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  • The Disease in the Shadow of a Taboo

    A good number of people just flinched on reading the topic of this article. The question then is, what is it about addiction that scares so many people all across the globe?

    A few of the reasons substance abusers and alcoholics are addicted to these products is because of exposure to them at a young age or because escaping from reality has become a necessity for them.

    In India today, our laws strictly prohibit the usage of drugs for anything but medical purposes. The concept of drugs for recreational purposes is not something our society excepts. Treating it like a taboo does not help the addicted. Treating it like a disease, however, does. So how do we bring about change in society?

    Does the government simply remove the ban on drugs? While this seems to have helped many in Portugal, we cannot be sure about it helping people in other countries that have different populations and economic progress levels. But one thing we can be sure of is that becoming more accepting of the addicted instead of isolating them is a better way of facing this problem. Often drugs and alcohol are treated as immoral things instead of seeing them as things that might harm our health or waste our time.

    The Rig Veda, one of the sacred books of Hinduism, one that talks about Hindu society in India ages ago, mentions alcohol in its very first chapter. It talks about how humans would offer refined alcohol, called “Somras” to the Gods and in turn be blessed with whatever they desire. Marijuana is used in the drink called “Bhaang” during the festival of Holi all across the country. Clearly, drugs and alcohol are very much a part of our lives and have been for an extremely long period of time. Yet the addicted are simply isolated if not shamed. Our system today does not aim to help the addicted, it works on the principle of fear and hopes that punishment will help ensure that substance abusers simply stop being addicted. While this system might prevent a few from ever using these products, the ones already affected are in no way benefited. So what can we do as a society to help them?

    While there have been many advocates for this issue, there are two significant TED talks delivered by Johann Hari and Michael Botticelli that raise meaningful questions and aim to radically reframe how we perceive and respond to substance abusers.

    Johann Hari in his talk not only questions the notions about drugs we have today but also describes how treating this problem differently can lead to major positive results. He mentions the example of Portugal. This country, which had a significant portion of its population (1%) taking drugs, which is a lot of people, reduce by 50%. How did this happen? Portugal took a radical step. They removed the ban on all drugs and instead spent a lot of their resources on providing jobs and security to the affected. While this may have been a bold and case specific result, it goes on to show how taking care of abusers helps them a lot more than punishing them. Micheal Botticelli encourages the people who are affected to make their voices heard and confront the stigma associated with substance use disorders. It’s a sensitive talk, one that inspires an actual change in thought process.

    The change in the mindset of society is one of the hardest things to do and like most social issues, the hardest to understand as well. Facts and statistics aren’t always enough to change opinions. So for those of you out there, not so fun fact, 5.3% Indians are drug abusers. That’s for every 20 friends of yours on Facebook, one of them is badly affected by drugs and is in need of help. So while each of us cannot decide on whether or not our country needs a ban on such items, the first thing we all need to do, it to become more accepting and receptive. We need to identify the problem we are facing today as a very real one instead of ignoring it and we need to provide a conducive environment for their recovery. It starts with you.

    Swathi Dhamodaran and Tanvi Kumar
    Volunteer Organizers