‘Say no to drugs’, my mom mouthed the oft-repeated government slogan when I was off to junior college. And I patiently waited through all five years at my hip South Bombay college for someone to offer me illegal substances so I could shake my head and say no. But no one ever did.
A few years later, when I moved from my first job at the Free Press Journal to the another news organisation, a colleague warned me of the ‘debauchery’ that awaited me there. Apparently, attending all those parties every night to report on the high-fliers for Page 3 meant being high as a kite. But no. I found myself and all the other Boomtown Rap reporters quite down to earth. Our only indulgence, the machine-waali coffee in our fluorescent-lit office.
Later, I regularly interviewed the Who’s Who of entertainment, business and sports for the Sunday glossies. Meeting them in their workplaces as well as their homes was a normal and regular occurrence. But apart from being offered carrot sticks by John Abraham, assorted chocolates from Bipasha Basu, sweet corn chicken soup by Javed Akhtar, and a delish dinner and drinks at Aamir Khan’s, the only addictive substances I saw doing the rounds everywhere were tea and coffee!
Now, with so much talk about substance abuse, I wonder how it all passed me by! Even my hair stylist proudly gave me a list of all the diverse drugs he has ‘done’. And me, who hasn't even tried smoking weed unlike everyone and their grandma, felt major FOMO. Hopefully, someone will offer me something illegal someday just so I can say no to it and make my mom proud!
But when you think about it, the word drug is such a blanket term for so many different things. Hallucinogens to happy pills, everything is a drug. Where do you draw the line that this one is a medicine and that one is a harmful, addictive substance? In fact, in August this year, the world of science was abuzz with the results of a small study that had proven that the psychedelic drug psilocybin – found in ‘magic mushrooms’ – performed just as well as a widely used antidepressant in easing the symptoms of major depression. An award-winning Netflix documentary called Fantastic Fungi goes into great detail on similar lines, talking about the curative properties of psilocybin and experts positing that human evolution was triggered by the consumption of magic mushrooms.
“In about two million years, the human cortex tripled in size and the brain exploded over a ridiculously short span of evolutionary time,” says ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, in the film, propagating the ‘Stoned Ape’ model of human evolution. McKenna believes that the mind-expanding effects of the mushrooms gave us language and the ability to innovate with tools.
That’s why perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate what we mean when we’re talking about drugs.
Of course, an Udta Punjab situation is terrible, and I’m not taking away from the amazing efforts by all the organisations working so hard to help people get away from the habit.
But addictions really do come in many forms and what substance we abuse is rather subjective. An American psychiatrist who once did a city tour with me asked me whether Indians go to mental health professionals for actual therapy or are they just after prescriptions? That question itself gave me a lot of insight into a world where those who need support for mental issues are also getting hooked onto drugs that give them a high and cause major side-effects when cut off. Sounds familiar?
Another drug that comes disguised all around us is — wait for it — sugar! Yes, this one is said to be the most dangerous of all, even more than other addictions like smokes or alcohol, and it sits innocently on the kitchen shelf. But it also infiltrates so many packaged foods and drinks, and is present in so many things, even in toothpaste, my dentist once told me! And anyone who has had that insatiable dessert craving knows the powerful pull of this insidious substance that we overdose on as kids and try to reduce our intake of only later in life, when the effects of all those sugar rushes start to take their toll. A few manage to go cold turkey, while most others delude themselves that sugar substitutes are better than those shiny, white crystals.
And then there’s love. One that releases happy hormones such as oxytocin into one’s system, gives you a high like no other, keeps you coming back for more, and causes major withdrawal symptoms if taken away. Luckily, in most cases it’s socially sanctioned, and when you get married, they say you’re ‘hooked and booked’. And in this case, unlike in others, the words have a completely positive connotation.