High Way To Destruction

Kashmir is losing a generation to drugs, with medicinal opiates being the most abused substances to get a high. Social stigmatisation is keeping many from seeking professional help to overcome the problem. Ibrahim Wani reports.

When his parents found out, it was already too late. At 15, Q had been a drug addict for three years already. It came as a pure shock to them. He had everything – education in a top private school, access to every facility, no monetary problem, and yet he had come to this. Both the parents are employed, the father, a gazetted officer and mother, a school teacher.

They would not have known at all if Q had not taken 26 tablets of Spasmoproxyvon – an addictive pain killer. The next day he did not wake up in the morning. Miraculously, he still had a pulse and his parents rushed him to the hospital.

The parents came to know of the addiction only at the hospital. The doctors washed his stomach, and when he was stable again, recommended him to the drug de-addiction centre in PCR.

When his treatment started, everyone was baffled by what he revealed. “We just could not believe what he was saying,” says a counsellor from an NGO who met him during treatment, “Everything which could have gone wrong had gone wrong and it remained hidden from everyone else. No one in his family knew anything.”

Q had started smoking at 13. “We were a group of 14 friends, of almost the same age except two, who were above 23,” he said. It was these two who had introduced drugs into the group. Smoking was just the beginning.

“First I only smoked,” he said, “then I was lured to other things.” Correctional fluids were the first things he tried. Fumes of Toluene, the diluting agent, commonly called the thinner, would continue being his addiction for a long time, since it was easily available.

He would easily get the fluid from the stationer outside his school. He was not the only one in the school using the substance. At that time he was in 7th class.

“The stationer would charge big amounts for the eraser fluid. I have even paid 300 rupees for the thinner bottle. Normally, the bottle sells for just 28 rupees along with the white fluid bottle,” says Q.

Since it is easily available the use is widespread. Q further reveals that they used to apply the thinner on their neck ties, and kept smelling it during class. “No one knew what we were doing. You must have seen a number of school students at bus stops or outside schools doing the same. All this is done openly and no one has a hint about it,” he adds.

Then a time came when the fluid had no effect on Q. He shifted to codeine-based cough syrups also called corex – an addictive cough syrup. Experts say that codeine addiction is very high in Kashmir, with some estimating that more than 6000 codeine bottles are sold every day in the valley.

What started from half a bottle at a time, kept on increasing. “At one time I took seven bottles one after other,” says Q, who was in 8th class by this time. “But soon I went on to other things,” he adds. He also tried Iodex and boot polish, which too are easily available. “These substances are applied to bread, and then eaten,” he reveals.

New people would join the group and then introduce new ideas and ways. “Once we applied Fevicol to polythene, and then burned it. We inhaled the smoke and smoked the urn along with cigarettes,” he says.

Q tried everything he could lay his hands on, and whatever was supplied and taught to him by the group. Soon he graduated to hardcore drugs like cannabis, brown sugar and heroin. “Supply was easy because everyone in our group was part of some other group. It was like a network,” he says.

But the supply dried up for Q, because the family shifted to a new residence, where he could not get in contact with the group often. “A friend who lived nearby was my only persistent source then,” he says, “and he mostly had access to medicinal opiods.”

Medicinal opiods are drugs sold through pharmacists, which become addictive in high dosages, even though the function is primarily medical. At one time he even used the fortwin injection (pentazocine lactate) -an injection meant to relieve labour pain. Even though most of these drugs are prescription drugs, they are sold openly in the market and are sold to anyone who is ready to pay.

“To pay for the drugs I sold my mobile phones, even stole money,” he says. In school his grades dropped, and from a student who secured distinctions, he became below average. He just managed to pass.

“During all this his parents hardly cared,” says the counsellor from the NGO, “they would be busy with their work, and hardly paid him any attention. He wanted some sort of attention from the parents and not just a private school education.”

Once when his uncle had caught him smoking, his parents had come down heavily upon him, so much so that he had received  a good thrashing and he had fled home for a day. But next day he had returned and promised not to smoke again. “Even at that time he befooled the parents. They should have tried to talk instead of beating him, and tried to understand and talk to him,” adds the counsellor.

Two months after the beating, Q was in hospital with drug overdose. Now he is undergoing treatment. The parents too have been counselled. “It is then often the behaviour which the addict faces in home which determines what would be his state, would he be okay, or go into a relapse.”

The counsellor says that in many cases parents start blaming each other, and this often leads to discord in the family. “This in turn makes life much more difficult for the addict who is trying to become normal again,” he adds.

According to Dr Wiqar, who has worked with the drug de-addiction centre in PCR as a medical officer, 60-70 percent of the cases who come to the centre are those who are in the age group of 15 to 25. “Most of them are school or college going students,” he says.

Dr Muzaffar, clinical psychologist at the same facility says that a number of cases are from the elite schools in Srinagar. “Some of them are even admitted in the centre,” he says.

The story of 22 year old M is tragic. At 20, he had to leave college after his father died, and left his family  no source of livelihood. He was left with no choice but to start earning as he had to care for an ailing mother and a younger brother.

Luckily, he found a business partner. Both of them pooled together their savings and headed to Goa to start a business of Kashmiri handicrafts. The business clicked and he started making good money, most of which he sent back to his family. The money paid for the medical expenses of the mother and education of the brother.

But for M, away from family, the work was very hectic. Long working hours started taking its toll on him, and he started falling into depression. His partner took him to a dance club. Here M struck a friendship with a girl.

M would come again and again to meet the girl in the club. They became intimate. As the girl would drink, he too started drinking. After trying different liquors, he graduated to drugs as the girl was an addict.

Initially the addiction did not affect him much, but soon it became impossible for him to control the urge. “I started taking alcohol and drugs even during my work hours,” says M. The business started getting affected. Soon he was not in a situation to even be at the shop, and they started turning up losses. The partnership broke, and M did not have any money left.

He called home and asked for money saying that the business needed some investment. His mother, who had no money to send, called a family friend who was also settled in Goa. The friend went to visit M, but found him in a different state. He gave him some money for the journey back to Kashmir, and made sure he would do it. On his return, the family was shocked.

“I saw what my addiction did to them. I tried to leave drugs but I could not. It was too difficult,” he says. The withdrawal symptoms were too harsh to bear. He craved for drugs he took in Goa like brown sugar, but the cost was too high. “Instead I started taking medicinal opiods,” says M.

The mother decided to send the other brother to work, even though he had just passed his 12th class exam. He was sent to Delhi to earn. The family had no other option. But this would be more tragic.

After he reached Delhi, he went missing. Ten days later they were informed that he had died under mysterious conditions. M went to collect his body.

Every one blamed M for the death. He went from bad to worse, and started taking more and more drugs. His condition became very unstable and he had to be admitted to the hospital. From there he was referred to the PCR drug de-addiction centre.

Now M is undergoing treatment and the family friend who had helped him to return to the valley, is helping him to stand on his feet again.

But the relapse rate is more than 30 percent. “Most of the patients who come to the centre are able to recover, but in some cases there is a relapse, when stress conditions recur or continue,” says Dr Wiqar.

Dr Muzaffar agrees. He remembers three cases where patients relapsed and ultimately died. “The dead body of one of the three was found in an auto (rickshaw). He died of drug overdose. He was just in early twenties,” he says. The addict had run away from the centre without completing the treatment.

“In one other case, a person became completely fit, married and even had children,” says the doctor. The patient was in early thirties. “But due to some problem in the family he could not control it, took an overdose and died,” he says. He had once been selected to train with the Indian Hockey team.

She was among the toppers in her class. B, a student of an elite missionary school for girls in Srinagar which often tops merit lists in secondary school examinations, started with a cigarette puff.“I was just trying it for fun,” says B who is a daughter to a top notch businessman from Kashmir. The family owns handicrafts showrooms in Srinagar as well as Delhi.

The first time she smoked, she was 14 years of age and a student of 8th standard. “Some of my friends took it secretly, and it became a curiosity for me. So I asked for a cigarette from them and then tried it,” she says.

But cigarettes did not catch up much with her. What would follow would leave a lasting effect on her life. “I went to a school friend’s house for a night. We had to prepare some notes,” she says. It was midsummer and the temperature was high. “My friend offered me can of beer, and said that it would refresh me,” she says. Initially she was hesitant, but her friend started taunting her. “I was not able to control it when she said that I was a ‘kiddo’. I took it,” she says. She liked the taste and the feel it gave her.

Soon they started visiting each other’s houses regularly. The friend arranged beer from a contact at Boulevard and a shop in Rajbagh paying much higher than the market rate. But it remained limited to beer for some time.

The next step for her came when she visited Delhi along with her parents during winter holidays. Her friend told her about the easy availability of beverages in the metro and suggested her to taste alcohol.

One day when her parents had to go on a party, B took a servant girl into confidence and gave her money to get drinks. She gave her a big reward when she brought bottle. When she took the drink the first time, she passed out and would not wake up for more than 10 hours. She had locked the room from inside.

When her parents returned from the party, they thought that she was already asleep and did not disturb her till morning. Over the course of B’s stay in Delhi, the servant girl earned much more than what she would have earned in a year.

When she came back, she teamed up again with her friend. Beer was replaced by ‘more thrilling’ alcoholic drinks arranged by her freind’s ‘contact’. The drinks would reach them in cold drinks bottles.

But at the time of exams, when she needed the drinks most, the supply dried up. The friend cited various difficulties in procuring. But B was adamant. “I would pay anything,” said B but in vain. Instead the friend offered a powder, and said that this would relax her a bit. The powder was brown sugar.

When she took the drug, she would remain unconscious for hours. As a result her studies suffered. Her parents thought that she was unwell, and felt that she needs medical attention. But she resisted.

When the results of her exams came out she had just scored 60 percent marks, a far cry from the above 90 percent she secured normally. Her teachers were worried, and contacted the parents. But they thought that her marks were low because of her “illness”.

Now in her tenth class, she would try to study, but she found it hard. Her addiction kept growing. One night when the parents thought that she would be studying late, the mother brought her tea after dinner. But she found that she was a bit drowsy. She said that she would take the tea herself and the mother should go to sleep. The mother left.

But out of concern the mother visited her again an hour later. What she found shocked her. “I found that she was sleeping on the study table itself, with her head on the book,” she says. The cup of tea was at the same place she had kept, and was still full. But mother saw some powdery substance which had fallen down.

Alarmed she called the father. When he saw it, he knew what it was. B did not gain consciousness till morning.

She was taken to the doctor. The next week the family headed to Delhi and took her to a private drug de-addiction centre to avoid social stigmatisation. There she remained for around a month.

Back in Srinagar, B now was under constant supervision. She would be accompanied by the mother to and from school, and never let alone for two long. Her supply of money too dried up.

Now she is in 12th standard, and her grades have improved again. “But she still has mood swings,” says the mother. They contacted the girl who had been B’s friend. After class tenth, B left for Delhi.

B was not the only case. Once a girl was caught peddling drugs in a girls hostel in an institute of higher education. To avoid bad name for the institute and after hectic pleading by the girl she was let off with a warning.

What she revealed to one of her friends was more distressing. She had been introduced to drugs some years back. She was not rich like B but just a lower middle class girl. Even though she had not become an addict and had tasted the drug only a few times she found that peddling brought her good money. The girl who had introduced drugs to her had hung with boys who had supplied her drugs.

Many girls, she claimed who were in drug debt, would be exploited by the girl who was the main supplier. They often had to fulfil some other demand. Many times, boys with cars would be waiting outside the educational institute.

I have dealt with three cases, when girls had become drug addicts,” says Dr Sadaqat Rahman, Clinical Psychologist at Govt Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, Srinagar. All the three were addicts to medicinal opiods. And all belonged to very well to do backgrounds. “I take drugs because there is no taste in life,” a 19-year-old girl had said to Sadaqat.

Dr Muzaffar Khan, clinical psychologist at the drug de-addiction centre in PCR says that they too receive telephone enquiries from girls, “but because of the stigma associated with the addiction many girls do not come forward,” he says. After a drug addiction awareness camp at a B.ed college in north Kashmir, in which he spoke, he got calls from girls seeking help.

“A girl called from the college and said she was an addict, and their group had around 10 girls. She had said that she wanted help. So we fixed a time to meet outside the addiction centre. But they never came. The stigma is too high,” he says.

Among girls the highest addiction is of freely available sleeping pills.

Experts say that there are various reasons for the addiction, but the biggest is the high stress among the people. “This is a direct consequence of the conflict,” said an expert who did not wish to be named. “The problem as it is today emerged in the mid-nineties when conflict was at the peak. The biggest toll of the conflict was the psyche of the people. Most of the people here are not addicts for the thrill, but to relieve the stress,” he says.

“Midnight knock syndrome and sleep disturbances are high among people here,” says Dr Wiqar. Midnight-knock syndrome causes insomnia and instability. It arose out of pre-dawn raids by security forces and knocks by militants for shelter in the night. Even though the stimulus has decreased now, the problem persists, boosted by the ongoing conditions.

Many times it is the doctors who prescribe sleeping pills, but mostly people take them by themselves. “Sleeping pill addiction is very dangerous,” says Dr Wiqar, and it often leads to other addictions. “Doctors are also responsible since they prescribe medicinal opiods, addictive pain killers etc freely,” he adds.

A social worker cites one case wherein a patient became a drug addict after the doctor prescribed him a painkiller. “Whenever the patient would go to the doctor he would be asked to persist with the medicine,” says Zubair Rashid, who runs an NGO by the name of ‘Cause’ and has organised drug de-addiction awareness camps. “Since his pain persisted the patient increased the dose himself, and became an addict,” he says.

“The highest addiction in Kashmir is of medicinal opiods,” says Dr Muzaffar, “because of the free availability. Dr Wiqar adds that the ‘unregulated’ availability is among the highest in the world. “You can get any medicine in Kashmir as every by-lane has a medical shop,” he adds. Free availability of the medicinal opiods is considered a major reason for the increasing addiction. “We have heard of cases where even grocery stores have started selling the drugs,” adds Dr Muzaffar. Zubair adds that the same are freely available outside all educational institutes.

In conflict areas throughout the world like Sri Lanka and the northeast India, the addiction to medicinal opiods has become a major problem. A report published in Tehelka magzine, revealed that due to high opiod addiction, around 20 drug abusers see their limbs surgically removed in Manipur every year. “Opiods addicts run high risk of gangrene and necrosis,” says Dr Wiqar, but fortunately it has not been the case in Kashmir up till now, “but we are sitting on a time bomb here.”

But in addition to conflict and free availability of addictive drugs there are other reasons too. “The rise of nuclear families where in youngsters feel lonely is a cause. They have no one to talk to since both the parents are working,” she says, “this was not the case with joint families where there was adequate social support.”

“Then there is also the huge load of expectations. Earlier people had 3-4 children, now it is just one or two. Parents now have too many expectations from their children. They have to be very good in academics, go to school as well as tuitions and get admission in a professional college,” she says. This takes a toll, and adds frustration to the already stressed out minds.

“In some cases it is the exposure to media also. They see a different world on TV, and feel that they should be doing it too. It becomes a fashion and a trend to some,” she adds.

Dr Muzaffar adds that peer group pressure, problems in the family and stress in interpersonal relations is also a cause. “In some cases people even take drugs due to ignorance. Just to try it out without knowing the consequences,” he says.

Even though the business of drugs is not organised in Kashmir to a great extent like in other parts of the country, people have started realising that it is a business. “In some degree colleges we came across instances when employees were peddling and promoting drugs,” he says.

The drug de-addiction centre, the only scientifically operating de-addiction centre in the valley, opened in March 2008. “Since then we have treated around 4500 patients, out of which 630 have been admitted at various times,” says Dr Muzafer. “But the addicts who reach here only form the tip of the ice berg,” he adds.

Unfortunately, most of the patients reach the hospital at the ‘damage done stage’, when they have already been addicts for a long time. “Most of the patients would be brought to the centre by legal authorities, referred by hospitals, by desperate family members, or occasionally by a social worker,” says Dr Wiqar.

But for those who reach the de-addiction centre there are thousands who do not. Estimates by various NGOs put the number of drug addicts in Kashmir anywhere between 70,000 to 200,000 people, but some feel that the number may be much higher. Most of these fall in the age group of 15-35. More than one fourth of the addicts are believed to be females.

The social stigma associated with drug addiction keeps addicts from seeking help for fear of identification. More and more people becoming drug addicts, free availability, and lack of social consciousness is aggravating the problem “In two to three years time, we will be facing a disaster,” says Dr Wiqar.

“What is more distressing is the spread of addiction related diseases. More than half of the people who inject drugs using syringes have some sort of disease like HIV, HBV or HCV (hepatitis B or C virus). HIV and HBV are deadly,” he says.

“We have only had one HIV patient at the centre up till now,” says Dr Muzaffar, “but what is of deep concern is that the group with whom he shared syringes is still unidentified. The number of infected would have multiplied manifold and would still be increasing.”

None of the schools, colleges or universities in Kashmir has a counsellor, who could deal with psychological problems. Hardly, any educational institution has taken any steps to check sale of drugs in or outside their campuses. “People do not even accept the problem,” says Zubair, from NGO Cause.

One of the schools took some steps to clean out drug peddlers, but could only manage to clear the immediate surroundings. “We can only regulate what happens inside the school and in the immediate vicinity,” says the principal of a leading school, “parents have a role to play. They should keep track of the friend circles their wards have.”

Many blame the authorities. “Police and other authorities are not doing their job. It is not an issue for them,” says a school teacher who did not wish to be named. However, Satish Gupta, Controller Drug and Food Organisation, Kashmir says that action is taken whenever there is a complaint or drug inspectors catches any chemist engaging in this practise.

Police, however, say that stopping the menace of drug addiction is a priority with them as it concerns the future of the nation.

“We have booked a number of people. Even PSA and NDPS have been slapped on some,” said Deputy Inspector General of Police, Abdul Ghani Mir. “We conducted a meeting with around 400 chemists and druggists, where we made them understand that we must stop this menace.”

Police claimed to have seized thousands of bottles of codeine-based cough syrups, sedative tablets and addictive pain killers.

The immediate need of the hour is awareness about drug addiction,” says Dr Muzaffer. “This is a must to prevent people from falling prey (to addiction),” he adds. This can be achieved by community awareness programs in schools, colleges, universities, and through media.

An awareness camp held at Batamaalo for drivers and conductors around two months ago, identified 52 addicts out of the 300 who participated.

A helpline number 01942450451 has also been set up which primarily deals with stress but is open to drug related issues too. “Many girls have contacted us on the number,” adds the doctor.

“There is an immediate need to set up more de-addiction centres,” says Dr Wiqar who has seen a number of Kashmiris in de-addiction centres outside the state. “But centres are not being set up here,” he adds. In District Hospital Baramulla a building was designated as a de-addiction centre and a doctor assigned to it, but the doctor was re-assigned and the building now serves as a store. “If we do not act now the future will be very bleak,” he says.

“Drug addiction is not a loss of character. It is a disease,” say the experts. “And people need to realise that it needs medical attention, like other diseases,” says Dr Wiqar “I have seen cases wherein parents have tried to starve and isolate their wards when they come to know of it. But it only makes the situation worse,” he adds.

“Whosoever takes a drug commits a mistake. But then it is compulsion which makes him to do it again,” says Dr Muzafer. “The addict needs treatment and not banishment and isolation.”


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