From joining militant groups to losing their lives to bullets even as civilians, youth in the Kashmir valley are now witnessing a surge in drug addiction. Addiction among young Kashmiris is growing at an alarming rate, with overdose deaths also being reported.

The Doctors Association Kashmir in a recent report said the steep rise in substance abuse may turn catastrophic for future generations, and asked parents, teachers, social institutions, and religious organisations to act as soon as possible.

A local news agency reported last month that while five years ago some 500 people would visit the Government Medical College in Srinagar’s de-addiction centre every year, the number has now gone up to 5,000 patients per year.

Expert reports suggest that opiates such as morphine and codeine or benzodiazepine were first used as recreational drugs by youth in the heavily militarised Kashmir valley. Later, cannabis came to be widely used and was considered socially acceptable.

But in the past few years there has been increasing use of hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine, which carry greater financial and health risks.

“Cases of [addiction to] high opiates like heroine and cocaine are rising dangerously, and I usually refer them to the drug de-addiction centre in Srinagar for treatment. Mostly the drug addicts are male, but over the past few years I have been treating girls also, which is another blow to this generation,” said Dr Majid, a psychiatrist.

He has seen patients of drug addiction who suffer from paranoia, phobias or extreme fear. “In most cases they get affected during the use of such substances. A few get affected when they try to avoid using such drugs,” he said.

“There is easy access to drug substances, peer pressure, depression and psychological problems among a vast number of people here. Many people have found drugs to be the only solution to get rid of stress,” Dr Majid told The Citizen.

The de-addiction centre at the District Police Lines in Anantnag, south Kashmir has also seen a surge in patients since 2016. “The maximum are heroine and cocaine takers,” said an official at the centre.

“Last year we had 245 drug addict cases including 187 cases of heroin addiction. The maximum number of cases are from villages lying along the national highway,” he observed.

A group of addiction patients from a village in Pulwama district are among many examples of young Kashmiris trapped by addiction. Ashfaq (name changed) told The Citizen that “half a decade ago I used to smoke cigarettes, and one day a friend while puffing a cigarette approached me with a cigarette loaded with charas (cannabis).

“I puffed it that day just for fun, but since that day I smoked it routinely,” Ashfaq recalled.

“Initially we were only three friends who were addicted to cannabis, but within a year our number was six, including a minor,” says Ashfaq with trembling lips.

That minor is now a known drug addict in his village, and has ruined his career and life by consuming drugs at such an early age, according to a local who lives there.

The local also said that the minor has fallen victim to phobias since using drugs, and does not for instance enter any concrete structure because he fears it may collapse on him and leave him buried.

Ashfaq confirmed that initially he and his friends would only consume cannabis, but later in the process and with money available from their wages they would frequently visit Srinagar to buy liquor.

“Mostly we make cannabis in our village fields and try to stock up for winters. When we run out of stock we bring it from the Sangam area of Anantnag, or from Srinagar. We seldom use codeine syrup, mostly we take cannabis which is easily available,” he explained.

According to a political analyst who did not wish to be named, “Back in 2017 the J&K police chief said that the drug menace among youth in Kashmir is more challenging than militancy. But still nothing promising has been done to curb it.”

“One drug de-addiction centre should be opened in every district to control the menace among youth,” he requested.

Last month the Jammu and Kashmir police claimed to have seized drugs worth 64 crore rupees along with pistols and grenades from two “narco-terror smugglers” in Kupwara district in the north.

Police statements suggest that militant groups are involved in drug trafficking hand in hand with the Pakistani state. But locals deny this, and say it is only an attempt to hide the police’s failure by alleging militant involvement.

In fact, people in the Valley say it is the politicians, unionists and separatists alike, who are involved in drug smuggling, and that their benefaction has ensured that the drug lords continue to operate with assurance and ease.

With Srinagar city becoming a hub of drug peddlers, reports suggest that both young boys and girls have fallen in this trap and are now peddlers themselves.

Last year the Srinagar-based NGO Centre for Peace and Justice organised a drug awareness campaign in the city, and later on its recommendation the district administration launched a helpline number for patients of addiction.

Ashfaq said in grim words that many attempts in the past to stop using drugs have gone in vain, “as I would consume them again.”

He and the minor in his village are now in a position where they are unable to come out of this addiction, and their families too now pay less attention to their ailment.

In almost every village in the Kashmir valley there are many young people like Ashfaq and his minor friend, who are being crippled by the easy availability of hazardous drugs, with no real recourse.

The time is ripe for all stakeholders of the Kashmir valley to put a stop to this deadly tragedy.

Cover Photograph : Students rallied on July 11 in Anantnag after two people died of overdose last year. Courtesy: Sameer Mushtaq/ Al Jazeera