Publicised myths promote Ice - NDDCB Chairman Shakkya Nanayakkara | Sunday Observer

Publicised myths promote Ice - NDDCB Chairman Shakkya Nanayakkara

1 January, 2023

The National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, which functions under the Ministry of Defence, is Sri Lanka’s highest authority on narcotics, scheduled substances as well as tobacco and alcohol. The Sunday Observer spoke to NDDCB Chairman Shakkya Nanayakkara regarding the recent increase in crystal methamphetamine (Ice) and other forms of drug abuse in Sri Lanka.

Q: Is there really an Ice epidemic in Sri Lanka?

A: Yes, there is an increase in methamphetamine use if you look at the data from 2022, not just in Sri Lanka but in other countries as well. This is because ice is a synthetic drug and the ways and means of producing it is cheaper now with technological advancements, so the price has reduced a bit which has started a trend in ice use. The drug entered the country’s mainstream in 2020. Though it has been here much earlier, Ice was not that popular back then.

Q:You mentioned that the drug is cheaper to produce. Has Ice been made locally?

A: Sri Lanka does not have any labs that can manufacture the chemicals. There was a lab years ago in Beruwela but it was seized and all those involved were arrested. There are no other reports of local meth labs, Beruwela was the only incident.

Q:How different is methamphetamine from other hard drugs?

A: All drugs are harmful. The most harmful is tobacco. 20,000 people die each year from tobacco use and another 18,000 people die due to alcohol use in Sri Lanka. Other harmful drugs are responsible for about 1,000 – 2,000 deaths. Where the death toll is concerned, tobacco is the number one killer all over the world and then comes alcohol, following which you have all other drugs. The first reason is because there are very few people using illegal drugs.

Secondly, people stop when they really see the harm that these drugs cause and also because there is no social usage of hard drugs. Users experience many have adverse side-effects and psychological complications which discourages further use.

Q: A TV channel interviewed a girl who said she uses 25g of Ice a day. Is there any truth to this?

A: There are no confirmed source regarding this but we know one thing, every year 40,000 people die due to alcohol, tobacco and other substance abuse in Sri Lanka. The industries target over 100,000 young people each year and create 40,000 new users, according to data based on years of research. So our focus should be on all substances to try and stop 40,000 young people from becoming new smokers, drinkers and drug abusers.

Q: You mentioned all these newcomers. What is the average age these industries target?

A: They are around 16, 17 and 18 years of age. But the tobacco, alcohol and drug industries are targeting children as young as 3, 4 and 5 years by the way of cartoons, by subtly placing characters who smoke and drink. Popeye the Sailor Man is a good example of tobacco promotion. If you consider the mindset of a 5 year old boy, tobacco has already been glamorised in his life. If you ask them secretly whether they want to smoke or not, they will most often say yes because they are using them cognitively; they have already smoked and drunk in their imagination.

Then you have motor rehearsal where we observe children rolling bits of paper and pretending to smoke. So these cognitive and motor rehearsals happen from ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 but not all young people get hooked on substances. Majority are experimental users, out of which there are those who get addicted. The main target of these industries is always children.

Q: So you say some children are waiting to grow up just so they can start smoking and drinking?

A: Definitely, we have to intervene very early.

Q: Does sensationalising the drug epidemic making things worse?

A: Yes, because it generalises and normalises substance use. But fortunately, alcohol and tobacco cannot be advertised in most countries. This was purely done for the sake of the children. Decades back alcohol and tobacco advertisements were normal but were banned after 2006 in Sri Lanka. Selling alcohol and tobacco to minors (those under 21) was also banned by the NATA Act. Sri Lanka is a country where laws have been strengthened in this regard.

Q: Are tobacco and alcohol companies using other tactics?

A: They use social media, because the controls don’t apply online. Even in teledramas you can see alcohol and tobacco being glamorised. When a character on a TV show is having problems they are shown next to alcohol. Watching these, young people get the impression that alcohol and substance abuse helps relieve anxiety. These wrong messages and are done purposefully, and have nothing to do with the narrative. This is especially true for the film industry and teledramas where they advertise very subtly. Recently, we have seen how drugs are being promoted in the media like the news story you mentioned, thereby generalising the problem.

Q: What are the age categories that are most at risk?

A: I would say 14, 15, 16 and 17 year olds are the most vulnerable. If we can delay the initiation to 21, 22, 23 and 24 years of age they can get out of it easily. Scientific evidence shows that people are at risk until they are 25 years old because the brain is still developing and some countries are increasing the legal age for alcohol and tobacco sale. In 2006 I was a lawyer fighting this issue in the Supreme Court; we argued that the legal age should be raised to 26. The industry wanted it to be 18 but the court said 21, considering the evidence at that time. But take for example New Zealand; they raised the legal age to the extent that tobacco sale is banned to anyone born after December 2003.

Q: Is today’s Ice epidemic similar to the heroin epidemic in the 1990s?

A: Yes, it is coming up in the same style. It is promoted mostly by publicised myths. Just like heroin, these drugs are purported to help people forget their problems and to ease tiredness, but these are not their real effects. Instead, you get more tired after using these substances. The body tries to get rid of it and metabolism goes up.

They say you can stay up all night after doing ice, but instead what it really does is break your natural sleep cycle. It’s like jet lag. You don’t have to sleep on the first day. But after five days, you have to catch up on your sleep because your body is tired and you’d have to sleep for another five days. So it’s neither profitable nor beneficial. Finally you end up with insomnia, which is not a positive thing but a disorder.

There are also expectancies when it comes to drugs. For example, test subjects were given placebos and they reported the same effects purported to be caused by ice; these effects were psychological and not real at all! It was all a placebo effect plus a discomfort.

Q: How are NDDCB facilities handling the influx of patients?

A: Let’s take heroin use. There are about 120,000 heroin users in Sri Lanka. But we don’t even have 3,000 beds in our facilities. But the good news is, about 80,000 people just stop without even consulting a doctor or intervention. Most of these addictions are psychological and you can stop by addressing that issue without consulting a doctor. If we would say that these addictions are hard to stop and there are special treatment methods, then that 80,000 people who stop on their own don’t even stand a chance. But there are certain people who need intervention; they are not more than 10,000 in number.

These are the individuals who go from centre to centre, always going to hospital and relapsing, they are not in the majority. They need a conducive environment to get clean. We are doing them injustice if we prescribe doctors and medications when it’s a psychological issue, we’ll be making more addicts.

These days we are working on media messages. One is ‘using any substance in unpleasant and painful’ and the second is ‘never pardon or sanction drug induced misbehaviour’, because parents usually hide these issues, especially mothers. So, never ever meet their demands. Never forgive them or give them money to cover up their misbehaviour. Say no on day one. Thirdly, anyone can stop substance use easily. In the 1990s, so many people quit smoking in Sri Lanka. Earlier it was a fad, every house had an ashtray, but all that vanished. Where are those ashtrays? There was no law, it was a people’s movement who said enough is enough and quit smoking the next day. They didn’t use any nicotine pill or nicotine patch, they just quit.

Q: Some countries have drug replacement therapies. Your thoughts?

A: What they use is methadone, which is an opiate substitute. Some agencies suggested that Sri Lanka should also try methadone to treat its drug addicts. Like I said before, this would stop the 80,000 people who quit drugs on their own. They might also get into methadone without getting clean, increasing dependency. This only benefits pharmaceutical companies and happened in Myanmar when they started this program. After two years they halted it when they had to purchase methadone and couldn’t really afford it. We shouldn’t fall into these traps.

Q: How did two years of lockdowns and Covid contribute to the upsurge?

A: This is not just a problem specific to Sri Lanka. Students were forced to stay at home and this had an adverse affect on their psychology. All these industries exploited this isolation. In Sri Lanka, children were also affected by the transportation issue. The children have been at home for around three years and didn’t get to learn and take part in drug prevention programmes.

A 13-year-old is now a 17-year-old who hasn’t heard of the harmful effects of drugs. Schools also focused mostly on academics and stopped all extra-curricular activities, so the message didn’t reach the schools effectively. It’s an unlearning process. As I have mentioned earlier, children have learned these bad habits at an earlier age and need to unlearn them through prevention education programs. We have recommenced these programs and training teachers and education professionals. Recently we trained 200 teachers from the Colombo District.

Q: What are the risk factors present as the country faces economic issues?

A: This is a way the country sends money abroad. Since we don’t have a local tobacco industry the profits go to the British American Tobacco Company, not in rupees but in dollars. Even when it comes to heroin, it’s the gold that is stolen by criminals that is used in the drug deals happening in deep seas. So our gold is in other countries.

Likewise drugs have a big impact on our economy. A regular Grama Sevaka Division spends Rs 30 million on tobacco, alcohol and other substances in a single year. So the financial outlay on tobacco, alcohol and other substances is huge on one side and the money we send abroad is also huge. Furthermore, what we spend on treating smokers is three times the amount we tax on cigarettes which is not a healthy business for the Government.

Q: Do we need the Police to check school bags?

A: The problem has been wrongly interpreted by the Police; even the Ministry of Education did not recommend checking bags. I heard that certain schools which had women as principals, were threatened by drug dealers against checking bags, so they had no choice but to call the Police. However, the drug scare has raised the alertness of parents and teachers which I see as a plus point in the long run.