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WHO defines adolescence as “the transition stage from childhood to adulthood”, varying from ages 10 to 19 years. In Sri Lanka, adolescents comprise 16.1% of the total population, with 70% attending school.
Adolescence is one of the most rapid phases of human development where biological maturity precedes psychosocial maturity. Both the individual and the environmental characteristics influence changes taking place during adolescence. During this period increased autonomy, willingness to experiment and peer influence/pressure create an environment encouraging high-risk decisions such as substance misuse and smoking which influence adolescents’ health.
During the past few decades, a rise in the trends of smoking and substance abuse among adolescents has been reported in Sri Lanka. These behaviours are well-associated with various social, biological, economical and psychological issues such as violence, crime, injuries, diseases (HIV and other STDs), increased school dropout figures, and deaths in extreme cases. However, every year, over 12300 Sri Lankan are killed by tobacco-caused disease. Furthermore, more than 6000 children (10-14 years old) and 1725000 adults (15+ years old) continue to use tobacco each day. According to the 2018 survey In Sri Lanka, the smoking prevalence among age 13-15 years is believed to be around 2%. Tobacco use includes use of both smoked (Ganja, Cigarette, Bidi, Cigars) and smokeless (chewing tobacco, betel with tobacco, babul, Nisan Kopi and Madana Mandiram). Though the importing and selling is banned in Sri Lanka since 2016, smokeless tobacco products such as Babul, Beeda, Mawa, Pampara, Pakku and Gurkha are accessible in retail.
The following actual incidents are clear enough to reveal the growing dilemma of illicit drug usage among schooling children.
Saros (name changed) is a 9th grade student at a leading school in Kalmunai zone. He is addicted to KG. “We had an interesting companion in our clique. He has many friends. They are older than us, some are school dropouts. We got KG from one of them and then got to use it. Initially, we were reluctant to use those drugs. I refused their invitation several times, but later I wanted to test it. So I joined them. It was initially frustrating, but they reassured me everything would be all right in a couple of days. Now I’ve ended up addicted and depressed. I feel uncomfortable, only depression and anxiety remains. I can’t stay alone for a few hours nor can I read or write. I’ve lost my tract.”
Moros (name changed) aged 16 says, “I spent a night at a friend’s house when he was alone without his parents. Many of us joined, watched films and smoked cigarettes. Day by day we learnt to drink beer and other spirits. It had started as fun. Later someone got a free sample of Molly from our spirit supplier. It sparked our desire. There were plenty of Molly (the drug nickname for MDMA / Ecstasy). Initially, we used it for fun and adventure. I never felt it was bad because we had no problem with it. No one noticed us with the drugs. I know my father smokes at home. I Often bought cigarettes for him from the local store. No one cared. Now I have lost everything. I have no money to buy the drugs. So I started stealing money, jewellery and household items to get my dose. Now I am nowhere. Everyone had left me. I have tremors, I can’t sit and study and I can’t concentrate.”
Safok, (name changed) is a good 17-year-old student at a leading school. He is the only son to wealthy parents. He gets enough pocket money and usually spends it on his friends. One day he attended a party in Colombo where he was introduced to ICE. “Now, buying drugs is not difficult but finding the money is. My friends often skip their tuition classes to raise the money for drugs. Many friends sometimes offer Ganja, Tramadol or Ice for free or credit, but once you are addicted it’s hard to get it for free. You have to purchase it. I can find the supplier easily but it’s difficult to get the money,”
The above stories are just a few examples of how easily the drugs are accessible to school children and are deeply penetrated into the society. There are a thousand more incidents, but the above three are sufficient to explain the spectrum of this drug addiction, which was once seen in men and urban areas, is now spreading to girls and villages as well. Because networks for the distribution of all drugs are very active, political support is generously available and social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, e cash and -business sites) contributes in a big way to source this profitable business.
Facebook-organized parties in Sri Lanka prove to be a good platform for the recruitment of new drug users. Likewise, drug users are the customers as well as the sellers in order to finance their own use. Drug production, trafficking, transmission, sales, its subsidiaries, networks are highly secretive, they are very interesting, and have enough information to write a book.
Drugs such as Apple, Molly, Crystal Meth, and Ice are commonly used by high school students and adolescents. The use of tobacco products (Bawa, Mawa, Cannabis and Hans) has been increasing in the lower income groups and medium school students over the last few years. Ecstasy and Crystal Meth are expensive drugs which are mainly used by rich children. On the other hand, The use of painkillers like Tramadol, known as the ‘apple’ and Kerala cannabis have been identified as another fast-growing drug among students. Friendship promotion, the impact of social media, loneliness, low self esteem and broken family structure or dysfunctioning society are factors that pave way for this drug use.
Sri Lanka is not a manufacturer of illicit drugs, with the exception of cannabis , Beedi and Cigars. It is, however, an important hub for international drug trafficking including opium and heroin. This is mainly a result of the country’s strategic location, especially on important maritime and aviation shipping routes, for drugs originating mainly from India and Pakistan. Fighting against illicit drug trafficking is a challenge for Sri Lanka because of its lack of resources, both financial and human. More needs to be done in terms of capacity-building and training officers to counter the drug trade.
Drug use is very dangerous. It is imperative that all parents, teachers and seniors be vigilant in this regard. Only the early stages of drug use can be controlled and treated. Once addicted it is hard to recover. So it’s the duty of each of us to protect our children and keep them from falling into this deadly trap.