Not so long ago, a 14-year-old was sitting in front of me and staring at the floor. The parents complained their son would often get aggressive without any apparent provocation. Twenty years ago, I would have tried to look into academic distress, parental pressure or teenage turmoil as probable reasons. This time, I first asked for a urine test for drugs.
The teenager tested positive for cannabis (a plant whose leaves give us bhang, flowering tops ganja, and the resin charas). Many hoodwink their parents by using the urine sample of friends who are clean.
The parents were shocked—they were caring and compassionate. The boy confessed that he was befriended by some older kids pursuing engineering, who got him to smoke weed.
Similarly, many parents get confused when they discover eye drops in their kids’ bags. Eye drops are used to mask red eyes, a result of cannabis use.
These are common stories across Indian metros. Most of these young boys and girls do not need a rehabilitation centre. They can do well with counselling because cannabis is largely not addictive and seldom causes dependence.
The War against Drugs
The global war on drugs goes back to 1961 when India along with many other countries signed the ‘Single Convention’ proposed by the United Nations to fight the drug menace and included cannabis in the list of narcotic drugs.
In a single stroke, we added the ‘plant’ that has been in use in India for more than 2000 years to a list of newer addictive drugs. Many other ‘conventions’ followed, adding more drugs to the list. ‘Banish drugs from the face of the earth’ was a famous slogan by US President Richard Nixon, negating the cultural use of cannabis and other drugs.
On one hand, there is a section that argues for legalising cannabis use, on the other hand, many believe this should not be done.
Cannabis affects mood, behaviour and memory and, in rare cases, can cause serious mental illness. In the long term, brain scans of cannabis users reveal loss of neurons. Plants used as drugs are less harmful than the extracts, such as heroin and brown sugar, and synthetic drugs, such as Mephedrone, Ecstasy and LSD. In India, opium came with the Mughals whereas cocaine arrived between the two World Wars.
Need Affordable Rehab Centres
Mephedrone and MDMA (Ecstasy), white powders that are a recent entry in India in the last decade or so, are extremely addictive and cause intense craving and weight loss. Death is not uncommon among prolonged users.
Hundreds of ‘de-addiction centres’ have mushroomed across the country, largely run by quacks, where the line of treatment is in violation of human rights. Victims need counseling, medication and guidance by trained professionals at centres licensed by the state mental health authority. ‘Narcotics Anonymous’, a self-help group, can also help in the therapeutic process.
But the state needs do more. There are large tracts of land available with government hospitals that can be turned into rehabilitation centres. There are no rehab centres exclusively for youngsters. While there are private centres that exclusively cater to the rich, there is a dire need for affordable and free rehab centres across the country.
State Response to the ‘First Wave’
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Ministry of Welfare (now Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment) along with the United Nations International Drug Control Programme funded hundreds of centres across the country—brown sugar was destroying thousands of families. I had worked with one such centre, the Sevadhan Deaddiction Centre, Mumbai, founded by Russell Pinto, an ex-addict.
The Ministry of Health also had its own centres across the country, and these were called ‘Centres of Excellence’. The funding later stopped after HIV overshadowed the drug epidemic. This period can be termed as the ‘first wave’ of the massive drug abuse problem. In the ‘second wave’, which began with the influx of white powders around the year 2005, the state response has been underwhelming.
Drugs Remain Easily Available
Cocaine, Mephedrone, Ecstasy are today as easily available as ice cream. Phone numbers of suppliers are in public domain. Rapid pace of life, lack of parental supervision due to long work hours can push children towards drug use. Despite multiple agencies tracking the ‘supply’, drugs remain easily available. Many parent groups, like the Naga Mothers Association, have tried to build a national movement against drug abuse.
Identifying Early Signs
Some early signs of drug use are irritability, redness of the eyes, anger and violent behaviour, loss of weight, sleeping problem, hallucination and paranoia. The first stop should be a friendly neighbourhood psychiatrist or mental health therapist. The post-recovery period needs to be closely monitored as one may again ‘slip’.
Steps That Must be Taken
Sustained availability of drugs needs to be checked. Awareness campaigns against drug abuse need to be amplified. The ‘audacity’ to hold rave parties reflects the lack of fear of the drug control agencies. According to ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India 2019’ report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, after alcohol (14.6 per cent of the population), cannabis (around 2.8 per cent) and opioids (nearly 2.1 per cent) are the next commonly used substances in India.
We need a massive ‘mental health movement’ that includes war against drug use. Schools need to have a progressive policy where the addicted child is viewed as a victim and provided support. Children should be imparted life skills and taught yoga and mindfulness to lead a healthy and productive life.
Dr Harish Shetty is a psychiatrist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.