Locals launch fight against cheap synthetic drug in poverty-stricken Istanbul neighborhood

Locals launch fight against cheap synthetic drug in poverty-stricken Istanbul neighborhood

Eyüp Serbest / Fırat Alkaç HÜRRİYET / ISTANBUL
Locals launch fight against cheap synthetic drug in poverty-stricken Istanbul neighborhood

Bayramtepe residents live with the fear of violence surging, as an anti-drug demonstration over the weekend was halted after gang members opened fire with pump rifles. HÜRRİYET Photo

Locals in an impoverished neighborhood in Istanbul’s European suburbs have launched a struggle against a cheap synthetic drug that has been spreading in the city over the last few years. The spread of the “Bonzai” drug has resulted in many addiction issues among youths and claimed many victims.

In the Bayramtepe neighborhood, located just a few hundreds of meters from the city’s Olympic Stadium, locals were roused to action after three young people died after taking the synthetic Bonzai over the past year, denouncing the alleged indifference of the authorities.

The area has also recently been experiencing a boom in prices due to the planned Kanal Istanbul megaproject, which is set to cross the Başakşehir district to connect the Marmara and the Black Sea. However, drug gangs in the area have overshadowed the debate on the potential effects of the controversial canal project.  

A single Bonzai is as cheap as 2 Turkish Liras and, according to Bayramtepe locals, children as young as eight or nine are using it. “Bonzai is the drug that sells the most in the neighborhood. Then comes heroin. Drugs have even made their way to primary schools. Anyone who pays 2 liras can buy a one-off Bonzai. They end up suffering heart attacks. We are taking our kids off the streets,” says Yılmaz Macit, a photographer who lives in Bayramtepe.

The once-bare walls in the neighborhood are now covered in messages against the use of drugs, with slogans such as, “Don’t allow drugs, you have kids too” and “Death to drug sellers."

But the fight against gangs is perilous for citizens. Gang members have opened fire with pump rifles during an anti-drugs demonstration staged by locals over the weekend, forcing all participants to run home in panic. Only one individual was taken into custody by the police, reportedly not a gang member but a passerby with no links to drug sellers.

“The sellers also come from this neighborhood. Our goal is to make them earn money doing other things,” said Macit.

However, security forces, who are always very well-equipped against various protesting groups in central Istanbul, say they are overwhelmed by the situation in the neighborhood.

Neyriye Demir, whose 38-year-old son is addicted to Bonzai, said everyone knows about the amount of selling that goes on. “Kids are smoking the drug everywhere. They were doing it on my back garden. I called the police. He said, ‘Sister, what will happen after we take them. They are just immediately released.’ Nobody came. Kids are waiting on the corner. All are selling drugs and everyone knows it,” said Demir.

“My son is a great kid, a very good marble artisan. We have rented a house to send him away from this neighborhood. He doesn’t smoke there but when he is here he can find drugs in just two minutes,” she added.

The drug also affects other popular Istanbul areas, including the Gülsuyu neighborhood in Maltepe on the Asian side across the Bosphorus. Gülsuyu residents’ fight against drug gangs drew national attention when a young leftist militant, Hasan Ferit Gedik, was killed after a number of people were shot while marching against the presence of drug dealers in the area last year.

Gedik was referenced by Gezi protesters as another symbol of violence against demonstrators as leftist groups, which had reportedly been trying to oust drug dealers from the neighborhood, claimed the police were doing too little to crack down on crime rings in the area.