When you think of an opium user, your mind might conjure an image of a disheveled man, worn down by life, with hollowed cheeks and a distant look in his eyes. But what if I told you that opium has found its way into the lives of seemingly normal, physically fit individuals, discreetly blending into society?
Meet Davinder Chauhan*, a 28-year-old web developer at a major IT company in Chandigarh. I caught up with him on his way back from work, sitting in his rickety red car, dressed in formal office attire and carrying his laptop bag. Aside from the telltale dark circles under his eyes, there was no indication that this robust young man has been consuming legal opiates for the past five years.
As we drove in his old Maruti Swift, we ventured to the outskirts of Chandigarh, a satellite city technically under the Indian state of Punjab. Our destination: a local chemist shop. Chauhan dashed out of his car, returning five minutes later with a branded bottle of Unani medicine, proudly displaying the prominent ingredient – Afum, Afyun, or opium.
Punjab’s relationship with opiates, including heroin, is no secret. A study by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) revealed that three out of four addicts are hooked before the age of 21. Surprisingly, opium, typically associated with older generations, has found its place among the youth as a daily indulgence, much like cannabis in other parts of India.
“It’s a standardized dose, bro. Pure afeem won’t harm you like pharmaceuticals or alcohol because it’s natural. Even my father used to take it after a tiring day,” Chauhan shared as he swallowed two small pills, followed by large gulps of a Red Bull. This curious combination was his way of countering opium’s drowsy effects with caffeine-induced energy.
Traditionally, opium was known as the working person’s remedy. Used as an analgesic, it fueled tired laborers, enabling them to power through their tasks – whether building roads, houses, or working in the fields. Today, it’s rumored to help coders maintain hyper-focus on computer screens for hours.
The allure of opium lies in its easy accessibility and affordability – a mere 400-rupee bottle is all it takes. However, unlike cannabis, reaching the overdose threshold with opium is surprisingly simple. Recovery from addiction is agonizingly slow, with state-run rehabs overwhelmed by over a million addicts, not to mention those seeking faith-based healing. Overcrowded hospitals in Punjab further complicate the recovery process.
In India, the liberal interpretation of traditional medicine regulations has opened doors for products like Kamini Vidrawan Ras, an “Indian Viagra.” The composition, which contains opium alongside ingredients like sandalwood and saffron, is produced and sold by registered Ayurvedic medicine manufacturers. Despite warnings by the FDA about opiate-induced erectile dysfunction, users in Punjab claim the opposite.
Abhimanyu Saini*, a 28-year-old, incorporates opium into his sex life, considering it part of foreplay with his girlfriend. “Opium heightens pleasure in repetitive tasks. You feel everything is intensified and relaxed. Plus, there’s no pain, no matter how vigorous you are,” Saini grinned, his eyes lighting up as he delved into his experiences.
Medicines like Kamini Vidrawan Ras don’t necessarily require a prescription from a licensed Ayurvedic doctor, as they can be sold by licensed sellers. This “indigenous medicine” has garnered warnings abroad, with Australian authorities cautioning against its use due to potential addiction.
Despite occasional police raids and administrative actions, these products can still be found in small urban stores throughout India. Saini, who began using opiates at seventeen, found a novel way to avoid judgmental chemists during the COVID lockdown: purchasing opium online from leading retailers like Flipkart and Amazon, or online medicine shops like 1mg.
Embracing my journalistic curiosity, I decided to delve into this hidden world. I ordered popular brands through Flipkart, tempted by user reviews claiming they provided the ultimate “kicks.” The packages arrived promptly, no questions asked. My partner scoffed at my intention to explore opium’s sexual enhancement powers, suggesting I confine my research to a more private space.
Turning to Ravi Thukral*, a 28-year-old who rarely indulges in substances, I found a willing participant. Ravi, intrigued by the prospect of relief from a dust-induced cough, sampled opium-infused products. His laughter and anecdotes of heightened sensations painted a vivid picture.
Caught between apprehension and temptation, I ventured into the unknown – a journalistic quest that promised unique insights. While opium’s mystique entices, its potential risks are equally potent. The journey continues, a balance between curiosity and caution.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.