Punjab Drug Epidemic: Dark Days Ahead

Punjab has to struggle with the serious problem of drug addiction that is now reaching epidemic proportions, and has now become a key poll issue.

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Western media in the recent past has given increased attention to the Punjab drug epidemic, which is not a new problem. But things are getting worse as almost a whole generation of young people is being lost to recreational drugs. If effective action is not taken to deal with the problem mean dark days ahead for this part of the world.

Drug addiction is not a Punjab — one of India’s most prosperous Indian Union; the fertile land of the five rivers and nation’s bread basket — specific problem, though social, cultural and economic patterns over several years encouraged its proliferation because of lack of discouragement. It is an affliction that’s been allowed a firm footing in the border state, becoming almost an accepted way of life as those who could make a difference looked the other way.

Now that the political class does seem to be looking at the mess, is it the right way? Punjab has to struggle with this serious problem that is now reaching epidemic proportions. Now drug addiction has now become a key poll issue. The nexus between terrorists and drug smugglers in Pakistan has come under a harsh spotlight after the Pathankot airbase attack.

The state government had estimated way back in 2009 that two-thirds of all rural households in Punjab had at least one drug addict. Things have had become much worse. All sectors of society have been affected, including the ones least expected. There was a time when there was prosperity here; people were so energetic doing things, trying new things. But it is now in such a sad state as the State is sitting on a time bomb ready to explode at any time.

The drug menace has of late reached alarming proportions in the state, even becoming a key poll issue and engaged the Opposition Congress and the SAD-BJP government in bitter war of words. Expressing serious concern over the acute drug menace in Punjab, the Supreme Court warned that peddlers of various narcotics substances were destroying the career of the youth of the state. No mercy can be shown to them. You are destroying the youth of Punjab. Courts have to send across a stern message, only then there can be some deterrent. The apex court’s comments come four months after Punjab High Court, which too has initiated an all-out war against the drug menace, directed the state government to ensure that those who visited the de-addiction centres did not relapse and were counseled and monitored. But drug smuggling in border areas has increased. From heroin and opium to alcohol, there has been an alarming rise in the number of teens addicted to drugs, which are freely available.

DRUG ABUSE STATISTICS FOR PUNJAB

The scale of the problem can be disputed in Punjab, not its existence. Drug use in the state has since long taken the shape of drug misuse, then abuse and increasingly, the worst form: Addiction – classified as a disease calling for medical treatment. The World Health Organization prefers an over-arching term: Drug Dependence. The body politic has not stopped sparring over the issue, but the body’s rotting. It needs help a forceful and forced correction.

The scale of drug abuse in the state became public in 2009 through a submission to the Punjab and Haryana High Court by Harjit Singh, Secretary Department of Social Security and Women and Child Development in Chandigarh. Singh said more than two thirds of the state’s rural household has at least one drug addict – a proportion that in 2014 may now be even higher. Today an estimated 66 per cent of Punjab’s youths are thought to be taking medical or synthetic drugs.

He wrote: “The vibrancy of Punjab is virtually a myth. Many sell their blood to procure their daily dose of deadly drugs, even beg on streets for money to continue their addiction.”The entire Punjab is in the grip of drug hurricane which weakens the morale, physique and character of the youth. We are in the danger of losing the young generation.”

The extent of drug addiction in Punjab is alarming. Near border areas the rate of heroin abuse among 15 to 25 year olds is as high as 75 percent – the percentage is 73 percent in other rural areas throughout the region. Department of Social Security Development of Women and Children suggested that as many as 67 percent of rural households in Punjab will have at least one drug addict in the family. There is at least one death due to drug overdose each week in the region.

Further, it is estimated that four out of ten men are addicted to some or other drug and that up to 50 percent of those are young farmers. While 15 percent of those are addicted to poppy husk (known as bhukki), 20 per cent are addicted to synthetic drugs churned out by pharma companies in neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh.

A new study by AIIMS has found that opioid worth Rs 7,500 crore are consumed in Punjab every year with a massive heroin’s share of Rs 6,500 crore. This is a startling revelation given that almost all the heroin that comes to Punjab is through the Pakistan border, pumped in by smugglers allegedly aided by ISI. It is this smuggler network that the terrorists who attacked the Pathankot airbase are believed to have used. Security agencies, however, have so far insisted that Pakistani heroin is not consumed in Punjab; it merely passes through to bigger cities like Delhi. But this study — a first of its kind conducted by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) at AIIMS — busts the myth. It says that in a population of around 2.77 crore people, there are more than 1.23 lakh heroin-dependent people. Based on the previous studies, Punjab’s opioid dependents are four times more than the global average. In fact, not only are the drug smugglers being used to push jihadis into India, they are also creating an army of heroin addicts in Punjab. The study has found that 0.84 per cent (around 2.3 lakh) of the entire state’s population is opioid dependent. It takes into account both opium derivatives as well as artificial substances that have the same effect as opiates on the nervous system.

Previous studies conducted in select districts of Punjab had shown widespread use of synthetic or pharmaceutical opioid drugs. The survey reveals that opioid-dependent people are spending approximately Rs 20 crore daily on these drugs. On an average a heroin-dependent individual spends about Rs 1,400 per day. Though the figure of Rs 20 crore per day is doubtful, but the government is seeing this as a warning sign which aims for drug-free State. Around 2.3 lakh people are opioid-dependent in Punjab and around 8.6 lakhs are estimated to be opioid users. Heroin-dependents are the highest at 1, 23,414 based upon the survey, NDDTC collaborated with Delhi based non-profit organization Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses.

The study was conducted between February and April 2015. Data was collected from 3,620 opioid dependents from 10 districts. Among the men aged between 18 and 35 years, four in 100 are opioid dependent; while 15 in 100 could be opioid users. This survey estimated a much higher number of injecting drug users in Punjab (around 75,000) as compared to the existing estimate (under 20,000). Apparently, there is a clear threat of explosive epidemic of HIV among injecting drug users in Punjab. In this survey, interviews were conducted mostly at the drug-dependence treatment and rehabilitation centres at the government civil hospitals of Punjab. Each respondent interviewed was asked to send three more people whom he knew and who were also opioid dependent. The respondents thus came voluntarily to participate in the survey and were interviewed in government hospitals.

It isn’t just people from the fringes of society that are addicted; students from “good families” are often caught in the toils of drug addiction. Guru Nanak Dev University study suggested that 70 per cent of young Punjabi men could be addicted to the drugs that are easily available, particularly in areas close to the borders. Even children as young as 12 years of age are seen to be involved in the drug trade which is openly sold and easily available.

CAUSE OF THE PUNJAB DRUG EPIDEMIC

Widespread drug addiction in Punjab is due to paraphernalia of factors which inter alia includes unemployment and frustrated economic expectations. Green revolution in Punjab which has led to a food surplus is blamed too for this malady. This has meant that young people have been overindulged with nothing to do as there is not the same urgency to till the land.

It is easy for young generation to begin experimenting with substance abuse because of the ease by which they can get their hands on bhukki. This plant grows wild in the region and it is difficult to prevent young people from using it. Furthermore, heroin is easily available throughout the region that is relatively cheap encouraging people to experiment with this substance.

Some of those living in the region fear that it may be a form of Narco-terrorism and those groups in bordering countries are deliberately trying to turn the Punjabi youth into addicts. The location of Punjab means that most of the heroin will pass through this area on its way to India. Heroin smuggled in from Afghanistan and Punjab is a part of the transit route for drugs. This fact is evidenced by frequent seizures of illegal drugs by the authorities. Just before the Lok Sabha polls, Rs 800 crore worth of drugs, liquor and other narcotics were seized by poll authorities.

This is also the fact that pharmaceuticals such as pain relieving opioid and sedatives are easily available from chemists; without prescriptions. Punjabi culture, for heavy drinking and partying as well as the habit of landowners supplying raw opium to farm labourers to encourage them to work harder, has contributed too to the problem. Most rural households in the state are thought to have had one addict.

Steady supply of drugs from across the border is another reason. It was the transition from poppy husk and opium and its usual suspect users to the lethal heroin or smack, and later synthetic drugs, that rang alarm bells because of the heavy flow of heroin through the then unfenced border with Pakistan in the 1980s. Narco-terrorism’s push came after 2000, and the impetus was in 2007 when China and Japan cracked down on heroin smuggling and India emerged as one of the biggest markets with the entry point: Punjab. In fact India was sandwiched between the “Golden Triangle” of drugs — Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand — and the “Golden Crescent” of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where opium was produced and smuggled. The year 2007 saw a 10-time increase in the recovery of heroin in Punjab.

With more heroins, popularly known as chitta or white powder, being pushed into the state from across the border and trucks full of poppy husk and opium reaching the state from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the trade assumed large proportions.

Just 2km from the centre of Amritsar, the city of Golden Temple, is Maqboolpura, a closely packed settlement where flies, muck and night soil fill the gutters. Maqboolpura, a congested colony first pricked the conscience of the region when The Tribune in 1999 reported about the death of 30 householders in three years who had fallen prey to addictive substances. Notorious as a haven for criminals, what makes Maqboolpura more infamous today is that most households in this neighbourhood are occupied by a drug addict’s widow or orphans – earning it the nickname, “Village of Widows and Orphans. There are active drug addicts in at least 384 families in the neighbourhood and nearly 100 local boys are held in Amritsar Central Jail on drugs related cases.

Railway barrier in Angarh – another symptom of a monstrous crisis; is a locality in the border city of Amritsar in Punjab signals the end of too many things: The rule of law; the reign of sense; the fear of crime; the signs of normality and even the divisions of caste. Walking down a street in Angarh, littered with the implements of death — empty Coaxil bottles, dirty syringes Drug and crime infested as the area is, people dread having to wait at the barrier for a goods train to pass. Here, 13-year-olds are killed in Diwali gambling brawls; 20-year-olds run amok looting shops in a drug-crazed haze; illegal explosive factories abound near LPG godowns; and Kashmiris peddling ‘sulfa’ — an inferior quality of brown hashish — share the streets with young intravenous drug users (IDUs). From smack, heroin and synthetic drugs to over-the-counter drugs like Buprenorphine, Parvon Spas, Codex syrup and spurious Coaxil and Phenarimine injections. This is a state where 30 per cent of all jail inmates have been arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the DGP has kicked up a political storm by saying it is impossible for him to control the flow of drugs into his prisons. But the sharp irony is this matter little because, like Angarh, scores of other towns and villages in Punjab are more notorious than any prison cell.

“Drugs have killed many across the state of Punjab, except that in Maqboolpura the problem is marked. Taking shelter on a garbage dump, a group of teenage boys share a Bhooki, a cigarette rolled with poppy husk seeds, while listening to Punjabi songs. Youth claimed that “It’s not difficult to get nasha (drugs) here. We use code words like badam (almonds) or nuts.”The youth claimed that he could easily obtain injections and even ice (crystal meth) from a local chemist shop.

Deadly drugs like heroin and synthetic tablets have made it into an organised crime, consuming lives, destroying families and damaging the image of a people and the state. Add to that the growing evidence of pharmaceutical opioid abuse where addicts are graduating to injecting formulations with opium-like qualities (hence called opioid).

Among pharma opioid are buprenorphine, pentazocine and dextropropyxyphyne. Over-the-counter cough syrups like Corex and Benadryl too are much in demand. In recent years there has also been a sharp increase in the rate of HIV infections in the state. This is because the rate of injectable drug users (IDUs) is far higher here than in other states. The national prevalence of HIV is 9 per cent but in Punjab this proportion is 26 per cent.

RURAL CONTEXT:

Does easy supply lead to addiction, or does the demand result in increased supply? Why did Punjab so easily fall into the drug trap? Studies point to some striking aspects of Punjab’s drug addiction problem. It has a predominant rural context and the users are relatively affluent, unlike in the rest of the country. The drugs used are mostly injectable, which are commonly associated with urban settings. The intensity and extremity of the addiction too is a unique Punjabi occurrence. Such scenario is explainable in terms of the deep-rooted cultures of consumption and masculinity, the declining growth rates of the rural economy, the influx of migrants, the impact of unemployment on educated rural youth, and the culture of aspiration and expectation, which quickly swerves to depression when things don’t fall in place.

Research studies also point to the failure of Punjab’s industrial sector to absorb the increasing number of employable youth from rural areas, and the cultural attributes that inhibit educated youth from taking up certain jobs, especially in the farm sector. There’s also a clash between unemployment and the culture of aspiration among the many affluent young men in rural Punjab, who are at the centre of the problem. Frustration, boredom and laziness are all experienced simultaneously. Migrate who can but who are unable feel easy prey. No one exactly knows the extent of the drug problem in the state; the varied figures that are often quoted are based on sporadic studies and anecdotal instances. Now that it’s taken shape of a political slugfest, the core issue of the huge battle against drugs is still lost in the war of words.

CORRUPTION

An analysis of the factors responsible for this death trap and debt trap for the people of Punjab reveals that it has been rooted in several factors – economic, political, geographical and social, each contributing in their own way to destroy the fabric of the state. But one thing that surprises: That the rulers who are responsible for the welfare of the State and its people, are patronizing the poisonous business and ruining the lives of millions. Political patronage given to drugs during elections is shameful. At a time when drug abuse should have been a raging social issue, the leaders from the ruling parties use it to swing votes.

Official corruption has worsened the problem. Anecdotal evidence indicates Indian police and lawmakers are complicit in drug smuggling and distribution, netting millions of dollars in ill-gotten proceeds. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act 1985 is not being implemented in Punjab to control drug abuse.
In the last General Elections, candidates across the State had faced uncomfortable questions over the perceived involvement of the political machinery in the distribution of drugs. The fact is: Drug use is rising, especially in the case of heroin and narcotic injectable due to easy availability. What is required is vigorous anti-drug strategies must be deployed by government and other stake holders.

Politics is a part of the drugs problem in Punjab. Police investigations have uncovered links between political leaders, businessmen and drug smugglers. From the manner in which politicians were scurrying for cover from the anger of the people in the general elections over the drug problem, it’s clear that the tough and aggressive Punjabi has had enough. The same hopelessness is among Punjab’s youth today.

SENSITIZATION

In the interest of Punjab’s people, the government must recognise the need to intervene in this area and back it with Strong Political Will. There is a need for lobbying, pressure groups and advocacy forums, which can place drug abuse higher on the agenda. Sensitization of key individuals in the policy-making process is of great importance. As yet, there is little evidence of any organised effort in this direction. Government must have to focus on the socio-economic variables and their impacts on increase number of drug crime, opium cultivation etc.

AWARENESS

Drug awareness programmes, job opportunities, educating the people regarding the effects of narcotic drugs may create the prosperous future of the nations. Steps should be taken by the government to provide best health care services to the citizens at affordable cost. Awareness of every sphere should be within the reach of each and every person. Children should be made aware about their rights and strategies to escape being victimized. The education system should be such that it can meet the challenges of a fast-developing world. People should be made aware of their responsibilities towards their family so that a congenial environment is created within the family. The Akali-BJP government should wake up to the fact that Punjab is on the verge of losing an entire generation to drugs like it lost to terrorism, before it is too late.

TYPES OF DRUGS BEING ABUSED:

The recreational drugs that users in Punjab are most likely include:

  • Bhuki is similar to a type of wild grass that can be found throughout Punjab. It is possible to get a mild intoxicating effect from Bhuki, and it is considered a gateway drug because it encourages young people to begin experimenting.
  • Heroin addiction is getting the most attention in the media. It is believed that this narcotic is flooding in from Afghanistan via Pakistan.
  • Opium and morphine are other types of opiate that are commonly abused.
  • Many brands of toothpaste in the region contain nicotine. There are reports of people consuming excessive amounts of toothpaste because it is a relatively cheap way to experience nicotine high.

HEROIN IN PUNJAB

Heroin is the drug that is causing most concern in the region. Authorities take a tough stance on borderline security, but despite this the drug continues to flood into the area. The profits to be made are high and corruption is believed to be rife. Most of the heroin going through Punjab ends up in the rest of the continent, but the fact there is such a high appetite for the drug locally means that smugglers have an easy market to exploit.

DANGERS OF HEROIN ADDICTION

Heroin addiction not only hurts the individual but also their family, community as well as the society as a whole. The dangers of such abuse to the individual include even Death which is common from its overdose. It can be hard to judge the purity of this opiate and if people get it wrong it can cost them their life.

One becomes addicted to heroin in a relatively short time period. Once the individual becomes addicted they can lose interest in everything else. Maintaining a heroin habit is expensive and in many instances the individual will need to resort to crime to feed their habit. Heroin abuse is damaging to almost every organ in the body. The longer the individual remains addicted to this drug the more they will lose. Everything that they cherish in life will be taken away including their self respect. As the individual develops a tolerance for heroin they will need to use more to get the same effect. Young people who abuse this drug risk destroying their future. Addiction means that the individual becomes unemployable.
Family and friends suffer because: They have to watch their loved one self destruct. The addicted family member will usually steal off the rest of the family. Money that could be spent on improving conditions for the family is wasted on drugs. The addict may become violent and cause physical harm to family and friends. Loved ones may have to suffer shame as they are judged negatively for having an addict in the family.

Society suffers due to heroin abuse because: It means lost productivity as so many young people will not be fit for work. Health care costs of treating addiction are a tremendous drain on resources. Some parts of the region become unsafe because of the rising levels of crime due to heroin addiction. The greatest asset that any country has is its young people. The high numbers of young people in Punjab addicted to drugs is a national disgrace. The cost of policing the drug problem is a drain on resources.

There’s a perception in Punjab that the politicians of all hues and even the police is part of the problem and beneficiaries of the drug trade. Apparently, new Narco-political elite used drug money to fund elections. Punjab Police have tried to shed the image with huge recoveries, busting of drug gangs and sustained crackdowns. But more drug recoveries show the security agencies are more alert and serious about the issue, but undoubtedly the media and the opposition say it means an increase in smuggling and higher consumption! The politicians have chosen the easy way out: sparring and what sounds more jarring, dharnas.

POLICY IMPLICATIONS:

Historical evidence points that banning only leads to smuggling and expansion of drugs in society. Setting up rural industries and proper “evening management” can keep away youth from drugs. But governments were working on the model: ban drugs, smuggle drugs and then promote drugs which should be stop immediately. Need of the hour called for a radical solution to the drug problem, which has assumed alarming proportions in the state such as decriminalization of the use of drugs in the state; to break the criminal-politics nexus by radically altering the NDPS Act that tends to promote smuggling by putting a wholesale ban on drugs and treating them as patients needing medical treatment. Drug smugglers act as “sleeper cells and agents of ISI” who were working to destabilize India. Dimension of the drug policy, stressing stringent drug laws be implemented as done by the USA to destabilize revolutionary regimes in South America by promoting drug cartels, who thrived on smuggling due to bans. “The stringent NDPS Act established in 1985 has led to proliferation of mafia, strengthened criminal-police-political network and filling jails with drug edicts has overburdened criminal investigators and judiciary. Families and societies should show more consideration and understanding towards drug victims, who are ostracized by larger society. Society is mobilized at the grass-roots level as well as actively involving women in this effort.

The problem (drug menace), however, could not be solved by the police or with stringent laws like NDPS Act because of Ban, Smuggle and Promote syndrome. The nexus of various forces promoting the sale of and distribution of drugs as a source of earning easy money while taking advantage of ban on simple drugs like Bhukki and opium etc have to be broken. The need of the hour is to break the criminal-mafia-politics nexus by radically altering NDPS Act which tends to promote smuggling and its promotion by wholesale ban on drugs and legalization of certain common mans recreational drugs like Bhukki, bhang etc. The use of the dangerous and chemical started only when the Bhukki and post were banned. Drug addicts and drug users be treated as patients and victims rather than criminals and adopt an integrated approach and longtime multi-pronged strategy check the drug addiction.

The scale of the problem can be disputed in Punjab, not its existence. Drug use in the state has since long taken the shape of drug misuse, then abuse and increasingly, the worst form: addiction. That is classified as a disease, calling for medical treatment. The World Health Organization prefers an over-arching term: drug dependence. The body politic has not stopped sparring over the issue, but the body’s rotting. It needs help a forceful and forced correction.

Drug addiction is not a Punjab-specific problem, though social, cultural and economic patterns over several years encouraged its proliferation because of lack of discouragement. It is an affliction that’s been allowed a firm footing in the border state, becoming almost an accepted way of life as those who could make a difference looked the other way. Now that the political class does seem to be looking at the mess, is it the right way?

Drug use — primarily the intake of opium — had been part of the social and cultural compass long before Punjab was partitioned and then divided. That said, drug abuse was always considered an exception, not the rule — it was lampooned in comic characterization and looked down upon. “In folk literature, songs and movies, we always had a drug addict in the plot. But he was never the hero. He was always made fun of. Those who took even liquor avoided meeting the parents and even one’s spouse. It was even considered healthy, and people in the Malwa belt still feel small doses of opium are good for health. The influence also comes from the prevailing culture in neighbouring Rajasthan where opium was, and still is, served like paan in weddings.” The use increased with the advent of the Green Revolution in the state. More work in the fields brought more labourers and the demand of poppy husk and opium increased manifold. It was common for big farmers to supply opium and poppy husk to labourers, “since it served like machine oil”. Similarly, industrialization in the country opened more routes for Punjabi truck drivers and they took to poppy husk and opium as they felt it helped them in driving for longer hours.

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