Drop-In Centres for drug users: Unsung heroes of harm reduction

Drop-In Centres for drug users: Unsung heroes of harm reduction

Gangtok: June 26t: On the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, issues that infest Sikkim more than anything, sharing centre stage with mental health issues and unemployment.

Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking torments the state. With the Police Capturing numerous illicit shipments of drugs more often than not, most recent are the few instances of Sikkim Police intercepting and capturing shipments of copious amounts of drugs, even in the lockdown.

Rehabilitation centres, counselling forums, NGOs, and other independent and state-run forums for drug users who seek help, or those who have lost their way are common in Sikkim but the society as a whole is still staggering its way to awareness.

The theme of the year for anti-drug abuse day organised by Sikkim Rehabilitation and Detoxification Society (SRDS) was “Better Knowledge for Better Care.”

The deeds live up to the name as their Drop-In Centres (DICs) are working to help people suffering from drug-related issues with empathy, understanding and harmony. The Project Manager, Rinzing Bhutia, SRDS, informs that these DICs were opened under the (NSEP) Needle Syringe Exchange Program for injecting drug users, this program is also called Harm Reduction Program, and this program is funded by (NACO) National Aids Control Organisation and supported by Sikkim State Aids Control Society (SSACS).

These DICs are based to focus on mostly injecting drug users by giving them fresh syringes, counselling, and showing them a better way to detoxification and ultimately a sober way of life. Bhutia says that these programs are still frowned upon by society as they see the DICs as facilitating addicts as a source.

“The services that we provide is providing fresh syringes so they can be saved from HIV and AIDS as a part of the Harm Reduction Program, we provide free condoms for safer sex practice, and we counsel them to educate them on the negative effects of their practice,” says Bhutia.

“This is seen as a controversial topic as people look at it as us helping on the drug problem in Sikkim, and we hear it more often as well from society. They don’t know that we can’t tell users to abruptly leave their habit or addicts to miraculously get out of their addiction, it is a process,” she adds.

As per information shed by Bhutia, drug addicts can’t accept that they are diseased in the first place, so society is a far cry. There is a process to freeing addicts from the clutches of addiction and the process includes first counselling them with peers who are users on the way to recovery through these DICs.

Focusing more on the injecting users, these users are first educated to do safer injecting through behavioural counselling and are tested for any diseases like HIV, Hepatitis etc. Opium Substitute Therapy (OST) then brings them to a lower stratum of addiction to oral drugs by referring them to Hospitals like STNM where OS Therapies are done. After these, they are then sent to rehabilitation centres.

“Somewhere this program is for abstinence but there are layers from injecting to abstinence. This disease (addiction) is prone to people relapsing but we want to educate people on safer usage so they can be helped with minimum harm,” Bhutia says.

Stressing on people who have no idea of what injectable drugs are and what are not, and losing limbs to life in the process of irresponsible and uneducated drug use, Rinzing Bhutia says, “This is harm reduction because Sikkim and surrounding areas aren’t in access to the injectable drugs where people inject whatever, from the wrong drugs to cheap and harmful drugs, people have lost their limbs and life, they suffer brain damage, they suffer irrevocable harm because they don’t have that idea of a safer way.”

“People think that we are helping the addicts by educating them but on the contrary, we are helping save lives, and with users and addicts this is the way,” Bhutia says.

There are forums like Sikkim Drug Users program where people are proactively educating people on harm reduction, which Bhutia stresses, “isn’t advocated as much as it is needed to be.”

The ultimate goals of these DICs are to create a haven devoid of any dogma. Bhutia informs that Sikkim has done a substantial reduction in supply and demand with all the laws and patrolling by the authorities but ultimately it is about saving lives.

The DICs are like daycare doing a tremendous job, Bhutia says as she concludes, “This program by SRDS was started in 2004 in Sikkim and has now gained a little pace. Talking about the success when we started in Gangtok there were about 1500 IDs with substantial cases of related sickness like HIV but now it is just about 250 IDs, which is a big leap. In these numbers, the cases of HIV is 0.”