Kerala has been dealing with an unprecedented rise in the number of cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. According to latest statistics, there were 26,629 cases in 2022, which is almost 300 per cent more than the cases reported in 2016.

What is more concerning though is that more and more children are falling into the trap of drug addiction, and being used by drug gangs to sell the contraband. According to a survey conducted earlier this month by the Kerala police, among drug users below the age of 21, 40 percent were children below 18 years of age.

For instance, in the Samurtha Children's Care Centre , Changanacherry, a de-addiction centre for those under the age of 18, headed by T.M Mathew, there has been a steady rise in the admission of young drug users after the pandemic. The centre was set up in 2021 and is Kerala's only such institution to care for children below 18 years of age.

Mathew said that there are currently about 11 children between the ages of 11 to 18 years, who are admitted here. Reverend Shiji, a Christian priest, who runs another de-addiction centre said that the youngest child admitted there was just nine years old.

Reverend Moncy Jacob, Director of another rehabilitation centre in Kerala said, "When we used to go to schools three years ago, there was just about one student in each school who was abusing drugs. Now there are about three in each school.

“Also, earlier it was just boys, now girls have started abusing drugs too. There is a huge shift in the behaviour of these children. Teachers have started complaining about it too."

A survey conducted by the Excise Department in January 2023, found that among the teens, ganja (cannabis) accounted for 80 percent of drug use. However, now students are turning to more experimental drugs. Mathew said, “they are also trying out their own drugs and synthetic drugs like MDMA which are more harmful than ganja”

Some other substances abused include glue, petrol, eraser fluid, and aerosols, which are inhaled for intoxication-like effects. Hashish and ‘brown sugar’ are some of the other drugs being used by children.

Students are also accessing drugs in the form of analgesics, stimulants, cough syrups, nasal decongestants and sleeping pills from medical shops. Dr Shahool Ameen, a psychiatrist who deals with drug addiction in children said that they have also started using drugs like LSD, mushrooms and meth.

Reverend Shiji, in-charge of the de-addiction centre called G.J.A.M Aswas De-addiction Centre, Kollam said, “in Kerala, most children are first introduced into the world of drugs through smoking. Then they start taking drugs like ganja, which is most common among children and teens. They go on to take high drugs like LSD or MDMA. I believe that in the next few years, they will start using these substances more."

How are these drugs accessed? There is undoubtedly a flourishing drug trade in Kerala. In fact, even the state’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stated in the Assembly last November that Kerala had become a hub for narcotics and psychotropic substances. He went on to add that drugs are being sold directly in classrooms.

Most of the drugs are reportedly procured from the vicinity of the schools, from bakeries, medical shops, fancy stores, snack joints, and street vendors who are looking to make more profit. Students are also accessing drugs on the dark net.

According to media reports in October last year, drug peddlers have been luring students on routes taken by them while returning from school. They know that there is strict monitoring inside the schools, but once on the street on their way back home, the students are vulnerable to being approached.

According to C, John, Deputy Superintendent of the Narcotics Department , more girl children are being targeted by drug gangs and used as carriers. In a report published in Mathrubhoomi newspaper this month, a Class 9 girl was targetted by the drug mafia through an instagram app. A friend added her to the group and then the peddlers started meeting her outside the school premises.

She soon became a ‘carrier’ and started selling drugs to her friends. The report also mentioned that information about where to meet and procure the drugs were exchanged through Instagram chats. It was only after the girl started showing signs of abnormal behaviour that her parents realised what was happening and reported it to the police.

Teenage girls are also increasingly becoming drug addicts because they are lured by their boyfriends. John said, “children have started trusting strangers too quickly. If a girl meets a boy, without knowing anything about him, they hang out and she eats and drinks anything that is offered, and before you know it, she becomes an addict.”

Girls are also sexually exploited because of this. Once they get hooked on the drugs, their boyfriends exploit them because the girls are desperate for more drugs. Dr Shiji added, “in my opinion, one of the reasons why girls have started using drugs more is because of the influence of the media. If you see movies that have been released in the last three years, almost all movies show actresses using drugs.

“Drug use affects girls the most. Apart from other health issues, it also affects their reproductive system in the long run. Even in case they give birth, the child will have addictive behaviour.”

When asked what could be the contributing factors to students taking to drugs, Dr Shaool Ameen, a psychiatrist who deals with drug addiction in children said, “most patients I've seen are from broken families with parents who are divorced. So there's obviously a lack of parental control. Then there's peer pressure.”

Children are lured by their friends to try drugs. Mathew said that at first, the drugs are supplied by students from lower income backgrounds who are trying to make money out of it and then they gradually influence their peers to start using it. “They first offer it for free so that students are attracted to it and once they get addicted, they start charging them,” he said.

The other side to it is that the wealthier kids are being given more pocket money by their parents and can afford to buy these drugs from the student carriers. Rev. Shiji said, “children are given more money than what they need. So what else can we expect? They deviate first because of family values and then deviate in the society. When you give more money to children than they need, they will misuse it. Anybody would do that, even adults.”

Mathew added that many teens who become drug users are dropouts and those who are not interested in academics. They wander around in shopping malls, eateries and entertainment areas where the drug dealers target them. However, it all boils down to lack of supervision and easier access.

Drug use among children is known to have several negative impacts psychologically, behaviourally and affects their academics and future. According to Dr Shahool Ameen, a counsellor at the centre, "Most of these drugs affect the children's attention and memory and therefore impact their academic performances.

“There is a hypothesis that once their network expands, the teens get access to more and more extreme drugs. There can also be behavioural impact depending on which drug the teens are using. In the case of ganja for instance, the user’s reaction time slows down, they can become violent or confused. They can cause or be in an accident. Some students have been inhaling glue and whiteners. These can affect the brain, the sense of smell and the users’ lungs as well.”

Mathew says that the children in his centre are facing all kinds of psychological and health issues. "It also affects their behaviour, a lot of them are showing criminal tendencies. Once they start using some of these drugs, they don't feel hungry anymore.

“They then start having stomach pains, and liver issues. A lot of them have vitamin deficiencies, and suffer from memory loss,” he said

Rev. Shiji added, "these are psychotic drugs. So it really affects their mental health totally. They forget their past and can't think about their future. They can only think about their present and only want pleasure for that moment. They also develop major psychiatric illnesses gradually.

“Other changes we have seen are in their sexuality. When they start using these chemicals, it reinforces their behavioural patterns. There is a lot of curiosity in children and the biggest curiosity is about their own bodies. We have seen changes in sexuality quickly develop among the children who use drugs.”

Rehabilitation and training is essential. In the Samurtha Child Care Centre, the staff follow a three-level rehabilitation approach. While physical ailments are treated with medicines, the children are also provided psychiatric medicines and psychotherapy.

Dr Shahool added that after all this, one of the most important things is to empower them with the skills to avoid getting back into it. So students are also taught skills like how to use their time positively, how to effectively say no to wrong influences. Most patients are usually able to come out of it with the treatment.

Mathew added that there is also a need for those who are dealing with treating drug users and victims of drug abuse to be well trained. “Every few months, there are new drugs in the market and we need to know what those are to help the students. Earlier, there was no way of finding out. But now technology has advanced so much that we can detect what drug has been introduced in the body in the last few years. We need to make use of it."

There are claims that the rise in number of drug-related cases in Kerala could also be because of stricter raids. But these raids are not always easy when it comes to children. According to C. John, Deputy Superintendent of the Narcotics Department it is extremely difficult to really monitor drug abuse among students and drug dealers use students because they know they cannot be caught easily.

“Although it is common knowledge that school students are increasingly abusing drugs, it is not accounted for. Only when caught and arrested, it becomes accounted for. Drug dealers are also increasingly using girls as carriers because they're more difficult to catch.

“Say for instance, a girl student travels from Bengaluru carrying some amount of MDMA in private parts of her body, how can we easily investigate? If we check without confirmed information, it can become a huge issue. So we are finding it difficult to investigate. However, the law is strictly enforced now through various programmes. There is daily basis monitoring,” he explained.

In October 2002, the Excise Department had prepared a list of 250 schools across Kerala which are vulnerable to drug peddling. According to their findings, peddlers have been trying to lure students outside the schools’ premises, school hours.

The Excise Commissioner had ordered lighting inspections in these schools at least once a week. It was also decided that bike patrolling will be conducted in the vicinity of these schools like streets, juice shops and eateries.

Efforts are on by all departments to address this issue. In October 2022, the Chief Minister, launched a state-wide awareness campaign drug menace and substance abuse. He also said that the government is trying to make the anti narcotics campaign a part of the regular school curriculum.

Kerala Police has also been organising various awareness programmes. Various departments have come together to implement the Yodhavu project, which is aimed at identifying students who use drugs and help them to return to normal lives.

In this project, one teacher from each school will work with the school management, parents, children and the police to prevent drug use. They will identify victims of drug abuse based on their behavioural changes and provide counselling.

Various programmes have also been undertaken in schools. For instance, in association with the National Institute of Social Defence, training programmes for teachers are being held and activities that build resistance like sports are being planned.

Rev. Shiji's centre focuses on raising awareness among children. He said, “some of the adults who I have dealt with have told me how they wished someone guided them in their teens. Children and teens are simply more receptive to correctional programmes and counselling. We have seen far more positive results in children and teens that we have worked with.”

A regional judicial colloquium on Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Juvenile Justice, and Drug Abuse Among Children, was conducted in Kerala last week. The colloquium urged the Central and State governments to set up drug treatment and rehabilitation centres for children.

However, some like Rev. Moncy claims that while the government is talking aggressively about the harmful effects of drug and alcohol addiction, on the other hand they allow liquor outlets to thrive. “So people don't take the message seriously,” he felt.

Some of the other initiatives taken by the Kerala government are to make changes in the current method of investigation and charging. At present, the chargesheet filed in court for any drug related case does not detail the accused person's previous convictions.

The government has now given the police instructions to include previous convictions to enforce Sections 31 and 31 A or the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act more severely.

A report in the September 2022 issue of the ‘Kerala Calling’ magazine stated, "Drug offenders will be registered in a database modelled after the KAAPA (Kerala Anti Social Activities Prevention Act) register . In accordance with the Narcotics Control Bureau’s report, preventive detention measures will be taken against repeat offenders.

In the coming weeks, a special drive will be organised for this purpose and bonds will be issued under Section 34 of the NDPS Act. In addition, preventive detention is planned under the PIT NDPS Act for those who are regularly involved in drug trafficking."

According to Rev. Shiji, the media has also played a big role in the increasing use of drugs among children. He said, "Children are easily influenced. People think whatever is shown in cinema is a normal part of society. Children start to think this is how a family works, this is how society is supposed to be. But no one is trying to highlight these reasons. No media or organisation is talking about the impact of media."

A lot of the counsellors dealing with drug addiction among children agree that broken families and lack of parental supervision is one of the main reasons why children get into drugs. If the children feel secure and there is a healthy connection with the parents, no amount of peer pressure can steer them away. Which is why people like Rev. Shiji makes parents aware about drug abuse and the harmful effects related to it.

There is an urgent need to address the issue of drug addiction in children, failing which their whole life ahead could be impacted. The focus needs to be on prevention, experts say. Positive life skills, awareness about drug addiction, better parental control, positive role models and counselling are the need of the hour.