The Drug Triangle: The Poor as Collateral Damage

The Drug Triangle: The Poor as Collateral Damage
by Shaher Zaidi for, reprinted in Dhaka Tribune, Sep 10, 2013

Afsan Chowdhury recently posed this question: At the Bdnews roundtable on the Oishee incident and the role of media and police, some people said that addiction was much more in the English medium schools… How much of this is perceptional and how much real ?

In my social circles, this is also the dangerous misperception. “Drug khor =  English Medium.” The reality as I have come to know it through activist friends who work on addiction issues is a lot more complicated. According to their research, drug addiction is widespread at all levels of Dhaka society, from “English Medium” to “bosti bashi.” The longer we keep obfuscating about it to ourselves, and seek comforting explanations such as “Western oriented,” the more the crisis will grow.

Everyone knows law enforcement is enmeshed with the drug mafia. That is how the goods enter the country through the borders, and are manufactured inside the country, without jhamela. Now with this particular case, remand, forced confession, a public baying for punishment, all of it serves to move attention away from the supply chain.

One does not require wealth to acquire hard drugs in Bangladesh. A few years back, Prothom Alo ran a story of the epidemic of bosti children in Chittagong sniffing glue to get high– extracted from shoes and bike tires. That is not a high end drug. People, even at very lowest end of economic spectrum, are using what little money they have to get drugs of all kinds. The difference is that the rich can eventually send their children to Bangkok for rehabilitation, while the basti child will die of an overdose of cheap drugs and no one will even know, let alone start a Facebook fan page.

What the statistics say

Mahboob Hasan’s 2005 study needs updating, but at least based on the data there, the majority of drug users in Bangladesh are either illiterate or semi literate, earn an average of 4,000 Taka, work in semi-independent small business or are unemployed, and come from working class tier.

A few key excerpts from his report are relevant here:

  1. The vulnerability of Bangladesh to drug trafficking and use is further enhanced by its’ geographical location and porous border with India and Myanmar… In 1996, it was reported that 5% of world’s illicit drug trafficking is routed through Bangladesh.
  2. There are more than 400,000 children living in streets of the major cities of Bangladesh highly vulnerable to various kinds of physical, sexual, verbal and mental abuse.… It was also reported that drug trafficking gangs lure these children with expensive drugs to commit crimes. A recent report revealed that 60% street children who use drugs began to take drugs at the age of 13 years and currently there is no specialized treatment available for these children. In 2002/2003 baseline survey of street children belong to 11 to 14 years revealed many of them involved in drug peddling and commercial sex works about 2% them use drugs.
  3. About one in three of surveyed drug users are illiterate and about six or seven out of ten has different levels of formal education. RSAs in 20 districts in 2004 reported that when compared to IDUs (18%), illiteracy rate among heroin smokers are higher (34%). Some baseline surveys has reported 43 to 53% illiteracy rate among the users.
  4. Although most drug users have some form of occupation but many have modest to poor income. Studies indicate that majority of the surveyed drug uses has monthly income between Tk.1000 to 4000. However Different Studies also indicate the 5% to 18% of the drug users earn less than 50 tk per day.
  5. Most of surveyed drug users are involved in some form of income generating small to medium businesses, rickshaw puller and working in transport sectors, like, bus/ truck drivers, helper/conductors, mechanics etc. Unemployment is also high (9 to 22%). Studies also indicate that about 1 to 8% of the drug users are involved in some form of illegal activities, which also include drug peddling.

DOWNLOAD REPORT: trend-of-illicit-drug-use

A neighbor’s story…

This is a story I heard from a Dhanmondi neighbor. Five years back, the mother caught the gari driver in the quarter above their garage taking a powder. He immediately said it was medicine, but she knew it was not. For few months, the family had been seeing that whenever the car was parked somewhere for even ten minutes, he would fall into a deep sleep from which he would not wake easily. The lady of the house gave him an ultimatum, and for few months he seemed to be clean. Then again, he started being “dhulu dhulu” eyed, sleepy all the time. Again an ultimatum. Around the same time, strange white spots also started appearing on his neck. His hair started to fall out. He was in hid mid thirties.

This man had been with the family for 10 years. They really liked him and wanted to help him. Finally after three years of this, from desperation that he would lose his whole life he asked his wife and two children to come from village and live with him in Dhaka, so he would not be tempted to addiction. Also, during this period of addiction, there were always scandals with other women, and his wife would call and shout at him on the phone while he was driving the car.

Now this man had come to Dhaka to make enough money as a driver to support his wife and child back in the village. His food and housing was taken care of, he was supposed to send money home to the village. He worked hard, and was always in the house. Only in the afternoon he would take a break to go for a walk in Dhanmondi lake. The evening was usually his. Where did he first meet the drug dealer? In Dhanmondi lake or somewhere else? There were rumors that right next to the local mosque was a drug akra. The same beggars who would line up for alms after prayers were rumored to carry packets of drugs for sale in their begging cart.

A few questions occurred to me when I heard this story. When did the driver first start sending less money home? When did he stop sending money altogether? How long did his wife live without any money in the village? Is he ok now? How destroyed is his liver? Will he ever kick the addiction? Can people really go cold turkey without the help of clinics?

The Real Vulnerable

When I see people talk about “English Medium” I feel they are not looking at the most vulnerable victims of the drug trade. No hard/ synthetic drug in the history of the world has ever stayed limited to the upper or middle class. The dealers sample along the way, and share with their friends. The network that brings drugs in and out of the country is entirely working class (from truck driver, to helper, to CNG carrier, to final delivery guy, to basti network). They also try it and get hooked. Often they get paid for their services in goods, not money.

A blogger with has done some preliminary research about some of the cheaper drugs used by basti children. She told me:

Gul is very common among housemaids, in bostis. It gives extra energy. Street kids and ferry boys in train stations sniff glue. It is common in Kamalapur train station. The police are involved in this trade. The glue is shoe glue, used by all shoe repair men, and many garment and other product makers. The primary ingredient is “toluene,” a neurotoxin. The fumes are highly addictive, and the effect nearly instantaneous. The glue is inhaled, not as some assume, because the sniffer merely wants “a high.” The fumes reduce one’s concept of reality, minimizes fear, and nearly eliminates pain. The glue is usually, at least initially, sniffed to alleviate hunger pains, and/or to tolerate cold weather or other physical ills”

Certain herbal substances, such as marijuana, has existed in our culture for centuries. But synthetic drugs are a very different substance, not indigenous and not harmless amusement. With every synthetic drug, there is a cheap knockoff– which is what really hooks the poor. And the cheaper synthetic imitation is usually hundred times more dangerous than the original .

AlalODulal editorial board member Nayma Qayyum wrote, in an email:

“There is the issue of the drug trade itself – control, stakeholders, mechanisms and processes. While traveling for work, I remember coming across these points by the border that locals would identify as trafficking points or storage warehouses. Locals are sometimes involved because of a dearth of livelihood opportunities.

The second issue is that of the entire adolescent-young adult experience. A combination of various factors come into play here – dearth of quality education, the absence of a real childhood experience (even in the eighties i had a bit of a childhood in Dhaka, I don’t think that is possible anymore), anxieties regarding the future (where they are seeing their preceding generation, meaning people my age, struggle to make a life well into their thirties), and lack of support for emotional or psychological issues.”

In the United States the poor African American and working class White communities have been ravaged by the cheaper second-cousin of the original expensive drugs. Crack for the African American community, and Crystal Meth for working class white communities–although all these lines are getting blurred.

In Bangladesh, it is the vast working class of the cities that are paying the price. They are the collateral damage. But it takes an Oishee case, in an upper middle class family, with a police officer father, for the middle class to suddenly go into crisis mode. And still their  focus is on their own class. Now there will be flurry of new addiction clinics opening in Dhaka. There will be more flights to Bangkok and Delhi to cure addicted children. But who will solve the crisis of addiction in the working class?

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