When Faizan*, then 24, dropped out of a journalism course from Delhi University, things weren’t going great for him. He’d broken up with his girlfriend of four years, and was constantly at the receiving end of barbs from parents and relatives regarding his career options. That’s when he began drinking cough syrup to get high.
“Half a bottle of Corex was enough for me. No chemist ever suspected me when I was buying three bottles in a single go.” Faizan described the intoxication as kind of euphoric, closer to weed than anything else, with occasional hallucinations. “I would be asleep till the half of the next day and have a go again in the evening.” Faizan claimed that the syrup and other OTC medications helped him fight depression for nearly a year. He had no trouble procuring the bottles, as “who would want to turn away a customer?”, he said.
With the government proposing a new pilot program on de-addiction as part of the National Drug Remand Policy currently under review, it’s possible that over-the-counter painkillers, codeine-based cough syrups and other easily abused pharmaceutical drugs may become more tightly controlled.
As of now these grey area medicines are still a huge problem. On June 25 this year, Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Dev launched an anti-drug campaign in his state, apart from the usual drugs seized were 50,116 bottles of cough syrup. The range of drugs included alprazolam, diazepam depressants, sleeping pills, DMX and Phensedyl syrups, Proxyvon pills, body-building pills and even Paracetamol.
We spoke to a few chemists about what they did to prevent the abuse of these easy-to-buy medication. “Generally it is young men who come to get it from us,” said Manoj Gupta, who runs Manoj Medicos near the New Delhi Railway Station. “Sometimes the person just stands for five minutes, stares at us before asking for a narcotic medicine.”
He said he gets around 10 people a day who look zoned out. “We keep shooing them off but they keep coming back. Those shops there sell to them,” he said, gesturing vaguely towards the main bazaar of Paharganj.
A neighbouring shop’s owner remembered the time when the sale of black iodex skyrocketed after a ban on alcohol in Haryana, before prohibition was revoked in 2013 by then chief minister. “I haven’t sold a medicine to any client without a prescription,” he said.
Vishal Arora, another chemist, said rail travellers sometimes buy medicine in bulk. “We sell everything at a cheap rate, so NRIs and even foreigners buy cough syrups, iodex in bulk. How would I know whether he is a druggie or a NRI?” he said. “You can’t judge customers like that. Most likely he is a hardworking person just trying to save some bucks.”
Even so, Arora sometimes won’t sell if someone’s hands are shaking, he said.
It’s not just India that has faced the growing problem of OTC medicine abuse. The use of codeine-based syrup as an intoxicant has been reported in United States, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana. Though the worst hit has been Nigeria, where the cough syrup addiction has become a full-blown crisis, with some pharmaceutical firms alleged to fuelling its spread.
Meanwhile, Faizan has a government job, a girlfriend who adores him and satisfied parents. “Relatives are still a pain in the ass,” he laughs. He has stopped chugging cough syrup. Though his friends have moved onto harder drugs, he hasn’t. “I just don’t want to be dependent on a substance to make myself happy.”
The head salesman at Chaturbhuj and Brothers in Delhi’s Connaught Place said he simply asks for a doctor’s prescription before selling medicines that can be abused. “It’s not just prescription, but the date of the prescription that matters. We are careful if the drug is narcotic,” he said.
To test the vigilance of the chemists, I went to the Apollo Pharmacy, and asked for a cough syrup of a really high dosage. The salesman picked out three out of a rack of orange, red and green bottles - rejecting my repeated demands to give me “something strong”. I picked the one with the brand name Torex.
As I savoured the sweet, savoury taste of the syrup walking out of the shop, I realised that not all heroes wear capes. Some just work at the chemist shop.
*Name has been changed.
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