The illegal usage of drugs and its negative consequences are considered as universal issues since countries over the globe have been affected by them throughout the years. The illicit cultivation, production, distribution and possession of drugs are crimes according to Sri Lankan law. Yet, in spite of these laws, drugs travel in and out of our country through illicit trade while it is estimated that the land area used for illegal cannabis cultivation is 500 hectares. According to information gathered through drug users, the distribution of drugs are mainly done through trishaw drivers and construction workers. They also claim that the importing of drugs is mainly done by people who have political power and mercantile power. With their resources they bring in the drugs which are then distributed to their sub-dealers scattered among the people. These people, in distribution according to Prasadini (25), could be anyone! It could be your pharmacist or your mail man or even your boss. “These people may not do drugs themselves. They’re just part of the circle who distributes drugs. And their information never goes out of that circle.”
Illegality of drugs
Now why exactly is it illegal to use drugs? What is this big harm that they are talking about? According to Professor Ravindra Fernando, senior professor of forensic medicine and toxicology, University of Colombo; former chairman National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB), different drugs have different impacts on our body. For instance alcohol causes impaired judgment, decreased inhibition, coma and even death. It could damage your liver, heart, pancreas, stomach and brain and could also result in sexual impotency. Barbiturate drugs gives you relief from stress and anxiety but it results in loss of motor coordination, decreased self control, slurred speech, impaired judgment, confusion and drowsiness; Overdose of it can cause coma. Ecstasy, which is mostly famous in night clubs causes health issues such as the increase of heart rate and blood pressure, brain and liver damage and even sudden death.
Cannabis or weed is the only drug that grows in Sri Lanka. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine. The non-medical consumption of this drug causes impaired performance, sleepiness, confusion and hallucinations.
Amphetamines or slimming pills could also cause increased alertness, loss of appetite, dilated pupils, sweating, blood pressure and violent behaviour.
Cocaine abuse leads to nasal septum, keratitis of the eyes, dental erosion, fits, heart muscle disease, coronary artery and liver disease, brain hemorrhages and sudden cardiac death.
Heroin causes a sense of contentment and detachment from emotional and physical distress but it results in drowsiness, lack of concentration, respiratory depression and sudden death. It also causes serious withdrawal issues such as anxiety, restlessness, sweating, yawning, running nose, watering eyes, diarrhoea, and incontinence of urine, abdominal pains, muscle cramps, hallucinations and delusions when the drug is not in the blood. The injecting of the drug could also result in overdose, bronchopneumonia and hepatitis.
Senior lecturer of the Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Dr Mahesh Rajasuriya explains that drugs can negatively impact upon one’s mental condition as well. Depending on the amount of drug consumption and depending on the type of drug, these impacts could vary.
So if drugs are so bad, why do people do drugs? Out of the three drug users that I interviewed, two of them; Prasadini (25) and Thisuri (23), claimed that the only reason they tried out drugs was out of curiosity while Seneth (23) said that he saw it as a part of attaining manhood. Their ideas on drugs seem to portray the sociological viewpoint on drugs for according to Dr Chandani Liyanage of the Sociology Department from the University of Colombo who says; “very often it is curiosity that drives a person to try out drugs. Especially due to the influence of media which highlights issues such as celebrity world drug abuse and sports stars using drugs for energy boosts, the curiosity of the young mind is naturally aroused to experience this forbidden fruit.” She further stated that the social pressure and the peer pressure are also leading factors that drive a person to do drugs. “Sometimes the society expects it. It is considered as a sign of manhood and a measurement of luxury. The party without liquor is considered a disgrace. Yet it is the upper classes that tries out drugs for the fun of it whereas the lower classes are more like driven into it as an escape from the social pressure that they are subjected to” she pointed out. “But it is important to note that the people who are driven to drugs by all these social forces are generally people with weak personalities. In fact, in most cases, drug users are people who are coming from broken families or have been subjected to childhood violence.”
Ronald Amarasekara who is the director of the Yauwana Sahana Sevaya (YSS); a rehabilitation centre located in Kandana, also holds a similar opinion. “The vulnerability to drugs depends on so many factors. One is personality; a person of a weak personality is more vulnerable to drugs. The upbringing of the person, the socio-cultural back ground of the individual; all these facts contribute to personality development. Another element is the family background. If the family environment encourages the use of drugs then kids will definitely get on to drugs.” However, Amarasekara does not seem to agree that curiosity factor is an acceptable reason for a person to get on to drugs. “We all have our own curiosities. But just because you’re curious would you pick up all the junk on the road just to know what it tastes like? You wouldn’t, because you have a sense to differentiate between what you should try and should not try. So if someone chooses to try out like drugs while knowing that it is bad for them, then there is some misconstruction in his personality.”
Addiction and social conditioning
Responding to the false belief held by some drug addicts that as long as one stays away from strong drugs such as heroin, he or she could use drugs without getting addicted to it, Amarasekara said “I have met people like that too. And the question I ask them is ‘if you’re not addicted to it why don’t quit?’ The truth is, once you start using drugs you get addicted. Drug users know that and they come up with these excuses to console themselves.”
Some drug addicts foolishly cling on to the belief that drugs such as weed help them to calm down helps creativeness. Psychiatric Mahesh Rajasuriya, explained this phenomenon. “It’s the sub-cultural belief that often reflects in your drug habits. If the sub-culture says that you should drink liquor when you’re stressed or smoke when you’re lonely, then you would follow the same concept not because the drug has a special effect, but because of your unconscious submission to that belief. Being creative after using drugs, confidence to sing or dance or speak out your mind after using drugs are all sub-cultural beliefs more than the effects of the drug. If the sub-culture suggests that a “kudukaraya” is someone who doesn’t bathe or shave and is someone who behaves like a gangster then the drug user will submit to that image. Drugs make users drowsy but sometimes the excessive consumption of weeds can result in panic attacks. And sometimes the struggle for money to afford drug habits could lead to aggressive behaviour.”
Dr. Chandani Liyanage stated that the usage of drugs it due to weakening social norms. “When a society goes through rapid changes, norms lose their values and it leads to social chaos. Drug abuse is a result of this state and thus it is not the fault of the individual but the fault of the prevailing social structure. For example a sex worker may be forced to use drugs by her customers. In the urban lower class societies, children are trained since childhood to deal drugs.”
Dr Balasuriya also pointed out that accessibility to drugs is another factor that precipitates vulnerability to drugs. This statement reaffirms Dr Liyanage who said that drugs are an everyday item in the lives of the lower class. “Just as your children receive school education, these children are taught how to deal in illegal drugs.”
While the story of the lower class is such, discussions with drug users revealed that even among the upper or middle social classes, there is accessibility to drugs. While night clubs are the well-known “spots” to purchase drugs, they are made available at universities and pharmacies and even schools. Seneth (23) says; “It’s usually reputed people with political connections that import drugs. I know someone who has a shipping company and he imports drugs through his own ships. Sometimes they use private busses to distribute drugs. Prices and all vary from area to area. For example 10mg of “Churchill” will cost around Rs 2000 in Negombo while it costs Rs 300 in Colombo and Peradeniya.”
So if drugs are made so conveniently available then what can be done to get rid of this menace? According to Dr Liyanage, the biggest mistake that the Sri Lankan authorities are making is that they are trying to control the supply of drugs when what they really should do is to try and control the demand. She believes that “if the demand for drugs is wiped out then the supply would eventually fade away.” She also pointed out that “in most developed countries, the school curriculum itself educates students on the consequences of drug abuse; through making them study real life incidents. What happens in our society is that the topic is being neglected completely and the young generation driven by curiosity falls right into the trap.” Another drawback in our society is social labelling. “Sometimes when a person goes through rehabilitation and comes back ready to start afresh, society is not ready to give him a chance since he is already labelled as a “kudukaraya” or “bebadda”.
Listen to users
So what are the chances of a person who is misled by drugs to start life all over again? Here are some interesting messages to share with all the drug users and curious audiences.
Shantha Nirmal (30); “If you are a heavy smoker then you are that much close to getting on to drugs. Because once the smoking ceases to give you the desired effect you would eventually be driven to something stronger. That’s how I got on to heroin. It destroyed everything in my life. If recognized at a very early stage it can be cured completely. But the longer one has been using drugs the harder it is to recover. What’s even stronger than the physical addiction is the mental addiction. It was the hardest part to get over. I managed to recover from drugs thanks to the help of YSS and after getting out of the centre I had to pick up my life again. If there is someone in your family who’s doing drugs I have only two questions; how can you love your family and the rest of the world if you don’t love yourself? And how can you claim to love yourself if you are consuming something that’s destroying you?”
Sudarshana Suppaiyah (37): “I began drugs out of curiosity. I was just a fifteen-year old then. When I couldn’t find the money to afford it, I stole and I even got jailed. I was a black sheep of my family and even my wife rejected me. Looking back I regret all those years I wasted on drugs.
It took me a long time to completely recover from drugs despite the help from YSS because I was addicted to it for too long. What every man needs is to be happy. But if you think that drugs can bring you happiness then you couldn’t be more wrong. True happiness cannot be obtained by injecting a chemical into your body. The further away you are from drugs, the happier you will be.”
(The names of the drug victims were changed to shield their identities)