], one dealer was arrested for peddling meth. After three months awaiting test results, it was determined to be phenacetin [an analgesic]. He made an illegal misrepresentation … but he ultimately sat locked up for three months for selling a legal substance,’ said Westraat.25 Media reporting on drug seizures can be erroneous due to journalists receiving unverified information by authorities on the type of drugs seized.26

The popular discourse about drugs can also affect how users are perceived by their communities and how the matter is policed. ‘A cop would be more likely to go after someone if they suspect nyaope possession – as the drug is more identifiable – than possession of something like synthetic cannabinoid,’ says Richard Chelin, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. ‘There’s a greater chance of securing an arrest, even if not a conviction.’27 ‘Arrest numbers are a metric used to measure success of policing drugs throughout most of the world,’ agreed Buxton,28 as this bulletin has analyzed previously with respect to South Africa.29

Where new drugs have emerged: The case of synthetic cannabinoids

Reporting on new drugs is not always sensationalism, as the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids in the Indian Ocean islands proves. Long-standing heroin flows to and through the western Indian Ocean islands have been joined in recent years by a flood of synthetic cannabinoids, which have fundamentally disrupted drug markets in Mauritius, Mayotte and the Comoros. Global trends – as collated by organizations including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – have pointed towards a global increase in the use of many different types of synthetic drugs, from cannabinoids to opioids.

These synthetic cannabinoid compounds, known locally as chimique (meaning ‘chemical’ in French), arrived in the region between 2011 and 2013. By 2015, they had drastically changed the illicit-drug markets of Mauritius and Mayotte, and by 2018 that of the Comoros. The substances and their precursors were purchased online and imported from China, mainly by post. Early reporting on the new drug trend concentrated particularly on use by young people.

At the same time, awareness of and capacity to identify these new substances is lacking. ‘We lack hard data for [new psychotropic substances] in Africa, largely because of lack of awareness,’ said Chelin. ‘For example, very few customs officials know what they’re looking for, and you won’t find what you’re not looking for.’30

Reducing speculation in a changing drug market

Drug markets constantly change, and new and more potent substances always emerge. However, thorough investigation into these substances must be conducted before claims are made about their composition and effects.

‘We create new languages for the reproduction of fear without the reproduction of evidence,’ said Buxton. ‘The major problem is that we try to move forward with “new” threats without addressing existing ones.’31 Nyaope and shashamane are two examples of this. A consequence is that the attention of the public, policymakers, and sometimes researchers, can become absorbed in mythologies surrounding these drugs rather than establishing facts.

When combined with the sometimes-limited capacity of law enforcement to forensically analyze drug samples, and some lack of awareness of emerging drug trends, the popular misconceptions stemming from drug ‘scare stories’ can have a real impact on policing, prosecutions and the perceptions of people who use drugs.


  1. See Max Daly, The Dumbest Drug Scare Stories of 2021, Vice, 20 December 2021,

  2. Interview with Professor Julia Buxton, University of Manchester, 31 January 2022, via Zoom. In terms of ‘fictional’ drugs that have led to moral panic in the UK, ‘cake’ was a fictional drug that was referred to in a, now famous, skit by satirical British television series Brass Eye. In this segment, actual MPs and other public figures were tricked into believing that a new and dangerous drug existed (even though it was clearly exaggerated and the ‘drug’ portrayed as a big yellow pill far too big for anyone to swallow) and were all prompted to condemn the ‘substance’ on national television. David Amess, an MP at the time, went as far as raising the matter in the UK Parliament shortly after the segment aired. 

  3. Interview with a Kenyan drug researcher and activist, 25 January 2022, via WhatsApp. 

  4. Maria Gerth-Niculescu, Why Ethiopia’s Rastafari community keeps dwindling, DW, 9 September 2019,

  5. Amina Wako, Kenya: How Marijuana Smuggled From Ethiopia Gets Into the Country, Daily Nation, 11 November 2020,

  6. Shashamane, the drug that’s turning youths into zombies, Nation,

  7. Strain Review: Shashamane by East Africa Genes, Coco for Cannabis, 1 February 2021,

  8. Amina Wako, Kenya: How Marijuana Smuggled From Ethiopia Gets Into the Country, Daily Nation, 11 November 2020,

  9. Kenya 24, Shashamane, the drug that’s turning youths into zombies, 8 June 2021,

  10. This is the view of Jason Eligh, senior expert at the GI-TOC, as discussed with the author, 14 January 2022, via Zoom; interview with a Kenyan drug researcher and activist, 25 January 2022, via WhatsApp. 

  11. Jason Eligh, A Shallow Flood: The diffusion of heroin in eastern and southern Africa, GI-TOC, May 2020,

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Masood Boomgaard, Whoonga whammy, IOL, 28 November 2010,

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Jason Eligh, A Shallow Flood: The diffusion of heroin in eastern and southern Africa, GI-TOC, May 2020,

  17. Aye Khine, Identifying the composition of street drug nyaope using two different mass spectrometer methods, African Journal of Drug and Alcohol Studies, 14, 1, 2015, 49–56. 

  18. Fiona Larkan, Brian van Wyk and Jamie Saris, Of Remedies and Poisons: Recreational Use of Antiretroviral Drugs in the Social Imagination of South African Carers, African Sociological Review, 14, 2, 2010, 62–73. 

  19. PM Mthembi, EM Mwenesongole and MD Cole, Chemical profiling of the street cocktail drug ‘nyaope’ in South Africa using GC-MS I: Stability studies of components of ‘nyaope’ in organic solvents, Forensic Science International, 292, 2018, 115–124. 

  20. Interview with a Kenyan drug researcher and activist, 25 January 2022, via WhatsApp. 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Parliament of Kenya, Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act No. 4 of 1994, National Council for Law Reporting,

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Interview with Colonel Jaco Westraat, head of chemistry at the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory, 21 January 2022, via WhatsApp. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Interview with Richard Chelin, senior researcher at the ISS, 26 January 2022, by phone. 

  28. Interview with Professor Julia Buxton, University of Manchester, 31 January 2022, via Zoom. 

  29. Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in East and Southern Africa, GI-TOC, issue 1, 

  30. Interview with Richard Chelin, senior researcher at the ISS, 26 January 2022, by phone. 

  31. Ibid.