Rising drug prices force youths to rehabilitation centres
Ashish (name changed), a 25-year-old drug addict from Gurdaspur city got himself admitted at the Red Cross Drug De-addiction centre during the lockdown when the price of the infamous 'Chitta' or heroin reached Rs 12,000 per gram in Punjab. Earlier the price of the heroin used to range anywhere between Rs 4,000-Rs 6,000 per gram.
According to Ashish, it was "affordable" for him but as soon as the supply chain was snapped due to the lockdown and drug peddlers found it difficult to smuggle the heroin, prices skyrocketed. Ashish says, "I was an addict of heroin for the past many years. During the lockdown, the cost of the drug increased manifold due to dip in supply as a result I had to leave it but faced withdrawal symptoms. One of my friends told me that there is a rehabilitation centre in Gurdaspur so I decided to get myself registered."
Ashish said that most of the addicts were not able to get heroin during the lockdown period at all. "However, the price of the drug had increased manifold when the restrictions were relaxed," said Ashish.
Satnam Singh (name changed) from Batala has been a drug addict for the past seven years. The lockdown also brought 'hard time' on him as heroin became inaccessible during the lockdown. "Due to the police presence in the entire state at every nook and corner, peddlers were not able to supply drugs to their customers. In absence of drugs I had to get myself admitted at the rehabilitation centre," said Satnam.
Gurdaspur and adjoining Pathankot are the border districts of Punjab and share their boundary with Pakistan. While Pathankot also shares its border internally with J&K and Himachal Pradesh, Gurdaspur is located close to Himachal that makes both the districts suitable for international as well as inter-state drug peddling. The drug racket operates from Pakistan and Afghanistan and the heroin and other narcotics are pumped into India through the Punjab and J&K border.
Dose of buprenorphine
While many of the drug addicts may be willing to give up their dependence on narcotics, the staff at the rehabilitation centres suspect that many others may be getting registered to get the dose of buprenorphine. Buprenorphine is an opioid that is used during the treatment of drug addicts. A dose of the same is provided to the addicts so that they leave the habit of narcotics.
Romesh Mahajan, Project Director at the Red Cross Drug De-addiction Treatment-cum-Rehabilitation Centre, Gurdaspur says that since the lockdown started, many drug addicts were registered with the centre. "We are receiving queries from patients more than our capacity. Before lockdown, we received two to three patients daily but now eight to ten addicts are coming to us," said Mahajan. All patients are not admitted due to lack of capacity and are referred to the outpatient department.
The Government of Punjab has also formulated the guidelines for private drug de-addiction centres admitting addicts. "It is to be noted that opioid, agonists like buprenorphine etc. are themselves opioids, with all the psychoactive and addictive properties of abused opiates. If they are used properly, they can save and rebuild lives, however, if used improperly, they can cause damage like any other opiate" the guidelines by the Punjab government reads.
The guidelines also allow an addict to take the Buprenorphine- Naloxone (BNX) to their homes under some conditions. "The patient must be registered in the concerned de-addiction Center with some unique identification number by which he can be linked with a computerized database. The exact total number of BNX tablets dispensed to the patient - must be documented and to begin with, he/she should be given doses for 3-5 days. After three such consecutive visits, he/she can be given doses for 7 days in one visit" the official guidelines stated.
1.29 lakh drug addicts enrolled in rehabilitation centres since the lockdown
Since March 25, when the nationwide lockdown was imposed, a whopping 1.29 lakh drug addicts enrolled themselves in different drug rehabilitation centres across Punjab. Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu in an official statement said that from March 25 to June 19, more than 5.44 lakh patients have been registered on the central online portal system under drug de-addiction program and 1.29 lakh new patients have come for treatment across the state.
After suspicion of abuse of the medicine, received from de-addiction centres, by addicts, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh ordered to introduce urine test every six months, for the addicts registered at different rehabilitation and de-addiction centres, for dispensing de-addiction drugs to check abuse.
Experts believe that the withdrawal symptoms of the addicts may have drawn them to the rehabilitation centres. Dr Rajiv Gupta, a prominent psychiatrist of Ludhiana says that the dependency of addicts on heroin is such that they could face severe withdrawal symptoms in case they do not get it.
"Absence of narcotics from the market during the lockdown and curfew period in Punjab might have resulted in severe withdrawal symptoms to the addicts. The symptoms could include body ache, anxiety, irritation and depression among others depending on the quantity and time period for which a person was consuming the drug," said Dr Gupta.
He says that even a person addicted to alcohol may register himself at the de-addiction centre in case he doesn't get the supply of the same.
According to a study namely, 'Drug abuse: Uncovering the burden in rural Punjab' published in Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, "The prevalence of substance abuse among the study group was 65.5% and most common substance abused was alcohol (41.8%), followed by tobacco (21.3%). A high prevalence of heroin abusers was noted among study subjects (20.8%). The prevalence of non-alcohol and nontobacco substance abuse was 34.8%. A significant association of drug abuse was observed with male gender, illiteracy, and age above 30 years".
The study held the conclusion that the problem of drug abuse in the youth of Punjab is a matter of serious concern as every third person is hooked to drugs other than alcohol and tobacco. The other striking observations were the high prevalence of heroin and intravenous drug abuse, the study concluded.
On the other hand, alcohol addicts whose number has also increased at the rehabilitation centres say that due to the increase in the cost of licensed liquor, a large number of people were now consuming country-made liquor. Shockingly in a recent hooch tragedy in Punjab, more than 110 people have died in Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Tarn Taran district.
Ranjit Singh (name changed) from Beas, says that during the lockdown and curfew in Punjab, there was no supply of country-made liquor after which I decided to get myself admitted at a centre in Gurdaspur. "While the alcohol at liquor vends has become costlier, the country made liquor is sold at cheap rates and a lot of people are consuming it," said Ranjit.
Punjab had imposed a curfew to curtail Covid-19 cases after people did not stop stepping out of their homes. It was during this time that the backbone of the drug nexus broke and there was no movement of peddlers in the state.
Drug menace and Punjab
Drug menace in Punjab is not new and has killed hundreds of youths across the state. Most of the deaths due to drugs went unreported with the police as the bodies of the youths were cremated before the police could take any action. In 2017, Congress was able to score a win over the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) that was in power on the issue of drug deaths.
Soon after assuming power, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had also formed a Special Task Force (STF) against drugs that has arrested many drug peddlers till now but the menace refuses to end.
The perennial problem of a drug overdose in Punjab could be gauged from the fact that as per National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), a total of 78 people died due to drug overdose in the state during the year 2018. The record of next year is still not out.
However, most of the deaths in the state are not even reported with the police due to a social stigma attached to it.
The problem of drug abuse has increased to such an extent that in some parts of the state including Mansa, Bathinda, Sangrur and Barnala, women groups have been formed for the night vigil. These women in groups of 20-25 take rounds of their respective village during the night with batons and torch and try to locate youth taking drugs.
Moga is infamous for being the drug capital of the state as there are some villages including Daulewala in the district where drugs are sold openly by almost every household. Youth from Chandigarh and even New Delhi visit these villages to get heroin and other drugs. However after the Congress assumed power, police were deployed at these villages after which the problem has been brought under some control.
Questions have always been raised as to why Punjab is getting high on drugs? While the involvement of neighbouring Pakistan in pumping drugs cannot be ruled out, internal factors including rising unemployment, the glorification of drugs in Punjabi music and dwindling agricultural opportunities are among other reasons for the youth turning toward drugs.