Sat, 24 Aug 2019

Reyaz* hides under a restaurant stairway, in a village about 57.9km south of Srinagar, to take a hit of heroin, sniffing it through a 10 rupee note.

"I went mad for this dose. I was searching for a place where I can take this. It keeps me fit for few hours and when the need arises again, I feel uneasy and have fever and chills," he told Al Jazeera.

Reyaz, 24, has been addicted for two years having been introduced to the drug by friends.

He spends around $37 a day on his habit.

"I have never faced the scarcity of drugs, ever since I started taking them. It's freely available as long as you have the money."

In Kashmir today, a growing number of young men are becoming addicted.

It is not clear how many exactly, but doctors and experts estimate the number to be in the high hundreds at least.

And according to data from a rehabilitation centre at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, a state-funded facility in Srinagar, the crisis is escalating.

Last year, the centre treated more than 600 people for addiction. Most patients were aged between 15 and 30, and 80 percent were heroin users.

There are three further drug rehabilitation centres in Kashmir.

"We have received patients as young as 8 years old in our centre," said Arshad Hussain, a professor of mental health and neurosciences from Kashmir, who works in Shri Maharaja Hari Singh.

"There are multiple reasons for the drug problem, which include lack of awareness, easy availability, peer pressure and living in a conflict zone."

Uncertainty, trauma, and anxiety

He explained that some Kashmiris cope with the uncertainty, trauma and anxiety created by the day-to-day conflict by using drugs.

Medicinal opiates such as morphine and codeine or benzodiazepine were first used as recreational drugs in the late nineties. Later, cannabis was more widely used and considered socially acceptable.

But over the past few years, hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine, which carry greater health and financial risks, have become more prevalent.

On June 12, a group of government-appointed officials - not for the first time - raided the picturesque fields of southern Kashmir in a bid to destroy the poppy, the source of opium.

"People have cultivated the poppy in abundance this year," a government official said, while beating the poppy plants in a village in Anantnag.

Locals are increasingly cultivating poppy and cannabis plants to sell illegally.

This spring, the Jammu and Kashmir Excise Department destroyed 202 hectares of poppy fields, including 94 hectares in southern Kashmir alone.

The restive Pulwama district topped the list in the region, where officials destroyed 49.3 hectares of poppy fields.

"We take data from other departments about the cultivation of poppy and cannabis and start a full-fledged drive to destroy the crop. Sometimes we have to face the wrath of people who are involved in this trade, but for that, we take help of police," a spokesperson from the department told Al Jazeera.

The drugs are not only consumed locally but also smuggled outside the state to the rest of India.

Despite the government's efforts to curb illegal trade, smugglers have found ways to bypass security checks.

In June, two men were arrested from a checkpoint in the Jammu region, caught with 260 grams of heroin.

According to police, the interrogation revealed the men were linked to a smuggling network associated with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, an armed group.

Jammu Police General Inspector M.K Sinha said: "Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is smuggling narcotic substances through its conduits into the country."

However, Hizb spokesperson Saleem Hashmi denied the claim, saying his organisation "is fighting for the cause of Islam and freedom of Kashmir. Our organisation and drugs are poles apart."

Drug awareness campaigns

Experts, campaigners and local leaders have supported raising awareness to combat drug use.

On July 10, a group of Muslim scholars, civil society activists and separatist leaders discussed the issue in Srinagar.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a separatist leader, acknowledged the prevalence of "rampant drug abuse" reported across the valley among both boys and girls.

"Its easy availability needs to be addressed by one and all to save our future generations and our society," he said.

Politicians have also expressed concern.

Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, the Communist Party of India Jammu leader, on July 12 appealed to the society as a whole to "wake up from slumber to counter this menace, which is destroying our young generation".

Meanwhile, several towns and villages are trying to monitor young people.

"We have formed a group of locals who keep eye on younger boys of our area and whenever someone suspects any drug abuser, we inform their parents," said Ishaq Beigh, a resident from Kular village in Anantnag. "We have joined hands to eliminate the drug problem."

But for Fayaz*, who returned from a 45-day rehabilitation programme, one year ago, centres with trained professionals are essential.

"I had a habit of smoking in the early days and then I started smoking cannabis in my college days. I don't know how it went on from cannabis to codeine and then to heroin," Fayaz, who now runs a shop, told Al Jazeera.

"My family suspected me because of inappropriate behaviour. I was taken to the doctor and eventually landed in the drug rehabilitation centre.

"Even today, sometimes I get tears in my ears when I get flashbacks of my past situation."

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