The narco vortex

With the State government initiating the ‘Drug-free Tamil Nadu’ drive and Chief Minister MK Stalin vowing to crack down hard on those involved in the trade, DT Next spoke to experts, including neurologists, psychologists, police officers and even addicts, to understand how narcotics is a whirlpool that’s often fatal for adolescents.
Illustration by Saai
Illustration by Saai

CHENNAI: With the State government initiating the ‘Drug-free Tamil Nadu’ drive and Chief Minister MK Stalin vowing to crack down hard on those involved in the trade, DT Next spoke to experts, including neurologists, psychologists, police officers and even addicts, to understand how narcotics is a whirlpool that’s often fatal for adolescents

They get you high, making you to leave behind problems and disappointments at least for a little while and fly above such mundane responsibilities.

However, experts warn, the fleeting euphoria that narcotics provide is a swamp that drags and drowns users.

While consuming narcotics is not a wise choice for anyone, it can have a particularly dangerous and lasting impact on teenagers. Several studies in the recent decades have shown that the effect of drugs on adolescents differ from the case of adults. This is because using psychoactive substances during the young age can affect brain maturity and can lead to substance use disorder – for life.

Affects thoughts & behaviour

Neurologists say narcotics can shrink the brain, rob the user of the ability to think and can have an overall impact on mental health.

The adverse effect of drug use on the brain is stark enough to be captured on CT scan, which would show how the brain has shrunk, says Dr Sudhakar Kasinathan, consultant neurosurgeon at Fortis Hospital.

“A person’s cerebral cortex gets shrunk when she/he grows old. But repeated use of drugs advances this shrinkage, which is seen even in youngsters. Their reflexes slow down and thinking capacity and intellectual ability are drastically reduced. Narcotics affect the temporal lobe and impact sexual life, thinking, emotions, thoughts and behaviour,” he points out.

Echoing this, Dr K Mugundhan, professor-HoD, neurology, Government Stanley Medical College and Hospital, says continued drug use hinders the youth’s overall growth, both personal and academic.

“There’s a reduction in volume of brain region that’s linked to executive functioning, which impacts memory, learning ability, and loss of impulse control when a person is addicted to drugs. The age when a person begins the use of any forms and how long they use it is significant in determining the impact on the brain,” says Dr Mugundhan.

Adverse impact on teenagers

Stressing on the importance of keeping teenagers away from psychotropic substances, he points out that when a teenager starts using drugs, the overall cognitive ability is lost. “Loss of memory, reduction in coordination, confusion and lack of learning ability impacts their future. Even in the case of rehabilitation, the effect of long-time usage cannot reversible,” he cautions.

From naturally found intoxicants like cannabis or ganja and ‘mushrooms’, to more potent manufactured ones like MDMA, meth, LSD, heroin, brown sugar and cocaine, narcotics at varying price points and potency are widely available in the city.

There are even unusual drugs bordering on the bizarre like glue, seed oil, snake bite and even a popular muscle pain balm, which are used by those who cannot afford the fancier and expensive ones.

“I’ve come across school students who use such ‘drugs’. They can be very habit-forming, leading to anxiety, depression and drug-induced psychosis. They can also become aggressive. We know that young adults are

There’s a reduction in volume of brain region that’s linked to executive functioning, which impacts memory, learning ability, and loss of impulse control when a person is addicted to drugs —Dr K Mugundhan, Government Stanley Medical College and Hospital very impulsive –prolonged drug-use makes it worse,” says Vandhana, consultant psychologist at V-Cope.

Organ damage

Besides the scar they leave on the brain, drugs affect other organs, too. “As these drugs metabolise in liver, prolonged use impacts the organ, which then affects the kidneys,” adds Dr Sudhakar.

Citing these dangerous and potentially life-long impact of drugs, a growing body of research and experts say that all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, police and even others like youth icons who have the potential to influence to the young, impressionable minds should come together to promote drug-free lifestyle and take all steps to wean them away from the vortex. The earlier, the better.

Monitor behaviour, approach with empathy & kindness

Emphasising the need to adopt the right approach to tackle drug abuse among youngsters, Dr Poorna Chandrika, director, Institute of Mental Health, says that it’s important to cut down the supply route to prevent easy access.

What to do at schools

Teachers should look out for signs of unusual behaviour, which would help identify students who could be under the influence of drugs. Rapid deterioration in academic performance, the student suddenly becoming silent or staying away from others, etc. are some such signs.

Once identified, direct confrontation when they are alone is not a good idea. Instead, based on a child’s behaviour, teachers should approach her/him in a very sensitive manner. Students now have access to all kinds of drugs at the school level itself. This supply route needs to be cut-off at its roots by stepping up vigilance.

As school and college hostels are a common point for drug access, close monitoring is important.

What parents must do

Parents should be able to note any change in their child’s behaviour, like appetite or anything unusual in their nature.

If they find out that the child is under the influence of drugs, venting out their anger or hostility will not help. Instead, they should provide mental and emotional support during such times.

There is stigma surrounding de-addiction and rehabilitation centres, as many believe them to be abusive to its’ respective patients. This is not true. At licensed centres, there are sessions for family members and pharmacological sessions.

After consulting health experts, parents must approach licenced facilities that suit their needs and help their wards kick the dreadeded habit.

What happens when you get high

CANNABIS OR MARIJUANA – KNOWN IN INDIA AS GANJA

  • Consuming it either by smoking or through food or beverages makes relaxed and euphoric, increases sensory perception and appetite.

  • Some may also feel anxiety and panic.

  • Research has shown that those who start using it before the age of 18 are 7 times more likely to develop a marijuana-use disorder than adults.

  • Many believe that ganja’s more alarming effect is being a gateway drug – one that leads to synthetic drugs that are harder to escape from.

MDMA, ALSO KNOWN AS ECSTASY OR MOLLY

  • A synthetic drug popular among clubbing and rave circles.

  • Increases dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine levels, shoots up energy level, distorts senses and perception of time.

  • Prolonged usage leads to depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, irregular sleep, memory and attention problems, etc.

METHAMPHETAMINE, KNOWN AS CRYSTAL METH, METH OR ICE

  • Rapid increase in dopamine level, giving a sense of heightened euphoria and energy.

  • Also shoots up blood pressure, and heart and respiratory rates – sometimes to fatal levels.

  • Regular users also feel anxiety, paranoia, aggression, hallucinations and mood disturbances.

LYSERGIC ACID DIETHYLAMIDE OR LSD, POPULARLY CALLED ACID OR STAMP

  • Stimulates and distorts visual perceptions of colours and shapes, making the user feel a ‘mind-altering trip’.

  • It may also trigger intense anxiety and depression, delusions, increased blood sugar, tremors and seizures.

  • Some users even experience terrifying thoughts and feelings.

  • A peculiar effect called flashbacks where the user experiences the recurrence of the drug’s effects days, weeks or even months after the last dose.

HEROIN, ALSO CALLED BROWN SUGAR, SMACK, ETC

  • A highly addictive synthetic & injectable drug that gives a sense of euphoria.

  • Users are at a risk of getting HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases spreading due to sharing of needles.

  • Risk of fatal overdose is high.

COCAINE, ALSO KNOWN AS COKE, SNOW, BLOW, CRACK, ETC

  • A highly addictive stimulant that makes users feel extreme happiness and energy, and mental alertness.

  • Also leads to constricted blood vessels, rise in body temperature & blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, restlessness, tremors, etc.

  • If mixed with additives (either to increase volume or potency), risk of fatal overdose is high.

CONFESSIONS

‘I was an addict. I almost lost it all’

I was introduced to marijuana in college. I was 19, and that was the only form of drug I knew then. It started with a fun smoking session at the hostel. I never knew it’d change my life in so many ways.

It started with smoking weed occasionally at the hostel to finding peddlers on my own regularly. I started missing classes and exams. I had barely appeared for two sessions of internal exams and my professors started questioning me.

I knew my friends and professors were able to identify that I was becoming an addict, but I couldn’t see it. I became an addict in just one year and there was no going back.

I’d go without food and sleep for days but not without weed. I tried opium-based drugs, magic mushrooms and LSD too, as I wasn’t able to differentiate between any of them. I was just chasing the next high! I was ‘happy’ and I wanted the ‘good trip’ to continue. I lost my friends because people were scared to be around me.

I was unconscious for about two days. When I woke up, my hostel mates told me that they didn’t think I’d survive.

After my hostel warden found drugs in my room, I was sent back home by the college. I had to drop out in the second year. I did not understand or care that it worried or humiliated my parents by this whole fiasco. They also suffered financially.

But thankfully, they understood that I needed long-time professional help and sent me to a rehab facility.

The withdrawal was the worst experience of my life. To call it painful and difficult would be an understatement!

I’d scream, cry and pray to be able to pass through that phase. I couldn’t sleep for days and nothing made sense. I hated everything and everyone. I was abusive and I couldn’t focus on anything.

I couldn’t control my emotions and actions. My parents feared that I’d relapse but they supported me mentally and helped me overcome that awful phase. I also took the help of a psychiatrist, who out me on medications. I had several sessions of counselling.

I’m clean because of my parents, a solid support system and institutional help.

Five years later, I’m still on medication and able to sleep better. Counselling helped me to understand that my behaviour was not normal. I’m now close to my family, and finishing the undergraduate course.

I got a second lease at life but my drug addiction almost cost me everything, which is why I keep telling everyone to stay away from drugs because it will change your life in ways you cannot imagine.

Life of crime inevitable with prolonged use

In the gang-rape in the outskirts of Chennai on August 6, it was found that all the accused, including juveniles, were under the influence of alcohol and drugs. This was yet another case where the city police found links to consumption of narcotics.

Cops also agree unanimously that several suspects were under the influence of narcotic substances in some of the crimes.

Chennai city police Commissioner Shankar Jiwal had said in June that the police would conduct a survey to ascertain the extent of drug abuse prevalent in the society.

Though all drug abusers are not criminals, there’s a significant amount of data that supports the theory that many who commit criminal activities are under the influence of drugs. Intoxicants impair the ability to think clearly, which could escalate the criminality — and even brutality — of their actions.

A study on the relationship between drugs and criminal behaviour by Shridhar Sharma, Gautam Sharma and Bristi Barkataki stated that 86.44% of juveniles booked under different crimes had a history of substance use.

“The consumption of tobacco and cannabis was higher when compared to other drugs. The consumption of psychotropic drugs, though relatively lesser, was related with more serious crimes. There is an increasing trend in serious crimes such as rape, murder/attempt to murder, and burglary committed by juveniles. Drug-crime correlation has been noted among consumption of cannabis with murder, inhalants with rape and opioids with snatching-related crimes,” revealed the study, which was published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

According to doctors, the effect of drugs can be such that a person can lose the ability to distinguish between family and friends, and enemies.

“This impact is often related to their involvement in criminal activity. It has been noted that children in the 13-17 age group who are engaged in crimes have a history of ganja consumption. Crimes such as chain snatching or theft can become major crimes such as murders and assault. Even brutal and unnatural crimes are common for drug addicts,” said Dr Sudhakar Kasinathan, consultant neurosurgeon, Fortis Hospital.

Drug dependency restricts one’s activity and reduces it to the level of those who are 70-80 years old. “The cheapest drug available is ganja and there has been a spurt in its abuse among children,” he added.

A study on the relationship between drugs and criminal behaviour by Shridhar Sharma, Gautam Sharma and Bristi Barkataki stated that 86.44% of juveniles booked under different crimes had a history of substance use.

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