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‘Powder ki line’o ka rakhega kaun hisaab,
Haan udta Punjab..... nahiin, Kerala’
…. sang 35-year-old Ramesh* (name changed), whose friends are victims of drug abuse in Kerala. He now wants to call attention to how dangerously high the numbers of drug-related cases are in the state.
On 6 October, the Left government launched a one-month-long 'No-to-Drugs' awareness campaign with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stating the objective of the drive was to make Kerala drugs free.
This comes at a time when there is a worrying upswing in narcotics cases — more than a three fold rise in the past three years.
The situation is grave, and while the government has finally realised the gravity of the situation, the campaign they have proposed "is pointless,” several senior officials, mental health specialists and criminology experts have said. The Quint has analysed drug-use and drugs related crime data over the past few years, and spoken to several stakeholders to understand why Kerala's campaign strategy needs to be reworked.
'3.5 X' Rise in Drug-Related Cases
17 August: A scuffle broke out over a drug deal that ended up in the murder of a 23-year-old; the suspect was under the influence of drugs at the time of arrest and MDMA, ganja and hashish oil were seized.
21 September: 22 kg of heroin seized from Thiruvananthapuram, two arrested
30 September: 500g of MDMA worth Rs 25 lakh seized, a youth arrested from Mattanchery
Hardly a day goes by without a media report about drug seizure in Kerala. Stories of youth, some in their teens, peddling deadly drugs do not shock Malayalis anymore.
As per figures presented in the Assembly on 31 August by the chief minister, 16,128 drug-abuse related cases had been registered in Kerala during 2022 until August. The figure was way above the 5,334 cases registered in 2021, 4,650 cases in 2020 and 9,245 cases in 2019.
Over 9,700 people were arrested in 2019 in drug-related cases, 5,674 in 2020, 6,704 in 2021 and 17,834 people were arrested till 29 August this year.
In the past three years, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha have emerged as the hotspots for drug trafficking.
Synthetic Drugs in Greater Demand than Ganja, Hashish & Heroin
As the number of drug seizure cases continues to increase in Kerala, the latest data by the ministry of social justice and empowerment shows that the number of addicts availing benefits under the National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction (NAPDDR) in the state declined in 2021-22. Kerala had 6,642 beneficiaries in 2017-18 but the number fell to 3,892 in 2018-19, 4,134 in 2019-20, 4,239 in 2020-21 and 4,887 in 2021-22.
An expert working with the government told The Quint that this data does not reflect the exact number of addicts in Kerala as over 70% of them remain elusive because even their close family and friends are unaware of their addiction.
Data also reveals that substance abuse has increased among teenagers in Kerala in the past five years. Excise department data shows that 917 youths under the age of 21 were booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in Kerala in 2020. In 2021, the statewide total came down to 605. This year, until April, 278 youngsters were booked in the state.
It is to be understood that the reason for this addiction among youth is not the usual suspects - ganja and heroin. Manufactured psychotropic drugs -- MDMA, popularly called ecstasy/molly and LSD aka 'acid' -- in the form of tablets and injections, are driving the numbers alarmingly high. Latest data points out that these drugs are circulated twice more than ganja, hashish and heroin.
A senior officer in the narcotics division told The Quint that there is a steep rise in the use of MDMA and LSD as they are being used as party drugs among youth in the 18 to 30 age group. "A user needs only a minuscule quantity to keep him high for hours and is easier to stash and smuggle. Many are opting for these drugs over consuming alcohol or smoking marijuana or tobacco as they are more easily detectable," he added.
Between 5-8 September, a total of 652 drug cases were registered in Kerala, along with seizure of 775 kg of ganja, 490 litres of spirit and 1.5 kg of MDMA.
Data from the excise department also shows an exponential rise in drugs such as cocaine and opium since 2021. It is to be noted that even though synthetic drugs have become popular, the use of marijuana continues to proliferate.
'Drug Manufacturers as Anti-Nationals' - Will CM's Strategy Work?
Before delving into the criticism against the state's campaign, let us look at the specifics of it.
The awareness campaign is viewed as a multi-pronged action plan with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stating that they want to nurture a culture that sees "drug manufacturers, distributors, and sellers as anti-nationals and anti-social forces."
A total of 19,391 panels have been set up across the state with socio-cultural activists and ASHA workers, among others, who would check the inflow of the drugs.
A database of habitual drug offenders would be prepared on the lines of the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act register, and repeat offenders in narcotic cases will be placed under a two-year preventive custody without trial, he has said.
It is expected that the method of investigation and registration of cases will also see a change.
COVID Curbs on Liquor Sales Triggered Demand for Recreational Drugs
In February 2021, the Kerala High Court, following a petition filed by former IPS officer N. Ramachandran who plotted a detailed map of ‘Kerala’s migration to deadly drug abuse cases’, dictated an order asking the state to take proactive steps urgently, within a few days.
But experts say the state government and enforcement agencies sat on the order for over a year. Meanwhile, the pandemic and the restrictions on liquor sales triggered a massive demand for recreational drugs, with cartels spreading their wings in Kerala.
Renowned psychiatrist Dr CJ John, who is a member of Kerala State Mental Health Authority believes, “The state has finally launched a campaign that has clearly been written by some unimaginative officials. I don’t think there were any discussions with mental health professionals, social scientists and sociologists. Health officials are missing and only excise officials seem to have been part of the ideation.”
Several experts pointed out that making posters and conducting rallies will not get the message across to the youth.
Dr John added that, "Roping in ASHA workers doesn't make sense as they are already overworked. It sounds good on paper, but practically there isn't much they can do."
The Quint spoke to several senior police officers in Ernakulam, Kollam and Kottayam who agreed that they need to think of innovative strategies and realign their campaign strategy.
Drugs for Leisure: The New Normal in Kerala
Experts opined that only a multi-pronged strategy encompassing various stakeholders can bring the menace under control.
Dr John said that unlike a decade ago, the youth now are not using drugs as a way to ease depression. “Now drugs are marketed as substances that will help in enjoyment, leisure and recreation. This shift has made it more acceptable to the youth and teens; they don't even think they need to seek help,” he added.
Dr Febin Baby, criminologist with the Indian Criminology and Forensic Science Association dissected the psychology of a drug user with the concept of 'moral disengagement.' It a process by which an individual convinces him/herself that ethical standards do not apply to him/herself within a particular situation or context.
"It is known that smoking causes cancer. But many disengage the moral values saying there is no absolute conclusive evidence. The same is applied to the use of synthetic drugs. Thus, use of drugs isn't seen as deviant behaviour. It is just like having an energy drink. They don't understand the addictive nature and the consequences of it."Dr. Febin Baby, criminologist with the Indian Criminology and Forensic Science Association
'Don't Expel Children from School, Counsel Them'
Is the state’s lax attitude responsible for the current crisis? The intelligence wing noted that in 2016 that a survey of 400 educational institutions had revealed that 74 per cent of the schools, 21 per cent of the colleges and 5 per cent of the technical education institutions had reported drug-related offences.
Psychiatrists say, with the big rise in cases in schools, counsellors must keep a close watch on the behaviour and body language of the kids.
"If a child is caught with drugs, the school calls the parents and they try to brush it under the carpet. So the case doesn't get reported, the student is not punished and it is like nothing even happened. Or the child is expelled. Instead, he should be corrected and reintroduced into society. By not doing so, you are actually missing the chance to correct the evil in society," says Dr John.
Dr Baby reiterated that once a person is identified as a drug abuser, he is scorned by everyone as an addict. "This gives him freedom to continue as a drug abuser as he has seen the society reject him," he added.
A senior doctor working with a government hospital in Thiruvananthapuram told The Quint that the state's approach also reflects poorly on how there seems to be a lack of focus on "the welfare and mental health of the youth."
"In a few years, youngsters in Kerala will only be dropouts , drug addicts and drug-peddlers," he added.
It is to be noted that Kerala was the first state to introduce counselling during the coronavirus pandemic. However, a senior official told The Quint that the state "projected the impression or hope that there are people to hear you out, but in reality no substantial counselling happened."
Low-Price Hotels & Cafes: New Drug Deal Hubs
A senior excise official told The Quint that in the past three years, they've observed girls and boys in the age group 14-25 being roped in for transporting drugs.
The sources of drugs are often in the vicinity of educational institutions -- bakeries, medical shops, fancy stores, snack joints, medical shops.
Low-price hotels are an obvious choice for drug peddlers who want to be discreet, because many lodges don't even ask for ID proof, said a police officer.
“Earlier, drug abusers and traffickers came from lower economic strata, or had faced caste oppression or had broken families. But now, many are from decent families and do this for quick good money. It is not driven by adversity but enjoyment. A youth is used as a mule only twice in a quarter so it's hard to trace. And they use delivery apps and courier services to transport drugs. As cafes are now exchange points for drugs, it is no longer done at shady points,” said a senior police officer from Kochi.
"We have to act now and efficiently. We can't waste any more time on eye-wash campaigns. Else, only god can save our country," said a senior official to The Quint.