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Drugs and the Valley

July 13, 2011

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The two-decade conflict in Kashmir, the highest militarised region in the world, is responsible for a spiraling drug problem amongst its populace, psychiatrists maintain. - Photo by Dilnaz Boga/Dawn.com

In the Indian-administrated Kashmir, 80 per cent of the drug-using population comprises those who abuse prescription medicines, doctors say. Easy availability of medicines across the counter has only contributed to the enormity of the situation, they add.

It all started in the mid-nineties with the Valley’s population turning to drugs like Corex cough syrup, injectable pentazocine, benzodiazepines and spasmo proxyvon. The two-decade conflict in Kashmir, the highest militarised region in the world, is responsible for a spiraling drug problem amongst its populace, psychiatrists maintain.

Dr Arshid Hussain, a psychiatrist at the Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, feels that the addicts have a high dependence level of prescription drugs because of easy availability. "Out of the addiction cases that are reported at the hospital, school-going children comprise 15 to 20 per cent of that population; and 2 to 3 per cent are cases of solvent abuse."

Here, drugs are not used for recreational purposes but as a coping mechanism to deal with the stresses of a conflict zone, a doctor from a de-addiction facility explains.

The indulgence of youth in illegal substances and alcoholism is on a rise, and so is depression and stress.  To counter stress, and other related problems, youngsters are increasingly taking refuge in prescription drugs and banned psychotropic substances.

Experts say that the Kashmir situation is quite different from any other part of the world. Here, addicts avoid alcohol due to religious reasons and also because it is traceable (it smells); injectables also leave marks, so they stick to benzodiazepines, codeine phosphate and opiates, which are easily available and can only be traced during the middle and the severe phases of addiction.

The main reasons for a steep increase in alcohol and drug abuse in the Valley, barring the conflict, are broken homes and easy availability of prescription drugs, experts say. Drugs containing opioids such as codeine are consumed by most addicts, doctors say. Benzodiazepines like diazepam, alprazolam and cannabis derivatives like hashish, marijuana; and alcohol are also responsible for the surge in addiction.

Some school-going children are also consuming inhalants such as polish and glue. Even the Valley’s female population has taken up the use of nicotine, sedatives, and inhalants like iodex, boot polish, fevicol and ink-removers.

The Batamaloo De-addiction Centre is located in the premises of the Police Control Room. – Photo by Dilnaz Boga/Dawn.com

Poor rehabilitation facilities

The youngest addict, in Srinagar’s police control room’s seven-bed de-addiction facility in Batamaloo, was a 13-year-old heroin addict. Despite the social stigma attached to being treated by the police, this facility sees two to three fresh cases a day, doctors say. “If this centre was located outside these premises, we’d get thousands of cases,” opines a doctor.

After grappling with the difficulty of talking patients into getting treatment, the families bring them to the centre, only to have the doctors turn them away.

“So many patients come from faraway villages, but we can’t treat them as we lack the infrastructure in dealing with such huge numbers. It’s heartbreaking but we have no choice,” explains a doctor.

The centre has lost three patients. The doctor recalls that upon being turned away two patients over-dosed and one patient killed himself.

Social worker Yasir Zahgeer, who has been helping addicts recover at the Batamaloo De-addiction Center, shares his insight on the causes of the sky-rocketing levels of abuse. “There is a strong correlation between the effects of the conflict and addiction. Patients who are unable to deal with the after effects of torture and violence finally seek refuge in drugs.”

He says in his eight years of practice he has only heard of a raid on unlicensed chemists only once. Due to the popularity of the lucrative business, he adds, locals hoard these medicines and sell them at a higher price to the addicts.

A crowd gathers for a protester's funeral in Srinagar in the summer of 2010. – Photo by Dilnaz Boga/Dawn.com

Weak laws

To make matters worse, the role of the drug monitoring agencies in controlling the drug menace in the Valley is zero, laments a doctor.

In fact, here, even the law is a little lax, compared to the rest of India. The police cannot take any action against the druggists under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act for misuse of prescription drugs. Besides, in Kashmir, unlike the rest of India, any person booked under NDPS Act can be released on bail.

It is difficult to break the nexus between the chemists, the middlemen and the police, admitted a high ranking police official. As per his estimation, Sopore and parts of South Kashmir are the worst hit in the Valley. “There is a problem of denial in Kashmir. As long as that persists, it is impossible to resolve this problem.”

He says that in the villages, as there is no awareness, families remain unaware if a drug is being abused in their midst. “The womenfolk don’t know that the man in the house is an addict. They think he’s taking medicines. In that case, how can they help him?” he asks.

As far as the law goes, he feels the current laws are adequate, “The laws that exist are not implemented.”

He recalls during the nineties, when militancy was at its peak, the security forces used to exchange drugs for information provided by the ex-militants. “The situation is different now. But this problem has become worse with the years.”

Dilnaz Boga is an Indian journalist and the recipient of Agence France-Presse Kate Webb Prize for her work in Indian-administered Kashmir.