CASABLANCA Invincible. Fearless. That's how Hicham feels as he dangerously weaves a stolen motorcycle through the streets of Casablanca, a knife tucked in his pocket. The people he flys by are "as small as ants." It's like a video game, where consequences and danger are only virtual. As if to earn points and advance to the next level he slows to grab bags and phones as he goes.

Only now the game is over. "Open your eyes, you dirty scoundrel!" an officer shouts. At Hay Mohammadi police station, Hicham remembers nothing. The effects of the drugs have faded and the ants have turned back into people. He trembles, speaking too fast to be understood. A thick layer of saliva has formed around his pasty mouth.

After being awoken by a series of slaps from the police, he and the other young men — Hiram, Ayoub, Hassan and Mounir — are interrogated one by one. The day before, they wreaked havoc on their neighborhood, rushing around like zombies while under the influence of "karkoubi," a drug so strong it makes people feel unstoppable. It can even trigger the urge to kill.

"You killed your mom. You are damned," an officer informs Mounir. High on karkoubi, the young man took a knife to his own mother, or so he's told. He remembers nothing.

That was a few months ago. "After I saw what my friend was capable of under the influence of the drug, I told myself I would stop using," Hicham, seated in sidewalk cafe, explains. Except he didn't stop. "Without karkoubi I can't fly," the Moroccan man, 31, says. "How am I supposed to survive?"

Sweating beneath a Real Madrid cap, his dirty and scorched hands tremble. "When you take karkoubi you're transformed into Superman," he says. In the street, it's called "the Rambo effect."

During the day, Hicham sells fruit. "But my real job is as a thief, I can steal anything. It's easy. But if I don't take the drug, then I finish my day without a dirham ($0.10)," he says. "When I was younger, my parents used to send me out to find money on my own, but I had no skills. I couldn't make anything with my head or my hands. At school, my teachers dismissed and insulted me. I dropped out at 12."

Youth unemployment — averaging more than 42% in urban areas, inflation, and the widening gap between classes draws the most vulnerable into the treacherous spiral of drugs and violence. From there, in the minds of people like Hicham, it becomes "a means of survival."

Nicknamed "bola hamra," meaning "red lantern" in Moroccan Arabic, or "Roche," a name that comes from the Swiss pharmaceutical lab that produces its components, karkoubi has become the country's most common street drug. Except during Ramandan, it's easy to procure. "There are four or five dealers on my street alone," says Hicham. "Many hang around schools. They are rarely reported."

Casablanca street scenePhoto: karel291

Jallal Toufiq, director of the National Observatory of Drugs and Addictions, stresses the importance of the medical components of addiction. "Poverty doesn't explain everything," he says. "Not all the people in poor neighborhoods are addicts. Addiction is linked to a set of neurobiological, genetic, and environmental risks that create certain vulnerability."

When mixed with cannabis or alcohol, karkoubi can spark violent episodes that the user may not always remember. Mounir's case is a particularly tragic example. "Normally the drugs cause the users to go into a relaxed or sedative state. But for certain antisocial personality types that are already at risk, there is a paradoxical effect that can make the user aggressive and prone to action," psychiatrist Maria Sabir explains.

At the police station, the word "hogra" is consistently brought up. In Arabic, it refers to oppression, abuse of power, injustice and humiliation. It was a word that also came up a during the Arab Spring of 2011, when thousands of Moroccans took to the streets. Seven years later, though, that moment of hope and illusory transformation is a distant memory.

"Without money you can't do anything," Hicham says. "If I'd been born in a different neighborhood, none of this would've ever happened to me."


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