Aizawl: David Lalremruata is the president of the Drugs Addiction and AIDS Resistance Society, a grouping of recovering addicts.
Since 2008, the organisation has been working to spread awareness and offer support to drug-dependent people and which has been working with government programs as well. Interventions available today and those 20 years ago, when he began using drugs, are like “day and night,” said David.
David’s past, and his present work, highlights how the state of Mizoram continues to grapple with the problem of drugs and alcohol abuse even though the state has been a dry state for close to a decade now.
An investigation by Frontier Despatch shows that at least one case under laws against drugs and alcohol was registered in under every three hours during the 11 years spanning 2009 to 2019 in Mizoram, according to data compiled by the state police and Excise and Narcotics Department (END). In total, both agencies registered a total of 33,592 such cases in the said period.
The two agencies registered a total of 26,312 alcohol-related cases in those eleven years, which works out to about one case every three-and-a-half hours. Meanwhile, as many as 7,280 drug-related cases were lodged in the same period, working out to one case every 13 hours or so.
Both the police and END have jurisdiction over various laws prohibiting or regulating alcohol and drugs, which range from state laws to central legislation.
The state laws include the Mizoram Liquor (Total Prohibition) Act of 1995, the Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition and Control) Act of 2014, and the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition Act of 2019, all of which either prohibit or regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol in various degrees.
In the 11 years for which data has been collected for this story, Mizoram has been a dry state for nine years, with the first and last laws banning alcohol in the state.
Besides these, Mizoram also implemented the Assam Drugs (Control) Act till around 2015. The central legislation is the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985.
The END, an agency solely mandated to implement these laws, has a higher case-load than the police: in all, END officials registered over 28,500 cases under these five laws. The police, who have a much wider law-and-order mandate, meanwhile registered well over 5,000 cases as well.
But it’s not just these two agencies that have carried out a sustained campaign against drugs, and to a lesser extent perhaps alcohol: Mizoram has seen a plethora of non-government agencies taking part as well, from “village defence parties” or VDPs and “joint action committees” or JACs at the village and neighbourhood levels to, till about two years ago, the “Central Anti-Drugs Squad” or CADS and “Supply Reduction Service” or SRS formed by the central committee of the Young Mizo Association, the state’s biggest voluntary organisation, at a much wider geographic level. Regional community-based bodies in the peripheries routinely get into the act too.
Many of these non-government bodies routinely hand over peddlers they have caught to the authorities, particularly those caught with drugs. Besides these, paramilitary forces operating within the state, such as the Assam Rifles and Border Security Force also routinely conduct seizures.
However, the number and frequency of seizures point not just to the prevalence of both drugs and alcohol, but to the toll, it takes on investigative agencies as well.
Commissioner of Excise and Narcotics, Ngurchungnunga Sailo, said the force is overstretched to capacity given its limited manpower and resources such as vehicles needed for field operations.
“With what we have now, we can’t do better than this,” he said, adding the department has roughly 300-odd men and women in total spread over eight of Mizoram’s 11 districts.
Despite these, the department has instituted a system of weekly performance reports for each of its officers involved in fieldwork, which includes several seizures made within the past week, which helps in detecting potentially laggard staff, especially when their colleagues are not going through a hiatus in several investigations, arrests and so on.
Although the staff has more work in Aizawl and larger towns such as Champhai, Lunglei, and Serchhip, smaller urban areas also, in some ways, have more to do, such as visiting various towns and villages within their jurisdictions and coordinating with local non-government groups, he said.
Meanwhile, larger towns pose their own set of challenges, particularly since there tend to be areas around them that have emerged as major hubs of bootlegged and locally-brewed alcohol: law enforcement agencies routinely set up makeshift check-posts along roads leading to such areas, and also regularly venture down steep hillsides and into jungles to destroy illegal breweries.
But on the supply-reduction side, it is not just seizures that make up the workload, but prosecuting peddlers and traffickers. This involves many man-hours for investigating agencies that interview witnesses, draw up charge-sheets, and occasionally appear in court. But the courts too are swamped with cases.
According to public prosecutor Lalremthangi, there are currently over 700 drug-related cases before the Special ND&PS Court at Aizawl, where she works with another lawyer. At Aizawl, the special court usually conducts between 20-30 hearings per day, including bail hearings and witness examinations, Lalremthangi said.
Such special courts also function at Champhai, Lunglei, Kolasib, and Siaha, she said, with Champhai most having the second-highest number of drug cases with over 200 cases under trial right now.
Drugs vs Alcohol: Same problem, different approaches?
One gets a sense that alcohol and drugs present a somewhat different set of reactions.
Alcohol has become a deeply political issue. For example, the Mizo National Front, which came to power in end-2018, almost immediately took measures to re-ban alcohol by passing a string of orders shutting liquor shops that had been allowed under a law passed by its chief rival, the Congress, just four years earlier. It eventually repealed the law and put in place a new law prohibiting alcohol, much like one that had been in place for a generation (from 1995 to 2014).
Drugs have admittedly not evoked the same political spirits as alcohol but have nevertheless been a cause of major concern, so much so that the END has been keeping a count of drug-related deaths since before the state of Mizoram came into existence on the fringes of the infamous Golden Triangle.
According to this count, at least 1,643 people died between 1984 and 2020 as a result of the abuse of at least 15 different kinds of drugs, many of the deaths resulting from overdosing on a cocktail of narcotics.
Last week, in a press note about a recent seizure of heroin, the END revealed that there has been two heroin-related deaths in the first eight days of January itself, and stated that there has been an uptick in the availability of the drug since Covid-19 lockdowns have been made less stringent.
Perhaps no recent event in the near past has made visible the drug-related problems in Mizoram than the stringent measures Covid-19 related lockdowns last March and April. Stringent stay-at-home orders meant that people dependent on drugs soon suffered from painful withdrawal symptoms.
Lalnghinglova, a project manager with AMRO, one of many ‘drop-in centres’ working in the field of addiction treatment, had said at the time that his phone rang non-stop for weeks on end, with both drug-dependent people or their family members seeking comfort and advice amid painful and sometimes worryingly severe withdrawal symptoms.
The situation was the same in most urban centres where such drop-in centres operate, and many workers had to home-delivery Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) pills to drug-dependent people who were already registered with them since they could not move outdoors.
Chawnglungmuana, a medical doctor who has been working in the fields of addiction treatment and public education, said the lockdown exposed both the extent of the issue and the lack of resources in dealing with it, including government-funded programs and schemes and faith-based interventions.
But he takes heart in some of the steps that have been taken in recent years to try and nip the demand-reduction issue, particularly a primary and middle school-level awareness initiative instituted by former Aizawl Deputy Commissioner and IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan about three-four years ago and carried forward and given a fresh fillip by his successor, Dr. A Muthamma.
Called Himna-MADAT ( a combination of the Mizo word for ‘safety’ and an acronym — Mizoram Against Drugs, Alcohol, and Tobacco), the initiative has been scaled up across the state and is being carried forward by various government departments.
Such awareness initiatives at the primary and middle school level, along with other similar awareness initiatives carried out by the Mizoram Social Defence and Social Rehabilitation Board (MSD&RB) and its a nodal entity, the Social Welfare & Tribal Affairs Department, at the high-school level, are what Dr Chawnglungmuana terms “absolutely essential” to address the issue from ballooning further.
Lalhlupuii Sailo, Chief Executive Officer at the MSD&RB, said initiatives in the reduction of supply, demand, and harm have to work in tandem, explaining that “drugs including alcohol enter Mizoram from across the international borders as well as from the adjacent states. Some of the drugs fulfill the demand within the state but the rest moves through Mizoram to the other states.”
Focusing only on the supply-side can cause harm, she said: “A sudden change in drug availability caused by supply reduction activities often leads to a higher risk of injecting drug use even among people who use drugs orally. So, the harm reduction services also need to be strengthened,” proposing “a strong prevention system that works from early childhood and includes parents and guardians,” some of which has begun in partnership with other agencies, such as the School Education Department.
“We at the Social Welfare & Tribal Affairs Department are currently working on improved drug treatment services- in all the districts and also in the prisons,” she said, adding that since many of the people who are involved in drug supply are also drug users themselves, “They need to be provided with drug treatment so that they are not forced to seek drugs when they are released out into the society.”
Meanwhile, the state government proposes to open within a month a de-addiction, rehabilitation, and skill training centre that will cater to 100 male and 50 female inmates, she said.
David, who began OST in 2006, explains how OST has brought in a sea-change in how we look and approach rehabilitation.
Before OST came into the picture in Mizoram, the only option was quitting cold turkey — a painful physical and mental process that even the most determined often find near-impossible to complete, he said.
“Addiction is like someone trapped in a deep well. We see the light at the top and try to climb towards it. But the walls are mossy and slippery, and the moment we stop exerting as much of ourselves as possible, we find ourselves slipping and falling to the bottom again,” he added.
But the availability of more modern roads to recovery, including OST, counseling, and support programs, means it has become that much easier to become a recovering addict. He also counts faith-based interventions, mostly offered by churches and affiliated volunteer groups as extremely relevant for recovering addicts to try and re-attain their place “as a son or daughter, as a father or mother, as a friend, as a responsible member of society.”
“All of these make up the rope and bucket lowered into the well that eventually helps us reach the top,” he said, at the same time lamenting these have not really reached the last-mile since many drug-dependent people still remain clueless about these tools that could potentially change their lives, which he described is rife with feelings of inferiority and a general sense that society at large mistrusts them deeply.
As for the efforts to systematize awareness-drives at the school level, he believes these are “absolutely essential” to stop more and more people from falling into the addiction trap.
“When we started, we were influenced by media and our peers and thought we were being cool, without knowing at all or only very vaguely how much we stood to lose physically, mentally and financially, even just how dependent we would become to traffickers and peddlers,” he said, viewing the narcotics trade as operating along with business and economic principles, that of demand and supply.
“As long as there is demand, there will be supply,” he said.
The Frontier Despatch is a weekly Mizo-language news magazine published from Aizawl
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