South Africa is in the grip of a dangerous new drugs craze that could threaten the country's battle against AIDS, Sky News reported Thursday.

The street drug called "whoonga" is a cocktail that includes the anti retroviral (ARV) medication prescribed to people with HIV.

Demand for the substance has prompted a wave of thefts of AIDS drugs across the country.

Users crush the ARVs and smoke them with a mixture of rat poison, detergent and marijuana to get high. The powder is said to be so addictive that users are hooked within days.

"If I don't smoke it, I get pains and I can't sleep until I get some more," said a 31-year-old man known only as Jomo, his eyes red and glazed after a few deep drags on a joint.

He and his fellow whoonga addicts, huddled in the grounds of a church in one of Durban's side streets, smoke up to thirty "packets" of the drug every day at a cost of almost $160.

"I just rob people to get the money. I don't have a job, this is all I do," Jomo said, rolling another joint.

Another young woman, who did not giver her name, said she sells her body to get whoonga.

In the back streets of Durban, whoonga dealers tout the powder for 30 rands (about £3) per packet.

The highly toxic drug has been blamed for the deaths of scores of addicts across South Africa over the past year and has fueled a spate of thefts of AIDS medication.

In the township of Umlazi, near Durban, officials say dozens of patients are being robbed of their anti-retroviral drugs every week.

However, the country's Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS lobbying group, has described the belief that the drugs have recreational value as a "myth."

"We are not even convinced that whoonga contains ARVs. The dealers just say it does," group spokeswoman Caroline Nenguke said.

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