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Amid drug death scare, families throng de-addiction centres in Punjab

Experts say choking drug supply lines pushing addicts towards injection abuse, overdose; talcum powder, salt, sedative, painkiller laced drugs cause blood clots in heart, fatal allergic reactions

punjab Updated: Jul 04, 2018 20:52 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
drug death scare,de-addiction centres,Punjab
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who had set up a special task force (STF) to eliminate drug menace from the state as part of his much-hyped poll promise, credits his government for choking drug supply lines. (HT File Photo )

The sharp uptick in deaths in Punjab due to drug overdose has created panic among families with drug dependents. As the state government fumbles on numbers, media reports say 23 lives have been lost in June alone, one a day.

What’s worse, it’s getting them young.

Rajat Sood, a reformed heroin dependent who runs New Life Rehab and Counselling Society in Phillaur, says his centre with 40 beds has full occupancy since the last fortnight.

“Normally, we have 25 inmates. But now, 16 more are on the waiting list. The families of those injecting heroin are terrified, mainly after WhatsApp videos on deaths went viral,” he says. Rajat charges Rs 18,000 for the first month and Rs 10,000 every month after that. He still gets more patients than government centres which do not charge anything.

“De-addiction centres do not cure. They administer Buprenorphine, which too has withdrawal symptoms. From one addiction, they put them on another,” he says.

A 42-year-old government employee from Moga, who enrolled at a de-addiction centre in Ludhiana on Wednesday after falling unconscious last week, says, “I have a good income and could afford to sniff ‘chitta’ (a colloquial for synthetic drugs like heroin). It cost me Rs 30,000 to Rs 35,000 per month. For the last four months, I had switched to ‘teeka’ (injection) for an instant kick. But my wife forced me to undergo treatment after recent spate of deaths due to drugs.”

It is not for the first time since his college days in Chandigarh 20 years back that he is trying to kick the habit.

Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who had set up a special task force (STF) to eliminate drug menace from the state as part of his much-hyped poll promise, credits his government for choking drug supply lines. But the government’s crackdown did not factor in social and human cost.

“Lesser availability of drugs does push patients towards injection abuse. Then instead of inhaling the fumes of the drug (chasing), they tend to inject the drug into their veins directly to increase the effect and cut the cost. This can definitely result in accidental overdose and death,” says Dr Satyen Sharma, president, Indian Association of Private Psychiatry, Punjab and Chandigarh branch.

Dr Rajeev Gupta, who runs a private de-addiction clinic in Ludhiana, agrees. “You will not find first-time users. They switch to injections only when the costs are high and they can no longer afford it. At times, addicts inject to get an instant kick,” he says.

All that’s ‘chitta’

Behind the spurt in deaths is not just injections but also the cocktail getting deadlier. From talcum powder, salt to powdered sleeping pills and painkillers, anything white can go into making ‘chitta’.

“Even talcum powder and salt can be dangerous when injected as it goes directly into the bloodstream and can cause clots in the heart. The syringes are also not sterilised. Some develop gangrene due to frequent injections and have to get their arms amputated,” Dr Gupta adds.

Dr Satish Thappar, former nodal officer of the Punjab mental health and de-addiction programme, says if injected directly, a concoction of drugs can cause fatal allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. “It can lead to sudden death. The immunity of intravenous drug users too keeps going down making them prone to secondary infections,” he says.

“Each death should count. Since families call it heart failure, no post-mortem is done. There is a robust government and private infrastructure for de-addiction and rehab in Punjab but government has no data on number of addicts or follow up on their treatment,” he says.

Dr Gupta, however, contends that Punjab’s is not an isolated case. “Drug overdose deaths are on the rise even in countries like the US. Nearly 63,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016 — a 21.5% increase over the 2015,” he points out.

‘Death penalty no deterrent’

The Punjab cabinet has decided to ask the Centre to amend the NDPS Act to allow death penalty at first instance of conviction. Citing research, Dr Satyen Sharma argues capital punishment has not proved as a deterrent to reduce crime. “The government should look into both aspects of drug abuse — control supply lines and monitor treatment being provided in government as well as private sector,” he says.

While the state government seems to be on the defensive, health minister Brahm Mohindra is not willing to relate the spurt in deaths with drugs. “Only a post-mortem and investigation can conclude that,” he says, pointing out the spike in the number of monthly outpatient (OPD) visitors by 30% as compared to 2016 after the Congress government took over. “It shows the squeeze in supply of drugs is bringing more people to centres for treatment,” he says.

The previous government had claimed 2.5 lakh people underwent de-addiction in two months in a similar crackdown launched after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The notoriety cost it the next election. Now the same ghost has come to haunt the Congress government before it faces the 2019 edition of parliamentary polls.

First Published: Jul 04, 2018 20:23 IST