The state’s anti-drug campaigns need a coordinated multi-agency push at building public awareness, which is currently lacking.

Keralas rising drug use problem How pervasive it is and what needs to be doneImage for representation.
Delve Drugs Monday, April 02, 2018 - 17:16

Yamuna* was proud of her talented son and ready to do anything to secure his future. Sunny* was not only a bright, intelligent student who dreamt of getting into an IIT, he also aimed to become a sports player one day.

“The talent he showed in his studies even made my relatives jealous of me,” says Yamuna.

Her husband, who suffered from a mental illness, could not contribute to the family’s income. “At one point it became difficult to manage with the salary I got,” she recalls.

With no recourse, she went abroad to repay debts and secure a better future for her children. But when she returned, she was horrified to find that her family’s life had turned upside down. From a bright kid full of promise, Sunny had turned into someone else altogether, due to addiction to marijuana, heroin and psilocybin mushrooms (magic mushrooms).

Gone were the sports dreams. Sunny did not manage to clear entrance exams either. Worse were his mood changes. “It was beyond my capacity to even talk to him when he got aggressive. He wouldn’t listen to anyone, he destroyed whatever he could at home, and used abusive words against me,” narrates Yamuna.

Sunny went through two attempts at de-addiction, at a hospital in Bengaluru and then a homeopathic centre in Kerala, but despite the efforts, he still struggles with his addictions.

“Before, there was absolutely nothing that he wouldn’t share with me. After the drugs conquered him, the first thing he did was stop sharing things with me. That intimacy has gone,” a tearful Yamuna says.

Sunny is hardly alone in facing severe problems due to drug addiction in Kerala. Indeed, in the last two years, Kerala has become the state with the second highest number of drug-related cases, coming behind only Punjab in national crime statistics.

In the first six months of 2016, Kerala registered 1,836 cases related to drug activity against Punjab’s 2,209 cases. Between June 2016 and April 2017, the number reportedly stood close to 3,600 cases.

Starting young: 70% of school children vulnerable

One of the aspects that Excise Department officials find most alarming about this rise in drug cases is that school students are forming a large part of the customer base for narcotic drugs.

In August, for instance, Excise Commissioner Rishi Raj Singh made the troubling announcement that an overwhelming majority of Kerala school students “could have had a taste of drugs.” Speaking at an anti-drug campaign organised by the Excise Department, Rishi Raj said that nearly 70% of school children in the state were vulnerable to narcotics abuse.

And most of the vulnerable children came from the richer private schools, Excise officials say. “The cases are comparatively low in government schools. The reason might be that children from the upper class get more money from their parents,” says one official who did not wish to be named.

More seriously, officials say, a recent investigation into a Thiruvananthapuram school showed not only students using narcotics, but also one student acting as a supplier to his schoolmates.

Cases of educated professionals in various fields acting as local suppliers have also surfaced. One recent operation shadowing a drug courier, for instance, revealed that a Thiruvananthapuram dentist was acting as an agent of a drug network.

“In 2011, a lawyer in Karthikappally in Alappuzha was held for selling ganja. He is now serving a jail term. The usage and promotion of drug abuse by the educated is not new – but it’s still quite shocking,” says the Excise official.

Common narcotics and clusters of drug use in Kerala

Drug use in Kerala clusters around certain major cities and towns in the state, say Excise sources. The highest number of cases come from Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam districts, while Cherthala has been found to be a transit point for a significant portion of drug activity.

Mattancherry in Kochi is another centre of drug activity due to the high tourist inflow there. Migrant workers have also been found to be significant drug users, with a high number of cases in places like Perumbavoor in Ernakulam, where large clusters of migrant workers are found, says one Excise official.

“In northern Kerala, the cases are higher in Tirur and Ponnani in Kozhikode, and Kuttippuram in Malappuram. The cases reported are less in Kannur and Palakkad. Much more study is required on why drug cases are higher in certain districts,” the official adds.

Marijuana remains the most commonly used narcotic among various age groups. Kerala, which once had a major centre of marijuana cultivation in Idukki, now receives much of the drug supply from the northern parts of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, the official explains.

“Between 1995 and 2002 there was a mass operation conducted by five departments, including the Excise and the police, which in effect rooted out ganja cultivation from the district,” he says.

“What happened was that once the ganja crops were destroyed in Idukki, the ganja growers there shifted to Andhra Pradesh. This pushed up ganja cultivation in Andhra especially along the Andhra-Odisha border. There are several people who have been held and imprisoned in Andhra prisons who are natives of Idukki,” the official adds.

Among harder drugs, a high number of cases relate to the abuse of anti-depressants and of heroin.

“These injections, which are primarily meant for use as anti-depressants and as painkillers for cancer patients, are supposed to be sold only with a prescription. While they are normally priced at Rs 17-20 per ampoule, in the black market they are priced at Rs 300 to Rs 500 per ampoule. They are mainly smuggled into Kerala from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu,” the officer says.

Heroin or brown sugar, on the other hand, comes from Afghanistan or Pakistan as well as from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the country, where opium is cultivated, he adds. The highest number of cases related to anti-depressants and heroin come from tourist areas like Fort Kochi and Mattancherry in Kochi.

A significant number of cases relating to cocaine and ketamine (an anaesthetic) are also reported from Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam.

How do the smuggled drugs escape detection?

According to Excise officials, their department alone seizes an average of 100 kg of a variety of drugs each month. Yet, despite such heavy seizures, they have been unable to make a significant dent in the drug trade in Kerala.

One of the major problems officials face is that there are numerous, seemingly innocuous means, through which drugs are smuggled. The most common, says Excise Circle Inspector T Anil Kumar, is through courier services, where drug packages are marked as foodstuffs such as tamarind.

“Once I raided a parcel office at Chala in Thiruvananthapuram and seized a huge quantity of drugs. The biggest drug seizure in the state so far has been the one at Kazhakuttam in Thiruvananthapuram in 2010,” says Anil Kumar.

It is impossible to screen the sheer quantity of parcels and couriers being shipped across the state without specific intelligence on suspicious packages. “With such smuggling it is impossible to trace the actual source,” he says.

Besides courier services, another common method of smuggling narcotics is through inter-city bus services as well as by migrant workers.

Once these drugs reach Kerala, they are distributed through youth hangouts. Recently, for instance, four snooker parlours were raided in Thiruvananthapuram following tip-offs of drug activity there. However, drug peddlers have also innovated with their distribution processes to evade detection by police and Excise officials, says Arun B Nair, Assistant Professor at the de-addiction centre in the Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram.

“To evade the police net, the chain works like this: the customer calls one person. Then another person calls the customer back to fix the time and venue for the exchange. A third person comes to collect the payment and a fourth person administers the drug injection,” he says.

With the growth of the internet and encrypted communication technologies like WhatsApp, the Inspector adds, drug smugglers and peddlers are able to communicate with each other without interception by the police. So while on-ground seizures may take place regularly, busting open the larger supply chains is another question altogether.

Anti-drug campaigns have a long way to go

Excise officials and experts working in de-addiction centres in Kerala all agree that it is only through effective public awareness building that Kerala’s rising drug problem can be effectively battled. However, they complain that this effort has not received the kind of coordinated multi-agency push it requires.

“The alternative governments who assume power in the state envisage and implement anti-drug campaigns, but with little impact. The previous United Democratic Front government had created a whopping Rs 230 crore campaign named Subodham. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation had transferred this money to the Subodham account, collected as a mandatory 1% cess on all alcohol sales for de-addiction programmes in the state. But nobody knows where all the money has gone. Even the present government hasn’t enquired into it,” laments one Excise official.

Arun points out that there have been awareness campaigns such as one life skills training programme launched by the Health and Education departments in 2014, targeting 100 schools across the state. The State Council of Education Research and Training also published a handbook titled Ullasaparavakal in 2015 towards sensitising students on the dangers of drug use.

However, he says, many of the government programmes work in isolation instead of building on each other to create a concerted campaign. “The situation in the state is such that one department doesn’t know about the awareness campaigns of other departments, there is no intersectional coordination,” says Arun.

One of the major shortfalls of government anti-drug campaigns, say officials, is that they do not have enough of an impact on the targeted groups.

“Sometimes we do follow-ups to check on the impact of sensitisation classes,” says Manu, an Excise Sub Inspector from Nedumangad. “But the classes are attended mostly by girl students while the target group is male students,” he says. This is problematic, officials say, as peer pressure is the primary factor in drawing school-going children into drug use.

Another major failing that officials point out is the lack of involvement of parents in sensitisation campaigns.

“Sensitisation campaigns are most effective among younger children, up to those in Class 7. Parents also have an important role to play in catching drug use among their children early. But sadly, even if school authorities call parents for such programmes, the participation is not very enthusing,” says one officer.

The other major lack officials point to is a severe shortage of de-addiction centres in the state. While the government has reportedly notified the setting up of de-addiction centres in government hospitals in every district over the next one to two years, officials say more are needed.

“There should be one de-addiction centre in every taluk. Then, those held by the police and Excise officials could be given medical treatment instead of prison sentences, which would make our actions more successful,” says one officer.

*Names changed.

Edited by Rakesh Mehar.

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