Ravindra Patil, a psychiatrist based in the western Indian state of Goa has worked with more than 80 substance abusers at the Drug Treatment Centre (DTC) in a government hospital since 2018. His duties include overseeing a facility where patients are given doses of Methadone to help them break free of meth or heroin addictions.
When Goa went into COVID-19 lockdown in March, restaurants, bars, and tourist attractions were shut down, with only essential workers being allowed to move freely. This impacted the customer base of drug dealers, as strict border restrictions prevented people from entering the state.
In August, Patil noticed something suspicious at the centre. He discovered that at least three patients enrolled at the centre were offering cannabis and heroin to patients who were coming off the Methadone after taking it for two to three years in small doses. “Initially, I warned them and complained to the hospital authorities,” Patil told VICE News.
The supply chain of drug dealers–the majority of them procuring substances from the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh–was disturbed due to lockdown restrictions.
“From the beginning of the lockdown we have seen an uptake in the number of drug addicts enrolled with us, probably because supply chains were distributed and they did not have access to drugs,” Shrikant B, a psychiatrist and project coordinator at the Kripa Foundation Rehab in north Goa, told VICE News.
Rehab centres like DTC had to send many day rehab visitors to their homes. “As a result, they were asked to collect three to four days worth of Methadone. Dealers took advantage of this to pocket the painkiller and sell it,” said Patil.
Instead of handing them over to the local police, Patil started counselling them apart from treating them for addiction.
Dealers keep hanging around in narrow bylanes around Patil’s facility as well as another rehab clinic nearby, he said. “We have complained to the police many times, but that will not help the issue. These dealers are forced into this profession due to unemployment.”
Drugs like marijuana, LSD and ecstasy have been an indispensable part of Goa’s counterculture movement since the 60’s, as musicians and artists from Europe and America migrated to the coastal state in search of peace and freedom. However, while cannabis and ecstasy have been a common part of the state’s underground rave culture, heroin addiction became a prominent issue around 2018. Authorities say that the easy availability of heroin in colleges and beaches has led to teenagers and young adults getting addicted to the drug.
“Usually, these peddlers don’t target local residents in Goa. One of the reasons why dealers posed as addicts might be because the number of tourists have dropped,” said Shrikant.
He also pointed out that there has been a shift in the drug consumption pattern, with people shifting from cannabis and party drugs like MDMA to opioids and brown sugar, a form of heroin. “It’s supply has increased, and it is cheaper in cost, so more affordable,” he said.
According to police data, drug seizures in Goa in the first quarter of 2020 were 350 percent more than the same time period in 2019, with the police seizing more than 60 kilograms worth of narcotics till March 31.
“Coronavirus and recent crackdowns on cannabis had made the situation tough, but now that tourist season is returning, we are back on a high,” a Goa-based dealer who did not wish to be named, told VICE News. “I don’t deal in heroin, but we’ve been hearing that arrests in opium farms have limited the supply, so I’m not surprised those who do peddle this shit are skulking around rehabs,” he said.
However, psychiatrists like Patil are hopeful that they can turn the situation around. “We are seeing an improvement in the people we recently caught peddling. We are offering them counselling to help them overcome drug habits.”
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