New Internationalist

The drugs don’t work

August 2008

Young people use painkillers to escape reality

The depression afflicting Indian farmers is filtering down a generation to disillusioned village youths. A survey conducted by the Punjab State Department has found there is an addict in over two-thirds of households in the 24-million-strong population. But these young men are not using trafficked opiates: they are hooked on prescription painkillers bought from pharmacies.

Minto is 20 years old and his addiction to a drug he and his peers call ‘capsules’ has bankrupted his father’s dairy business. ‘The capsules I take are for pain relief, but people use them recreationally,’ he says. ‘The Government found out these drugs were being used illegally and cracked down on their sales. All the medical sites selling capsules are being closed but it does not stop us.’

Minto estimates he spends 500 rupees a day on drugs. This is the equivalent of about $12, but most farmers can only hope to earn half of this each day, so it is little wonder Minto has managed to bleed the small dairy farm dry.

Support workers at the Red Cross De-Addiction Centre in the nearby city of Amritsar explain that drug abuse is no longer a taboo in India; it has, sadly, become the norm. In the 12 years that their centre has been open, 2,000 addicts have passed through for treatment, the majority of whom are men under 30.

Twenty-year-old Ravindar relates how he obtains his fix: ‘I used to buy the capsules from the local pharmacy but my parents found out and told the police, so now a friend with a motorcycle goes to the stores in the next town. The capsules are called Parvon, or Pyrevon, or Dexavon. I am not sure what they are for, but if you eat enough of them you feel relaxed and happy.’

All of the listed brands contain an active ingredient called dextropropoxyphene, a highly addictive opiate derivative. US doctors were warned against prescribing them in the 1970s, but in India drugs containing this ingredient are still widely used.

Ranjeet Singh runs a small pharmacy in the nearby town of Patti. He insists that he does not sell capsules illegally to youths, but knows many other medical stores that do. He is dismissive of government attempts to close down and prosecute stores found engaging in this kind of activity. ‘Not much happens to the pharmacies that get caught. There will be a court case and then the case goes on for a while, but there does not tend to be a punishment for it, and then they are released.’

Ranjeet even blames the pharmaceutical companies that make the capsules, claiming that they purposely over-manufacture the products to sell them on the black market. This, he claims, is the real reason the trade cannot be stopped: ‘Nothing happens to the companies. They are conspiring with the Government; what is going to happen to them? It is the man at the bottom that dies.’ The manufacturers deny these allegations.

Until more is done to regulate the distribution of prescription painkillers, a whole generation of youths remain highly vulnerable to addiction, and India’s farming troubles can only get worse.

Rebecca Wearn

This column was published in the August 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 414

New Internationalist Magazine issue 414
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