Srinagar: At a drug de-addiction centre, 21-year-old Ahmed*, a former mixed martial arts (MMA) champion, is battling withdrawal symptoms. Despite government claims to curb the menace, Kashmir has been witnessing a spike in cases of drug abuse among the youth. Many, like Ahmed, have been trying to overcome the addiction.
For Ahmed, his only addiction before drugs came into his life was winning gold medals. “I have won 14 gold medals at national, state and district level,” he says. At a young age, he started playing Thang-ta (sword and spear) – a Manipuri martial art – and became a certified ultimate fighting champion. He won his first gold at the age of eight. “I just wanted to be a fighter. Not a doctor or an engineer,” he says, adding that his family was proud and supportive of his pursuits and successes. “I dreamed of taking part in the Olympics.”
The journey to addiction
However, things took a turn a few years ago when he went to Chandigarh to participate in an MMA competition. His fellow players, with whom he shared his hotel room, happened to be substance abusers.
Unaware, he asked what they were doing. “This is called chita,” they said, and prodded Ahmed to try it. Just like many, out of curiosity, he succumbed. Thus began his descent into drug abuse.
After participating in the games and tasting failures, he came back to Kashmir. But unlike his previous routine, he now remained mostly confined to his room and ventured out only with his new friends to abandoned places, to indulge his addiction.
Soon, he started locating local peddlers. He even went to South Kashmir to avail drugs from a dealer his friend knew.
Initially, he would inhale the substance on some foil with a chaser, but as his thirst for it grew, he ultimately resorted to intravenous injections, a trend that experts say is becoming more and more common in Kashmir.
However, the new pursuit of pleasure costed him Rs 5,000 a day. “By hook or crook, I had to manage the growing expenses,” he says, admitting that he started messing around with his father’s business transactions to buy the drugs.
Soon after, Article 370 was revoked, which lead to communication blackout, endless curfews and lockdowns which continued owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst such a time, prices skyrocketed. Ahmed says that he purchased one gram of heroin, which otherwise cost Rs 2,500-4,000, for Rs 10,000-15,000.
Sometimes, he would go to other districts like Sopore, Baramulla, Tangdhar and South Kashmir to locate more.
As soon as his immediate friends came to know of his addiction, they abandoned him, he says. “It all hurts.” His mother, he says, has confiscated his phone and has perhaps broken the SIM card to keep him away from peddlers and friends who lure him to do drugs in order to make some money. “They know that I come from an affluent family,” he says.
After his mother’s repeated requests, and witnessing the death of a close friend due to drug abuse, Ahmed resolved to get himself treated.
Now, he hopes to rekindle his passion to live a drug-free life. “I want my respect and dignity back. I wish to be accepted as a part of society and family.”
According to Shabir Ahmad, the head of the rehabilitation and secretary of the J&K youth welfare organisation, the easy availability of drugs is decimating the youth. “Painfully, we end up lifting their bodies from places like public toilets, roadsides, and even graveyards,” he said.
Rehabilitation isn’t an easy feat. In Ahmed’s case, in the early days of his treatment, he cried, writhed in pain and even tried to flee the rehab centre, according to his doctors and counsellors. But now he has been discharged and has found his refuge in prayers and a new friend circle.
However, Shabir is fearful of Ahmed will relapse like many others.
“The rehab is fully occupied and operates at 50% capacity due to COVID-19 and sees patients from all districts of Kashmir,” Shabir said.
Also, due to successive lockdowns and the pandemic, rehabilitation centres were closed until recently.
As a result, the entire load, Dr Yasir Rather says, fell on tertiary care centres at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), Srinagar. Rather heads the drug de-addiction centre at IMHANS and is a professor in the department of psychiatry, Government Medical College, Srinagar.
The deaths of many young lives who succumb to drug overdose often go unreported due to the stigmatisation, Rather says.
The data, according to Rather, is the tip of the iceberg. From 2019 to July 2021, there was a footfall of 6,234 patients at Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital. Of these, 4,830, or over 70%, were abusing heroin intravenously (IV) and 1,054 were through other routes (chasing). In 2020, as Kashmir witnessed successive second lockdown, 7,403 patients visited the OPD. Srinagar emerged at the top with a footfall of 952, Anantnag 991, Bandipora 719, Pulwama 775, Kulgam 702, Shopian 680, Baramulla 811, Kupwara 892, and Budgam 542.
Also, in 2020, a community pilot study conducted by Rather, and his team titled, ‘Pattern and Prevalence of substance abuse and dependence in Kashmir’ focused on two districts – Srinagar and Anantnag – revealed a grim picture. According to the study, the average monthly expenditure of one opioid user came out to be Rs 68,626 with a daily expenditure of one opioid (illegal drug heroin) user is Rs 2,287. Also, opioid dependence poses a significant burden on the economy as the daily expenditure on the consumption of opioids in two districts of Srinagar is Rs 37,490,329.
Further, the study revealed that common reasons for drug abuse are peer pressure, boredom, lack of recreational activities, and relief from psychological stress.
Steps taken by the government
In January 2019, the government introduced the J&K’s drug de-addiction policy. According to Rather, due to the pandemic, it has not been fully implemented on the ground and the government should seriously think it over given the spike. The policy envisaged 15 government departments like police, health, education, narcotics, excise, information, broadcasting, and social welfare to act in coordination to curb the menace from grassroots.
Dr Mir Mushtaq, spokesperson at the Directorate of Health Services Kashmir (DHSK), said that a decentralisation of treatment is going on. “Every district hospital now has a psychiatrist and counsellor,” he said.
In collaboration with National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC), AIIMS, DHSK is coming up with six Addiction Treatment Facilities (ATF) in district hospitals within a couple of days, he added.
Given the surge in cases, the government, he says, is showing a strong will to face challenges of the drug menace.
According to Rather, there should be a reduction in supply as well as the demand and the role of the police is important in seizures, and towards reducing trafficking.
As for Ahmed, he recently visited the rehab with his mother after being discharged, and has resumed playing his sport, the counsellors at his rehab told LiveWire. He also has plans to set up his own training centre.
*Name changed to protect the person’s privacy.
Khalid Bashir Gura is a Kashmir-based journalist working with Kashmir Life and is a media scholar at the University of Kashmir. He tweets @khalid_gura.