Poison in Kashmir’s Bloodstream

  • Publish Date: Jan 21 2018 10:06PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 21 2018 10:06PM
Poison in Kashmir’s Bloodstream

"In the early 1980s, when doctors at a hospital in Srinagar found out that a patient was a heroin addict, it was such an extremely unusual experience for them that the matter was brought to the notice of the chief minister,” said Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist at the city’s Government Medical College.

At the time, Arshad pointed out, much of the subcontinent was in the grip of opioid abuse but Kashmir steered clear. A study titled “Drug Abuse in Kashmir – Experience from a Psychiatric Diseases Hospital”, published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 1993, counted only 189 reported cases of drug addiction in Kashmir between 1980 and 1988. The study, however, warned that “urgent steps must be taken to curb it before it is too late”. 

The warning was apparently not heeded. From the start of 2014 till October 2017, 18,435 cases of drug addiction were reported by just the Government Medical College and the Drug De-addiction Centre, run by the Jammu and Kashmir police. This may be a fraction of the total number of cases, Arshad and DDC director Dr Muzaffar Khan said, given that most drug addicts do not go to de-addiction centres. 

More worryingly, Arshad said, children are unwittingly getting addicted to solvents, which is likely to eventually push them towards drugs. He has treated over 200 such children in the past two years. “It is a new trend that students unknowingly end up getting addicted to solvents given their easy availability. The most active component in these solvents is toluene which is highly intoxicating,” he said. “We had many cases where such young people had later drifted towards drug use.”     

Toluene in mainly found in stationary material such as correction fluids, and Arshad favours a policy restricting children’s access to them. “All solvent-containing products should be allowed for use by students only under the monitoring of teachers,” he said. “I think the Directorate of School Education, in consultation with the Institute of Mental Health, should issue an advisory to schools that products containing toluene should not remain with children except when they have to use them in school.”       

Consumed souls

Waleem took to doing drugs to get over a breakup about three years ago. Today, Waleem, who once aspired to become a “top lawyer”, is not only nowhere near completing his degree, his entire family is in distress. His wanton spending on drugs, which have included heroin and brown sugar, and on his luxury car has dented his mother’s bank balance. If that was not enough, his mother and close relatives told me, Waleem’s addiction has brought disrepute to the family.

“Whenever he ran out of drugs, he would throw tantrums and even beat me and his younger brother until we gave him money to buy drugs,” said the mother, a senior government official, adding that most people in their neighbourhood knew “our family was going through such a shameful situation”.

Waleem is now undergoing treatment and his mother is praying that he has a normal life again. 

At the DDC, I met Rustum, a 15-year-old lean boy with sunken, bloodshot eyes. He said he started using drugs in primary school. “One day, a classmate took me to his home. There was nobody there and he took out charas and put into a cigarrette,” he said, referring to cannabis. “After smoking half of it, he passed it to me. I took it with great curiosity as I was already a smoker. That is how I got into drugs. Since then, I have taken charas regularly and sometimes alcohol and heroin as well.” 

Rustum, however, said he now wants to change for good. “I know it has given a lot of pain to my parents. I want to give up drugs now and study.” 

His father, a lowly government employee, said Rustum’s mother has been in depression ever since she learnt about his drug abuse. “She often doesn’t sleep at night and has nearly stopped talking to others,” he said. But now that their son is taking treatment, the father added, she is showing signs of getting better.  Their optimism is hopefully not misplaced. Muzaffar recalled a case from two years ago of a young man who was treated for addiction at the DDC. “To my utter shock, a few months later I saw him begging for money,” he said. “He had relapsed into the habit and taken to begging to buy drugs.”

The man was in his 20s and from a comfortable family. “His parents told me they used to give him money to buy drugs because he would grow violent otherwise,” Muzaffar recalled. “I think they have given up all hope now and have probably disowned him.”

The drug menace is not only harming families financially and socially, it is taking lives as well. A police official pointed to a road accident in North Kashmir last May that left one man dead and two injured. “Later, we found out that all three were drug addicts, one of them was a drug peddler as well,” the official said, refusing to provide more specific details. In late August, he further said, the police found the bodies of two youth in an orchard in South Kashmir. They turned out to be from Rajouri district, Jammu, and there were drugs hidden in their clothes. 


Easy availability

But why is drug abuse growing in Kashmir, and so rapidly? Arshad blames the easy availability of drugs. “As per my information, there are rural areas where a bus does not go but opioids do. And cannabis is available more easily than cigarettes.” Moreover, he said, cannabis and poppy are grown at many places even though their farming is banned. “We need more purposeful policing if we have to stop the circulation of drugs.” 

A police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity conceded that the police have not been able to combat the drug menace. “Why the police are unable to restrict the circulation of drugs has a lot to do with their constant involvement in law and order problems, which Kashmir has no dearth of,” he said. “I think there should be police cells exclusively for working against drug peddling and drug addiction in every district.”  

Another problem is that people arrested for peddling for drugs are often let off quickly. “In most north Indian states, a person does not get bail for months under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, but in Kashmir, he secures his release within 10 days.”   

It’s a problem acknowledged by even the state’s home department. In September 2017, it ordered the police to follow the standard operating procedure when dealing with cases under the NDPS Act, 275-300 of which are registered every year. It noted that despite major offences under this law being non-bailable, “it has been observed that in several cases the drug offenders secure acquittal on technical grounds. A large number of offenders in NDPS cases are acquitted due to non-compliance of mandatory provisions and the prescribed procedure.”

The order also pointed out that “despite seizure of 968 quintals of narcotic drugs and about seven lakh intoxicants in the last 5-6 years, the problem has not received due attention of investigators and the prosecutors. As a result the number of acquittals in such cases greatly outnumbered the convictions, as for every conviction there are about nine acquittals.” 


Farming poison

In certain areas of South Kashmir, farmers have been growing poppy since at least the late 1980s, finding a ready market for their produce in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Now poppy is grown in almost all parts of Kashmir, said Shamim Ahmad, an Excise Department officer tasked with destroying poppy and cannabis crops. Although the law enforcement agencies have been taking action, even destroying crops, the lure of easy money means poppy and cannabis continue to be grown, the official said.  

Khazir, a farmer in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, grows poppy because it is lucrative. “Growing poppy is easy as comes to harvest in a short period in spring and hardly needs any tending,” he told me. “But we do not know what happens to the crop after middlemen take it from us.” 

Another farmer claimed some women grow poppy on small pieces of land to make a little money, sometimes without the knowledge of the menfolk. “But they don’t know what happens to it,” he said. “They get three-five thousand rupees for their produce and it’s not difficult for them to sell it. Some hawkers, who are connected with middlemen, buy it.”

The result is that poppy products are easily available. Now, there is a thriving reverse trade as well as heroin and brown sugar from outside are making their way into Kashmir. 

Shamim has cultivated a network of informers to report on poppy and cannabis cultivation across Kashmir. He claimed to have overseen the destruction of poppy crops on 2,080 acres and cannabis on 5,365 acres, mostly in South Kashmir, since 2008. “Early last year, we destroyed poppy on hundreds of acres in a forested area in North Kashmir’s Kupwara. It was cultivated by some drug smugglers. We have destroyed poppy crop in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district as well. This means, it is spreading,” he said.

Separately, the police claim to have seized around 180 kg of charas, made from the resin of the cannabis plant; 546 kg of fuki, a powdery substance made from poppy seed; and 4,161 kg of poppy straw, the husk left after opium is extracted from poppy pods, in 2016, in addition to synthesised drugs like heroin and brown sugar, and registered more than 550 cases. 


Growing anxiety

On August 20 last year, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court directed the government to “revisit the issue relating to control of drugs as per the experience gathered from the other states and various international forums dealing with the control of drug addiction”. 

The next month, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the police to use “the most stringent provisions of law, including the Public Safety Act”, a law that allows a person to be detained without trial for two years, against those involved in cultivation and smuggling of drugs. 

But experts caution that the drug addiction cannot be tackled by law enforcement alone. An effective drug control policy and mobilisation of the community is equally necessary.  

As the psychiatrist Dr Mushtaq Margoob noted, the key to stopping addiction to drugs is preventing their circulation. “For that to happen, there needs to be an effective drug control policy and the drug control department needs to have sufficient staff, which is presently lacking,” he said. “And mobilising the community resources is a must.” 

He also emphasised the significance of “responsible parenting”.  Waleem’s mother agrees. “Had I not made money easily available to him, he wouldn’t have afforded relationship with a girl from a rich family,” she said. “And, he wouldn’t have been able to buy drugs.”

It’s not that civil society isn’t aware of the problem. Omar Tramboo, general secretary of the Civil Society Forum of Kashmir, argued that drug addiction is assuming a dangerous proportion because “taking corrective measures is becoming impossible in our conservative society”.   

“This is happening because our society is conservative,” he explained. “Even if someone wants to inform the parents that their son is doing drugs, he or she hesitates. And most parents, even after getting some clue, do not let anybody know, including the doctors, because of the stigma.” 

Omar, whose organisation has been working on drug de-addiction, added, “We were not allowed to organise drug awareness programmes even in schools because administrators think their schools would get stigmatised. We simply need proper education, rehabilitation and corrective measures for curbing this menace. We don’t need any rocket science.”  

Rao Farman Ali, spokesperson of the South Kashmir Civil Society, blamed the growing drug addiction in Kashmir on “unemployment, late marriages and armed conflict”.  

“We have talked to civil and police officials several times about this,” he said. “But we have come to realise everything gets overshadowed by the politics over the Kashmir dispute. Due to this, the social issues are not getting addressed. Because of the perpetual political conflict, which often leads to violence, our social and administrative structures are not effective in addressing such problems.”

Some names have been changed to protect identity.