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Beyond The Aryan Khan Headlines: India’s Drug Problem

Aryan Khan, detained in connection with a raid on a cruise off the Mumbai coast, at the NCB office, in Mumbai on 3 October.

The ship had long sailed but we are at the wrong port. The drug bust off the Mumbai coast has a predictable response salacious enjoyment and boundless trolling masquerading as nationalism, this time at the expense of a 23-year-old and his superstar father. All it takes is a quick pause to wonder why a viral video of Aryan Khan is the only footage making the rounds.

Before I go any further, let me share a snippet, or two.

“All of a sudden, it was like a wave that hit the school, and everyone wanted to try it,” remembers 19- year-old Ayesha, a former addict who cleaned up in college or so she says. “Once that happened, it became an epidemic, and the daily question was what do we do about smoking drugs.”

Here is another:

A young Bihari boy tells me that he earns more money selling drugs than in a respectable 9-to-5 job. He adds that youngsters are good since they go out a lot. So, they want hash and weed regularly, every weekend. Weed and hash is not a rich person’s game.

These are excerpts from my book ‘Stoned, Shamed, Depressed’ that does a deep dive into the lives of urban Indian teens, and there are many more young voices where this comes from, none of them however have celebrity parents.

But before it is dismissed as Bollywood or elitist filth as the trends indicate, let me tell you that the homeless and drugs in rural India would be a worthy sequel, and nor was Udta Punjab just a meme. Away from the glamour of the story lies the reality on the ground. An NCRB report says one juvenile dies of an overdose every ten days. The rise in cases of drug abuse even among minors in the country is extremely disconcerting and a report in 2019 revealed that one out of every six children in Delhi in the vulnerable age group of 8-12 have abused drugs.

The question then is, beyond the hoopla and the sensationalism are we going to think about why peddlers are targeting not just young adults but even those who are not even teenagers, or will our record be stuck at Aryan Khan, because his status catches the eyeballs? Incidentally, taking down parents for the mistakes of their children, even a 23-year-old- is something we have aced, over decades- whether it is an MMS tape that is uploaded, or a child caught cheating.

Are we going to think about why peddlers are targetting not just young adults but even those who are not even teenagers, or will our record be stuck at Aryan Khan?

If the intent was to look at the seriousness of drugs in the country, we would be asking ourselves whether a media trial is just a witch hunt with a larger plan — think Rhea Chakraborty.

Unfortunately, enforcement rather than prevention is how drugs are tackled in the country, irrespective of the age of the offender. The punishment is sweeping and similar, whether for someone who is in possession of a few grams or another selling for profit. Rehabilitation of drug addicts is seldom a priority. But just like prohibition has only made a generation of students become new-age peddlers, the latest police remands will not be a deterrent to drug abuse in the country. A UN study has reportedly pegged the number of heroin users in the country to one million. We all know that there is many a slip between official figures and what is not reported.

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Rehabilitation of drug addicts is seldom a priority.

Data is not our strong point, but we don’t need to do any number crunching to know that supply is easy. Sandwiched between the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent our geography itself has made us vulnerable to narcotics, but we can no longer call India just a transit point. Our consumer base is an industry in itself.

Now, there is something even more damaging. Last year, India’s smartphone users are estimated to have crossed 748 million users. And therein lies the genesis of many challenges especially amongst the youth. Whether porn addiction or drug possession, the smartphone is a facilitator, and — breaking this here for those who think these are first world problems — the accessibility and exposure of that smartphone spare no one across different tier cities, least of all the youth.

The smartphone is a facilitator.

Even during the lockdown, many students in their late teens and early twenties did not see a disruption in their supplies even though normal life had come to a standstill. But denial is at the core of our problems, especially about those things that make us uncomfortable as a society. Here is some food for thought, although weed is illegal in the country, Delhi comes third in weed consumption globally. Some other cities also make the list.

In 2018, the Supreme Court questioned the Centre on what steps were taken to curb drug abuse among children. An expert says that in his three- decade long career, it is the first time he is seeing 5-10 teens in his rehabilitation centre weekly with some even as young as thirteen. Till our drug policy doesn’t focus on educating and creating awareness on drug addiction, it will just replay what happened yesterday — headlines that create mischief instead of looking for answers.

And it isn’t easy keeping up. For instance, there is the hot box — where many smoke up hash in a sealed unhealthy room, vaping — where students either smoke or sell their parents’ e-cigarettes, marijuana laced with different drugs in college corridors. The world of the young, exposed to a social media lifestyle, is not without peer pressure and it is constantly evolving.

The world of the young, exposed to a social media lifestyle, is not without peer pressure and it is constantly evolving.

While the weed is cheap at even Rs 20 for a kick, the synthetic drugs cost. Ever wondered where the money is coming from? Those who don’t have generous pocket money, hack Instagram accounts with large followers and sell them to the highest bidder — what they earn is used for drugs. Else students told me that betting on IPL also brings them bucks that go into the drug kitty.

A single drug bust off the Mumbai coast of 13 grams of cocaine, 21 grams of charas and 22 pills of MDMA isn’t going to solve the how and why of India’s drug problem especially when there is silence over the seizure of 3000kg of drugs at the Adani Mundra port in Gujarat.

Some of those having their moment of vicarious humor over Aryan Khan perhaps also need to look closer home. They may themselves be confronted with the unexpected.

Mental health, which experts say is a pandemic after the pandemic, also has links to drugs. Many parents say much like the chicken and egg, they have never been able to figure out what hit their child first. These days, we often prefer to miss the wood for the trees.

Jyotsna Mohan is the author of the best seller Stoned, Shamed, Depressed – An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.

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