'I am healing': Recovering drug addicts in Punjab given a lifeline at treatment centre

Indian state has been plagued by drug abuse for decades

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On the courtyard of a drug rehabilitation centre in Kapurthala in India's Punjab state, K sits on a raised platform, poignantly looking at the dozens of marks on her arms.

Each one is a reminder of brutal drug abuse.

She counts the number of days on her fingers. It is another month before she goes home.

The 22 year old is one of three women among the 33 people receiving treatment for drug addiction at Navjeevan Kendra, a rehabilitation centre at a government-run hospital in the city.

It is her third stay at the centre.

“It has been two months and I am healing both mentally and physically and ready for a new life. I am hopeful that I can start afresh and never have to come back,” K, who does not want to be identified due to fear of social stigma, told The National.

“It is difficult to quit drugs. Every time I come here, I vow to never touch drugs but I fail. This time, I am determined to not do it again."

She is among 700,000 drug users in the state, according to government data. On average three addicts die each day.

Punjab, bordering Pakistan, is a major international transit route for drugs from Afghanistan and over the years has also become a major consumer base itself.

Drugs 'sold like candies'

Drug abuse is believed to have started in earnest in the state in the 1960s when gold smuggling was replaced by narcotics.

Punjab is plagued by drugs, mostly three opium derivatives – raw opium, poppy husk and heroin – while over-the-counter medication and a variety of synthetic drugs are also rife.

Most users live in rural areas where families are reportedly involved in the business of selling drugs but there is a growing clientele among youth in rich urban classes.

The ease of availability and growing unemployment in the state are factors in the epidemic.

Heroin is the most widely used drug, but with one gram costing between 5,000 and 7,000 rupees ($66 to $84), many users turn to cheaper versions that sell for one third of the price.

K was barely 15 when her neighbourhood friend introduced her to heroin. Before she knew it, she was addicted.

She said she has spent about half a million rupees on drugs, all from her late father’s pension money stolen from her mother over the years.

“The first time I did it, I felt good, really good. Once I got hooked, it was not possible for me to stop,” she said.

In the seven years since her addiction began, she has married – her husband is also an addict, she said – and lost her mother to a heart attack. She also lost a newborn child because of complications relating to her addiction.

“My life completely changed after I became an addict. I couldn’t study or work. My mother died of a heart attack after she saw a video of me begging for drugs on social media. My siblings abandoned me,” she said.

“I got married but my husband physically abused me. I lost my daughter within a month of birth because I was taking drugs during pregnancy. The problems in my life kept pushing me to drugs.

"Drugs are sold like candies here."

Failure to stop rise in drug abuse

More drug rehabilitation centres are being created in the state to help wean addicts off drugs, but successive state governments have largely failed to arrest the rise in numbers of drug users despite the grim statistics and the menace becoming a major political and policy issue in Punjab.

There are more than 200 outdoor opioid assisted treatment (OOAT) clinics in the state, run by the government.

Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has vowed to wipe out the problem.

His government has decriminalised drug abuse, with addicts and those caught with narcotics being sent to drug centres instead of prison.

But recovering addicts blame a nexus between traffickers and authorities for the persistent menace.

“Drugs are easily available in every street and corner,” a 35-year-old male inpatient, who has been undergoing treatment at the centre for the past six months, told The National.

"Wherever we go, we see people are doing it. Neighbours, friends, we go for work, our colleagues do it and push us. Police know this very well."

The father of two sons worked as a welder but spent all his earnings on heroin. His addiction started in 2012 and since then, he has been to the centre six times.

“I have tried to quit it but every time I go back, my friends push me to do it. It is available for anywhere from 300 rupees to 700 rupees for 10 grams," he said.

“It is the government’s responsibility to stop the availability. The whole youth in the state has been destroyed because of it."

Social revolution

Dr Sandeep Bhola, deputy medical commissioner and consultant psychiatrist at the hospital, said successive governments have brought programmes and treatment but until now social stigma and lack of awareness about chronic drug abuse has largely hampered efforts.

“Each government has started different modalities like rehabilitation centres and OOAT clinics and awareness programmes. The main issue is the lack of co-ordination and involvement from the civil society, patients, religious leaders and families. It is still a stigma and there is lack of guidance to youth,” Dr Bhola said.

Singers in Punjab have been accused of glorifying drug abuse by frequently using words such as "chitta" to describe cocaine and other drugs.

Dr Bhola said influences on young minds further aggravates the problem.

“The adolescents follow celebrities who are glorifying drugs. They should rather be songs or videos to encourage the youth to seek treatment,” he said.

Dr Bhola called Mr Mann’s announcement “encouraging” but said change must come from the society.

“The problem is so deep that it will take time," he said. "Creating awareness is not a one-day phenomenon. There needs to be a revolution from within the society. We should not only look at supply of drugs, but also the rooting out the demand, it is interconnected."

Updated: November 13, 2023, 1:10 PM