After almost nine quiet deaths in north Kashmir, there are scores literally fighting for life as they have spent millions in managing their Heroin-thirst. In the police run, Rehab at Baramulla, Shams Irfan listened to horror stories from some young boys desperate to come out of the opioid crisis that is spreading like an epidemic in north Kashmir
Every day, Asif, 23, regrets his decision to board a friend’s car for a joyride around apple town of Sopore in north Kashmir.
It was during that short journey Asif’s friend introduced him to heroin, an addiction that cost him dearly.
He lost one year of his life, nearly 20 kilograms of body weight, his construction business, and over Rs 50 lakh that he spent to manage his heroin appetite. Asif now recalls that joyride as a trap set by his friend to lure him to drugs. The events of that day are hazy in his mind but not erased completely.
“I remember him stopping the car at an isolated location and taking out some white powder and a silver foil,” said Asif, as he sits inside Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Drug De-addiction Centre (DDC), Baramulla. He looks exhausted and pale. His long bearded face looks out of place on his thin frame.
Back then, Asif had no idea what that white stuff was. But when his friend insisted him to try it, he couldn’t resist the offer. “I just took a few shots out of curiosity,” said Asif apologetically.
Asif had no idea that his curiosity would instantly turn him into an addict. After just a few inhales, his head started to spin and he vomited. “I felt light like a feather afterwards. It was the most beautiful feeling I had ever experienced. I wanted to remain like that forever,” said Asif without a hint of expressions on his face. “I felt like I own the world.”
With the same feeling, Asif went home and locked himself in his room. He didn’t know he was high on heroin. The craving to try it once again dominated his young mind. Next day, Asif called his friend and asked him for another joyride. “I told him to bring the stuff with him,” recalls Asif. “He agreed happily.”
For the next three days, Asif’s friend offered him free heroin doses, a trick used by drug peddlers to get youngsters like him hooked to drugs. Once Asif was addicted, on the fourth day, his friend asked him for money. “I craved so much that I didn’t realise what I was getting into,” said Asif.
Born into a successful apple trader, Asif was never short of cash. After he finished his graduation, his father helped him establish a construction business. Within a short time, he was earning good money. “Perhaps that is why my friend chose me for a costly addiction like heroin,” feels Asif.
The cost of a single gram of heroin varies between Rs 3000 and 5000, depending upon availability, supplier mood, craving of an addict and status of the buyer. Asif made his first drug purchase; 1.5 grams for Rs 5000. He consumed in a single day. “At my peak of addiction, I would spend over Rs 30,000 a day on heroin,” said Asif.
Those who cannot spend such a huge amount to quench their craving for heroin turn to peddling drugs for quick cash. The fact is that the heroin trade is the most exploitative direct selling market in which the first user pays for the entire chain.
Addict to Peddler
All his adult life, Riyaz saved money to get married to his childhood sweetheart in remote Rafiabad town in Baramulla. He worked at a local chemist’s shop on a small salary, which he would never draw but keep safe with the owner as savings for his marriage. In 2006, when he finally married, he got the money from his boss but lost the job.
Being an independent person, Riyaz didn’t seek his father’s help, who owned a modest chemist shop in the area.
“To support me, I started working with multiple chemists getting them customers against the meagre commission,” said Riyaz, who is now in his early thirties. “But it was not enough.”
As expenses mounted after marriage, Riyaz couldn’t cope with the pressure, and one day, in frustration, he gulped a bottle of opium-based cough syrup. “I felt a bit relaxed,” said Riyaz. “But I knew as a chemist that I was getting onto a dangerous path.”
That day onwards, Riyaz’s life changed completely. Once a regular at the local mosque, Riyaz now started spending time with other drug addicts in his locality. From being a favourite in his village among elders for his manners and personality, Riyaz was quickly abandoned by society. He would hardly spend time with his wife and two kids. “I was slipping fast and I knew it but lacked will-power to stop myself,” said Riyaz.
With no regular source of income, Riyaz’s addiction pushed him to extremes and he decided to sell drugs for money. Being a chemist himself, he knew the source and loopholes.
“In the beginning, I bought ten cough syrups from chemists I knew, and sold six of them at ten times the market rate to other addicts,” recalls Riyaz. The rest of the four he kept for himself. “With my earnings, I purchased more cough syrups without realising that I was a major drug dealer in my area,” said Riyaz with a hint of remorse in his voice.
From being a faithful and religious boy whom everyone loved and respected, Riyaz was now a dreaded don in the belt. For the next nine years, Riyaz sold all kinds of contraband drugs available in Kashmir’s small but wealthy market. Interestingly, all these years, Riyaz’s family was unaware of his addiction or his source of instant money. They thought he was doing well as a commissioning agent for chemists in Rafiabad and Baramulla.
In 2015, when Riyaz’s family came to know about his addiction and real profession, they were devastated. Within a month, they forced Riyaz to quit successfully.
“But it was not easy as I was making huge money. Besides, I didn’t want to go back to my cashless days,” said Riyaz.
However, once he successfully kicked the addiction, Riyaz realized that the money he earned by selling drugs was all gone. “I have no idea what I did with that money as I was always high on drugs,” admitted Riyaz.
After he quit, he started working at his father’s chemist shop. He was once again regular at the mosque. After work, he would spend time with his kids. Life was once again back on track, or so it seemed.
Three years later, in early 2018, a friend of Riyaz asked him if he had ever tried heroin during his drug addiction days. When Riyaz said no, his friend began to laugh and said, ‘then you have not tasted the real thing yet’.
It disturbed Riyaz. He felt weak and vulnerable once again. However, before Riyaz could say anything, his friend took out a small amount of heroin, a silver foil and a lighter and prepared one dose for him. “I couldn’t refuse. I wanted to, but I couldn’t,” said Riyaz as he shifts himself uncomfortably on a plastic chair in DDC, Baramulla. He is there for the last 15-days to get rid of his addiction. So far he has not relapsed. He spends his day on a bed next to Asif’s.
For addicts like Asif and Riyaz, their only hope to get out of clutches of heroin alive is DDC Baramulla. There is no other facility available to help these drug addicts in the district.
Established in 2012, the DDC Baramulla operated from District Police Lines (DPL), before it was shifted to its current location in the old hospital. “At DPL we had just two beds for critical patients who needed round the clock watch,” said Altaf Hussain Shah, in-charge DDC, Baramulla. “Now we have eight beds here. Even this is not enough.”
Given the sudden rise in cases related to heroin addiction in the last three years, Shah has asked for more space to accommodate them. “Seven out of eight beds always remain occupied by heroin addicts,” said Shah. “It is sort of an epidemic now, which needs to be curbed at the earliest.”
In 2018, DDC Baramulla received a total of 226 patients, out of which 48 were admitted for a minimum of 21 days. Almost 90 per cent of them are heroin-related cases.
Similarly, in 2019 (till mid-July), DDC received 86 drug-related patients for de-addiction. Out of them, 52 have stayed at the Centre for longer treatment like Asif and Riyaz. Most of these patients are between 12 and 25-years of age.
Once they enter DDC, they have to go through a de-addiction programme of at least 25 days, or maximum of 40 days, depending on the condition of the patient. “First three days are very difficult for them to cope without heroin,” said Shah.
Withdrawal symptoms often make drug addicts highly vulnerable, as they try to harm themselves when deprived of drugs. “However, once they sail through that phase, it becomes a bit easier to spend rest of the time at DDC,” said Shah.
As part of their training, all drug addicts have to go through multi-level interventions: medical, psychological, social and religious. “Only medical interventional cannot treat them. They need all four interventions to get out of this mess,” said Shah.
At DDC, the day starts early for patients like Asif and Riyaz who are put through police like training and exercise routine followed by a voluntarily religious sermon by one of the staff members. “We have introduced religious intervention part on our own to help them become good human beings. It helps them get their lost image back in the society,” said Shah proudly.
No cell-phones are allowed inside the DDC. Whenever these patients feel like talking to their parents they do it in front of Shah or other staff members. “If we allow them a mobile phone, then entire drug mafia will be around this facility within minutes,” said Shah. “These addicts know how to arrange drugs even inside a jail, so we have to be very cautious.”
Once an addict is brought to DDC, he cannot meet his family or friends unless they are called for interaction by the counsellor. “We try to tell their parents to help them get back into the family’s fold and make them feel a part of it. Isolating them only pushes these addicts back to drugs,” said Mohammad Ashraf Mir, Counsellor DDC. “As they are fragile souls with bruised egos, we counsel their parents and family how to deal with them once they leave DDC so that they do not relapse.”
So far, there has been a very less percentage of patients who had relapsed. Once a patient leaves DDC, he has to come back every week for a follow-up. After that, they are made to take part in a group discussion with those patients who are still admitted in the facility. This helps both current and former addicts get inspired by each other. But till two years back, managing these addicts at DDC was not as difficult as it is now. In pre-2016 days, most of the cases that DDC received were related to cannabis, hashish, charas, codeine alcohol and other things. However, in the last three years, heroin has become the main substance that youngsters’ use in Kashmir. Its easy availability in the market is a major concern for society.
“It is a dangerous trend. Almost 90 per cent of the cases who come here use heroin now,” said Mir. “They often reach here in a very pathetic psychological and physical condition.”
For instance, Riyaz was one of the healthiest youngsters in Rafiabad who used to flaunt his muscles every now and then. But after he became a heroin addict, not only his muscles were gone, but he lost over 30 kilograms of body weight.
“It needs to be checked how such a deadly substance is so easily available to our kids,” said Mir, while fixing his eyes at Riyaz’s skeleton-like structure sitting in front of him.
He knew Riyaz has the answers to this puzzle.
When Riyaz started taking heroin in early 2018, it proved much more costly than his previous addiction to opium-based cough syrup and over the counter tablets. It was not easy for him to sustain a costly addiction which required Rs 5000, daily. So, to carry on with heroin, he went back to his old way of earning money: by becoming a peddler once again.
“I still remember how I started vomiting after I first smoked heroin with that friend,” said Riyaz. “I eat a few cucumbers to ease myself but it didn’t help. Within five minutes, I was feeling awesome. It was the strangest yet beautiful feeling.”
Riyaz instantly knew his friend was right when he said it is different, as he had never been so high in his nine years of drug addiction. Just like Asif, he too was offered free dose for the first three days to get him addicted. “I was so drawn to heroin that I completely forgot about my wife and children or what I had promised them,” said Riyaz. “I just wanted to be left alone so that I can sit in a corner and smoke heroin.”
To keep his addiction kicking, Riyaz explored a part of the chain that helped heroin reach to addicts and peddlers like him. He traced its origin to the border area of Tangdhar in Kupwara district, around 115 kilometres from Baramulla.
“An ordinary person without the help of the police cannot bring heroin from that place. It is impossible,” said Riyaz trying to keep his tone down. “This place is like a garrison where no ordinary person can travel with heroin.”
On July 13, a cop named Mushtaq Peer was arrested at Chogal checkpoint in Handwara with 750 grams of heroin. Two weeks later, three Special Police Officers (SPOs) were arrested with 75 grams of heroin in Jammu outskirts. One of them was a resident of Kupwara. “When a drug addict or a peddler gets arrested, it is policemen who help them arrange drugs,” blames Riyaz. “Without their help, no peddler can survive for even a day.”
Back to Life
It is Asif’s fourth day at the DDC, and so far, he has succeeded in controlling himself from a relapse. “First three days were really difficult. I thought I would die without heroin,” said Asif as he looked at the cemented floor near his feet.
Same was the case with Riyaz who boarded all his family members in his car and drove straight to DDC. It was there he told them that he is addicted to heroin and wants to quit. “I know if I won’t quit I will die within the next six months. I have seen how deadly heroin is,” said Riyaz.
In the last three months, there have been around six deaths in Baramulla and other parts of north Kashmir which experts believe are due to drug overdose, especially heroin.
According to a recent government report, 91 per cent of drug abusers are never held for possession of illegal drugs.
It has been three years since Umar, 19, a resident of a small village in Baramulla outskirts who now lives in Srinagar first took heroin while out on a picnic with his friends.
He was offered heroin by one of the elder guys in the group whom Umar had not met before that trip. He hanged around with Umar all day and asked him about his family.
“At the night when others were sleeping he took out some white powder, placed it on a spoon and lit it with a lighter,” recalls Umar. “Then he took a syringe out of his pocket and injected himself with the stuff. I was first taken back,” recalls Umar.
As Umar watched in both shock and excitement, the guy handed over another syringe full of heroin to him. “Try it once, you will not regret I promise,” he told Umar with a smile on his face. “He insisted too much that I finally agreed,” said Umar with a sense of guilt in his voice.
Born into a well-off business family in Baramulla and Srinagar, when Umar came home from picnic after two days, he looked wasted. His parents brushed it off as exertion from the trip. But when Umar started to stay aloof from the family, his parents began probing his college friends. They knew nothing. “I had stopped being around with them. Now my friend circle was those guys who were into drugs,” said Umar with sadness in his eyes.
In the next three years, Umar sold everything including his favourite motorbike, laptop, smart-watch, expensive mobile and many other possessions to buy heroin. “My entire body was pierced with needles,” said Umar. “I was like a living corpse.”
In early 2019, he finally informed one of his close friends about his addiction, who in turn alerted his parents. After the initial shock and disbelief that their bookworm son can be into drugs, the family finally took him to DDC Baramulla. After spending over a month at DDC, Umar is clean and recovering. “I am afraid to mingle with strangers now. I fear I might relapse,” said Umar. “Heroin is like a death magnet, it attracts you.”
There are hundreds of young boys like Umar who fall into the trap laid by drug peddlers every day.
On July 10, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq held a seminar attended by Ulemas, Imams, scholars, NGOs, civil society activists, to help eradicate the fast-spreading menace of drug abuse in society.
In the year 2018-2019, at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital’s Drug De-Addiction Centre, 6476 cases were registered while as 755 patients were admitted in the hospital. Official figures revealed that over 46000 drug addicts were treated at the SMHS hospital in 2018.
Out of them, 88 per cent of the drug addicts were males, and the rest 12 per cent were females that include school and college going girls.
In December 2018, Jammu and Kashmir became the second state after Punjab to have a comprehensive Drug De-addiction Policy.
Before it adopted, the policy was reviewed by experts from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), PGI Chandigarh, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, Directorate of Health Services, Govt of India and also opinions were received from various civil society groups and the public in Jammu and Kashmir. Under the policy, a number of awareness programmes were conducted to curb drug abuse among youngsters.
But to counter a deadly and silent killer like heroin, it needs a lot more than just awareness as the clock is ticking fast. “It is like cancer which can consume entire generation if not stopped in time,” said Riyaz with both hope and helplessness in his voice.
(Names of the drug addicts in the story have been changed to protect their identities.)