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POST TIME: 14 January, 2019 11:12:21 AM
The narcotic epidemic: Is there a way?
Addicts should be given all possible support and help. Stigmatising and putting pressure on them will be a self-defeating exercise
Syed Mehdi Momin

The narcotic epidemic: Is there a way?

Authorities in Bangladesh are talking tough against the widespread drug, in particular yaba, abuse in the country. In fact senior law enforcement officials have categorically stated that putting an end to the curse of drug abuse would be the major thrust of police activities this year. However in spite of the tough rhetoric and several high profile operations by the law enforcers, drug abuse remains a serious problem. To be frank, Bangladesh has struggled to find an effective and sustainable solution to substance abuse, which has had deleterious effects on the country’s development.

Interesting, in Bangladesh the concerned authorities have always focussed on cracking down the distribution of illegal narcotics. However, the impact on the health of addicts has largely been neglected by the authorities. According to reliable statistics nearly a million people suffer from drug addiction in Bangladesh. Another study reveals that minors, meaning youths under the age of 16, account for around 25 per cent of drug addicts. Drug addiction has fuelled an increased rate of dropping out of educational institutions, and anti-social behaviour is also on the rise. Meanwhile, law enforcers are overburdened with a large number of narcotics related cases. Sources from the Bangladesh Police Headquarters reported that at least 98,984 narcotics related cases were filed in 2017. The total number of the cases was 213,529.

On a more positive note, drug abuse and its consequences these days are being discussed quite openly in the media which is unusual in Bangladesh. People here have always tended to hide the problem which has assumed monstrous proportion. However the phenomenon, contrary to popular belief, the use of drugs, or rather its abuse, is hardly a new one in this part of the world. For hundreds of years there have been people here who have indulged in soaking cannabis or ingesting opium. Ganja or cannabis and its derivatives were mostly limited to the lower echelon of the rural society, while the more affluent people opted for opium. Descriptions of opium consumption are quite common in the works of famous novelists like Saratchandra Chatterji, who himself was open and unabashed about his own use.    However, drug abuse became more pervasive in the mid 1960s and the 70s. About the widespread drug abuse in the 1970s, journalist and researcher Afsan Chowdhury wrote in his inimitable style, “It was no secret that most thought that ganja was a treatment for that strange emotion which the womb of expectation holds. The seventies made dope respectable even if it failed to do that to the revolution. Dope was snatched from the lips of low caste Hindus and its smoke passed through middle class nostrils. It was born first in the fields. The next time it was reborn on so many young, unhappy lips. Thus was ganja twice-born.” It’s not only ganja that was the drug of choice among the youth. There was also the powerful sedative called Mandrax.

Then came the age of phensidyl, a codeine-based cough syrup. Codeine is and artificial opiate and became very popular. Until now that is. Now yaba (also known as methamphetamine of just meth) is all the rage in the drug circuit here. Yaba is a derivative of synthetic Amphetamines such as speed and can be manufactured far more quickly and easily than traditional forms of amphetamines. The recipe of yaba is available on the Net and the drug is being manufactured in Bangladesh. Unlike cocaine or heroin, which have to be grown, meth can be "cooked" using utensils and ingredients available over the counter - cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, rock salt, solvents, ammonia and coffee filters. Yaba is composed of easily accessible ingredients which can be purchased over-the-counter at local drugstores. Its production is inexpensive, and the drug can be fabricated in a home-made laboratory, as is often the case.

According to reports, yaba tablets were first brought to Bangladesh from Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand, in 1990, but trading of the drug started to really spread in 2000 due to a lack of law enforcement by the authorities concerned. The rich the poor and everyone in between can be a victim of the Crazy Medicine (the meaning of yaba in the Thai language). Before yaba arrived on the seen addiction among girls was rare in Bangladesh. However, apparently as many, if not more girls, abuse of yaba as their male counterparts. School and college age students are using it in the mistaken belief that it would boost performance while studying for exams. Type A personalities in fast-paced jobs use the drug  because they (again mistakenly) believe it gives them an edge by boosting their mental energy. Young women and teenage girls use it for weight loss. It is believed many models on the catwalk are abusing it freely with disastrous consequences. In other countries too yaba or similar methamphetamine abusers have often been involved in homicide cases. Celebrated fashion designer, Gianni Versace, was murdered in front of his Miami Beach home in August 1997 by a meth-addict individual; the killers of Matthew Shepherd were high on meth when they tortured and murdered him; and Timothy McVeigh claimed to be under the drug’s influence when involved in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. Cameron Taylor was reportedly high on meth when he hijacked a San Diego bus at knifepoint in 1997, leading a police chase over 70 miles in 2 1/2 hours before he was captured.

Initially at least yaba gained popularity because of its supposed aphrodisiac properties. Yaba users experience an intense burst of energy, followed by increased activity, decreased appetite and a general sense of well being. Substance abuse has been prevalent in every society, and we can’t hope ours to be an exception. Even in the most conservative of societies there are people who regularly indulge in it. In Yemen, inspite of rigid Sharia countless men are addicted to qat leaves which have narcotic properties. In the relatively permissive Western societies drug abuse is surely more frequent, but that does not mean people don’t indulge in societies similar to ours.

Yaba stimulates the brain to produce a chemical called dopamine, flooding the user with feelings of pleasure, vitality and invincibility. It feels so good that addicts are prepared to put up with the drug's downside - the devastating depressions and the disgusting side-effects. It may seem strange that the same chemical delivered in tablet form by the millions to Nazi soldiers could also be such a popular street drug. The reason it is used "recreationally" is that in higher doses it produces a euphoric reaction that can include increased alertness, energy, enhanced self-esteem, and even increased sex drive — all of which can last up to 12 hours. The inevitable downside includes fatigue and depression. In order to avoid withdrawal symptoms, some users embark on binges where they consume the drug for days or weeks at a time. This, however, only makes the withdrawal longer and more painful. Users stop sleeping or eating for days, becoming paranoid, and sometimes badly anorexic. Some hallucinate, believing they have insects crawling under their skin. They cut themselves or scratch themselves raw.  Long-term users can experience physiological, psychological, and neurological damage that lasts long after the withdrawal period. Long-term effects also include depression, suicide, and heart attacks.

As indicated earlier, the norm here is to deny that the problem exists. The family members will never admit that one of their kin is addicted to drugs. This sort of attitude is a serious impediment to combating the problem. After all, the first thing one should do while dealing with any problem is to admit it exists.

According to studies carried out by International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the phenomenon of drug abuse requires societies to dedicate resources to evidence-based prevention, education, and interventions, including treatment and rehabilitation. Although such activities can be resource-intensive, studies have shown that for every $1 spent, good prevention programmes can save governments up to $10 in subsequent costs. In Bangladesh, however, the rehabilitation process is in need of significant improvement. The addiction treatment facilities that exist in Bangladesh are highly inadequate. And in fact the best treatment in the world will help an addict unless the person concerned has tremendous willpower and receives great care from the family. The writer does not claim to have a solution. So long there are causes for drug addiction like family problems, unemployment, social unrest and such, the phenomenon will continue. And even if by some miracle all these problems are eradicated, even then the problem will persist, though probably in a much lesser scale. So what is to be done? The only thing the society can do is to minimise the adverse effects of drug addiction. Addicts should be given all possible support and help. Stigmatising and putting pressure on them will be a self-defeating exercise.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor

of The Independent

IK