The fact is that drugs are now a fact of life among all social classes in Nepal's towns. From labourers right up to the Kathmandu elite, drug abuse has by all accounts grown into crisis proportions.
Nepalis have always been blas? about drugs: it is culturally accepted to smoke hashish and opiates are consumed within the family environment during festivals such as Teej or Tihar. And if Shiva himself indulged in marijuana, it is no surprise that the royalty found reason to do the same. In recent years, numerous surveys have reported a rapid spread of injectable drug use among the lower strata of society as well.
Frustration among jobless youth and boredom among the upper classes who don't need jobs have fed the epidemic. If marijuana was a part of our culture, Nepali addicts have now graduated to modern designer drugs and abuse of prescription pharmaceutical products. Narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, cannabis, organic solvents, they are all freely available on the streets. "We can solve the problem but there is a lack of political will," complains a highly placed source within the Narcotics Drug Law Control Enforcement Unit.
Marijuana and alcohol were never hard to get, and the hippie era in the 1970s brought in other drugs such as opium, heroin, and the infamous Lysergic Acid Diethyl amide (LSD), an extremely powerful hallucinogen that could cause permanent brain damage. The 1980s saw a rise in heroin addiction, and the 1990's led to more morphine based drugs such as cough syrups (Phencidyl was a huge brand name), depressants such as Valium, Xanex and Nitrozepam normally prescribed by doctors for anxiety, tension, insomnia, and stress. Those who couldn't afford expensive drugs, simply injected the easily-available analgesic, Tidigesic.
Today, with the globalised drug market reaching Nepal, the upper class also has access to pushers who bring in crack, speed and even ecstasy. There are no reliable figures, but the number of hard drug users in Nepal's urban centres is now said to have passed 50,000. Because many of them are injecting the drugs and sharing needles, this has become one of the main factors in the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B. Several surveys have shown that many of the sex workers in Kathmandu also inject drugs, and one estimate put the number of sex workers with HIV at 18 percent. "Most women drug users sell sex to earn money to meet their drug needs," explains Sunita Singh Malla, of the Richmond Fellowship Nepal.
One often-ignored factor is that alcohol is also a drug. And the use of alcohol in combination with drugs increases the potential for both overdose, death and addiction and if another drug like alcohol or barbiturate is used with heroin the effects are much greater than one would expect. "Drugs are not the problem. They are they are the result of a problem, and it is the height of folly to think that the problem will go away by ignoring it," says Mike Krajniak, a psychotherapist at the Youth Vision Drug Abuse Recovery Centre in Maharajgunj. "The problem has to do with relationships, which are dictated by culture. Therefore, we need to take a good honest look at how we are treating each other."
Studies among hard core drug users show that in a majority of cases marijuana gets young people started on the path to addiction. Once there is an addict in the family, there is an effort to keep it under wraps. This is especially true in families with higher incomes because of the fear of losing face. Among lower class families, on the other hand, studies have shown entire communities taking part in trafficking and subsequent abuse of drugs. Families often lack the information or the knowledge necessary to address the issue, says Rajendra Shrestha of Freedom Centre, a drug rehabilitation centre started in 1983. He says: "Families however educated they may be lack the skill to tackle problems related to drug abuse and that is where counselling comes in. Sadly there are only a handful of rehabilitation centres in Kathmandu." Freedom Centre currently has 24 addicts on rehabilitaiton: most of them from middle or lower income families. Not more than 100-150 drug users are at the handful of treatment centres in the valley. Given the scale of the crisis, this is woefully inadequate.