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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Spike in availability of ‘Cocaine for the poor’ threatens lives in Morocco

Spike in availability of ‘Cocaine for the poor’ threatens lives in Morocco
A Moroccan addict holds a plastic wrap containing heroin powder in a squat behind a police station in the Moroccan city of M'diq near Tetouan on September 14, 2019. (Photo: Fadel Senna / AFP)

Despite many arrests and seizures, the devastating pufa drug remains widely available among the youth and poor communities. 

At 26, Hamza became addicted to pufa. He was soon spending all his money on the drug, stealing from his family to fund his habit. After losing his job and his fiancée, Hamza is now homeless and spends his days living for the next dose. In October 2023, a 25-year-old man died from an overdose during a pufa party in Rabat.

Pufa — also known as l’poufa, l’boufa, sisa or ‘cocaine for the poor’ — is a synthetic drug made from cocaine or crystal methamphetamine waste that is cut with additives such as battery acid, engine oil, shampoo, salt, baking soda and ammonia. It is cheap, easy to obtain and highly addictive. Like crack, pufa is smoked through a homemade water pipe.

Pufa leads to heavy dependence very quickly — one to three doses are enough to hook the user. The devastating effects include serious damage to users’ psychological and physical health. The drug can cause aggression and violence, and is associated with schizophrenia, paranoia and depression. It can lead to skin infections, ulcers, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary distress, kidney problems, fever, severe headaches, insomnia and convulsions.

Homemade crystal meth first appeared in the United States in the 1980s. It spread to Europe in the 1990s, and has had many names, such as ‘Krokodil’ in Russia and ‘3-MMC’ in France. It became popular in Greece when people turned to ‘sisa’ — or the ‘austerity drug’ — as a coping mechanism during the economic crisis that hit the country in the 2000s.

How pufa arrived in Morocco is unclear. Some say it first appeared in Tangier in the mid-2010s, under the name Lbasé, through people coming from the north of the country to seek treatment in drug rehabilitation centres in Casablanca. Others believe pufa was introduced by drug dealers in disadvantaged areas who mixed cocaine or crystal meth leftovers with other chemicals to bulk up their stocks. Many dealers were involved in cocaine trafficking before turning to pufa.

Enabled by poverty, deprivation

Nonetheless, there are parallels between Greece and Morocco. In Greece, the economic crisis of the 2000s fuelled pufa consumption, and in Morocco, use of the drug coincided with Covid-19. Pre-pandemic, cocaine was less widely available and consumed only by those who could afford it.

During the pandemic, dealers began mixing cocaine waste with other products, which lowered the price, making it more accessible to a wider population. Since Covid-19, many have been admitted to drug rehabilitation centres. More than 3,000 addicts are currently registered in these centres in the northern part of Morocco.

Unlike cocaine, which is imported from Latin America, pufa is manufactured locally. Some users buy the ‘pebble’ — made of different chemical components — directly from drug dealers, while others make it themselves.

Due to its low price, just $0.50 (50Dhr) per gram, pufa is easy to obtain in Morocco. It is widely available among the youth, including school children, and is increasingly affecting poor communities. During the 2022-23 school year, security operations at different educational institutions led to the investigation of 3,870 cases and the arrest of 4,286 suspects for dealing in pufa.

Infecting the youth

Because it’s highly addictive, a growing number of young girls are becoming involved in the sex trade to pay for their daily intake. Some users have sold their cars to fund their habit.

Between August and September last year, 112 pufa drug traffickers were arrested and nearly 1,413 kg of the drug was seized in a coordinated operation spanning various Moroccan cities. This law enforcement intervention also dismantled six criminal drug rings operating across the country. In July 2023, 15 people were arrested in Casablanca after they were found in possession of the tools and ingredients to manufacture pufa.

In October, Moroccan security forces intercepted 1 371 kg of cocaine being trafficked into the country from Spain. While not all this stock may have been intended for the local market, it highlights Morocco’s growing role as a regional cocaine hub. The more cocaine flows through the country, the easier it is for traffickers and dealers to manufacture and distribute pufa, compounding an already dire situation.

Despite these seizures and the number of cases processed, the authorities still have a long way to go to eradicate the problem. Unless rapid and efficient measures are taken, Morocco could soon face a dramatic health crisis and an increase in violent and criminal incidents associated with this drug.

Currently, consumers and small- to medium-scale traffickers can be sentenced to between six months and a year behind bars, while major traffickers can be jailed for up to 30 years. However, they are usually sentenced to a maximum of 10 years.

The fight against pufa requires strengthening both legal and institutional frameworks. Harsher penalties for traffickers, especially those involved in cocaine smuggling or found to have been (indirectly) responsible for a consumer’s death, is an important first step.

On the health side, strengthening prevention, awareness and support systems for drug-dependent people could help curb this growing threat. Policies that allow the use of naloxone and methadone are essential to prevent and respond to drug overdoses and treat drug use disorders. By prioritising such measures, non-governmental organisations in collaboration with the Health Ministry, have already reduced the number of deaths due to overdose.

Morocco could, like Greece, also train communities, families and friends to build trusting relationships with drug users in order to eventually help them accept treatment for their addiction. DM

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Enact, Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

First published by ISS Today.

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