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The converted warriors

Author: Esha Roy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: January 1, 2012
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-converted-warriors/894264/0

Introduction: Addicts who have become clean wage a war on drugs in Manipur

The Ningthoujams have been battling drugs for years. All four brothers were chronic drug addicts till a few years ago—when the youngest finally went to rehab and became clean for the first time in years. The eldest, 30-year-old Roshan, was the first to start taking drugs in the family. He says veins on his left arm are completely blocked after years of “shooting drugs”. But now, a transformed Roshan has made anti-drugs campaign a personal mission.

For the last two years, Roshan has been working for the Social Awareness Service Organisation (SASO), a non-profit funded by the Bill Gates Foundation, which has led the fight against the HIV in Manipur—one of the states with high number of addicts. There are 50,000 male and 1,600 female addicts, at the last count, and 22 rehabilitation centres, aided by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare.

“When I was young I was very timid and had severe self-esteem issues. When I was in the class VIII, a classmate brought an Alprazolam tablet (a sedative much abused by addicts in Manipur). Just to prove that I was brave, out of all 62 students in the class I was the only one who tried,’’ says Roshan.

This was just the beginning. Through his teens, Roshan tried various other drugs, finally settling on Spasmo Proxyvon (an analgesic used to ease pain during delivery, addicts call it SP).

Roshan had begun taking the drug orally, but soon started injecting it—sometimes even 10 times a day. “I had tried heroin a number of times but found that I preferred the kick that I got from shooting SP. This is not an over-the-counter drug. It’s available at Rs 50 a strip in black markets around Manipur,’’ he says. He points out that easy availability and low cost of drugs in the state fuel addiction.

Roshan first came in touch with the anti-drugs movement while he was still an addict—when he used to collect free syringes provided by NGOs fighting against the HIV.

“I was unwittingly exposed to a lot of training workshops which they sat me through in exchange for picking up the syringes,’’ he says. He is not the only former drug addict at SASO. Apart from doctors and nurses, all the employees have been drug addicts. “SASO employs 150 former drug users. There are 30 drug users in my drop-in centre alone,’’ he says.

A couple of years ago, the Union health ministry started the Oral Substitution Programme. After years of dealing with addicts, Roshan says, this is what he feels is the single-most successful scheme.

“Basically what we do is put the drug user on a drug called Buprenorphine which, like SP, is an analgesic. But unlike SP, it stops receptors of heroin and other drugs. What this means is that if you have this tablet every day, even if you shoot heroin or any other drug, you won’t get a high.” Buprenorphine facilitates withdrawal from addiction. “So when you are not taking drugs but you’re on this, you don’t feel the otherwise very painful withdrawal,’’ he adds.

However, Buprenorphine is not the only solution. “The problem, funnily enough, is of development as well. The youth in Manipur have nothing to do most of the time, especially in the evenings. They are closeted inside their homes by 5 or 6 p.m. There is all this pent-up energy and nowhere to vent it. They naturally turn to drugs,’’ says Roshan.
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