Too close for comfort: Drug consumption is getting too close for comfort with the average age of UAE schoolchildren involved down to 12 Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dubai: Amit, 15, is a good student. He studies in an international school in Dubai and has many friends. Recently, one of them sent him an SMS: “I have got a new lot, would you be interested?”

Shrugging off the message, Amit said: “It’s nothing new. There are three, four boys in school who send these messages whenever they get a new supply of drugs. They get it from someone outside.”

If you think that’s brazen, think again. In August, the Public Prosecution interrogated two girl students who had in their possession 234 Flunitrazepam pills, a psychotropic substance. Last month, Dubai Police arrested a teenager who had been lured by an international gang to sell drugs to his school friends. And just last week the police arrested a 39-year-old man who had enrolled at a night school where he was selling banned painkillers and other drugs to young students.

In what is a chilling reality, drug peddling and consumption are getting too close for comfort as the supply chain seeps into the safety of homes and schools. The problem is so serious that Major General Abdul Jalil Mahdi Al Asmawi, Director of the General Department of Anti-Narcotics at Dubai Police, has issued a warning saying the average age of schoolchildren involved has fallen from 16 to 12.

Reporting cases

“Some schools have the courage and morals to report children who are addicts in their school or those who sell drugs. I encourage all schools to report such cases to us in order to protect a whole generation,” he told Gulf News.

Last year, five cases of drug abuse were reported in schools. This year, Dubai Police have joined hands with many schools to wipe out the scourge by launching a campaign called ‘Together for Drug-Free Schools’. They also arrested 1,022 people in drug-related cases and banned 40 websites from where drugs are sourced. But the problem continues to plague society. 

Name It, They’ve Tried It

Dubai-based clinical psychologist Dr Rory McCarthy said: “I consult 12 to 15 teenagers for various problems every month, and they’ve all done drugs at least once. You name it and they’ve tried it.” A 15-year-old who got hooked on a prescription drug he tried for better concentration; a boy who stashed 60 deodorants in his room for inhalation; a teen who consumed a homemade drug (nutmeg tea) and slipped into a coma; a group of clubbing teens who tripped on ecstasy; a 16-year-old who was high on butane on the ground floor of his home while his parents were having alcohol and hasish on a higher floor – there are many school kids abusing many substances in the UAE.

Cutting across nationalities, these kids are generally from affluent families with easy access to money, friends and social networking. While the internet remains a key site to place orders, dubious suppliers operate across the country, zeroing in on “weak” schoolchildren.

As the Dubai Courts investigates the case of a youth who had 2,600 Tramadol pills in his possession, the number of Emiratis arrested for using Tramadol without prescription in Dubai is said to have increased 54 per cent since 2011, and it has seen a 110 per cent rise among expatriates. Dubai Customs recently seized 91 million Tramadol pills and launched a campaign against its misuse among children as young as 12.

A popular painkiller, Tramadol – which costs just Dh16 for a pack of 10 tablets (50mg) was made a prescription drug only last year. Even so, it is widely available along with other drugs such as Artin and Camadrin.

“The basic thing with drugs or substances is that they give you a buzz. Young children who are impressionable take it to feel good, boost self-esteem, assert themselves or out of boredom, curiosity and peer pressure,” said Dr McCarthy. “They don’t think of the consequences.”


Parents’ Concern

With the problem assuming frightening proporations, parents said they can no longer take the safety of their children for granted.

Deborah, mother of a teenager studying in an international school, said: “Schools are doing their best to be vigilant. But my nagging concern is that my 16-year-old could just succumb to peer pressure one day and try out something he shouldn’t. From what we hear, even smoking and alcohol are rampant. Some kids have been caught smoking on the school premises, but other students are generally tight-lipped about it. My son once received a warning from a boy who said he was having his “morning fix” and that he “better not tell anybody about it”.


After-school parties

She alleged: “After-school parties are common where kids as young as 13 and 14 are invited. They have no hesitation trying out anything they are offered as they want to look cool and fit in.”

Amit’s mother Sushma said she would never have known her son was being offered drugs if she had not chanced upon the SMS on his phone. “As far as I know, he has not bought or consumed drugs as I closely monitor him. But there’s only that much I can do when access is so easy and temptation so high.”

Early this month, another mother told the Dubai Criminal Court that the cannibis drug spice is so freely available that even the court could order some. Her son had just confessed to possessing and consuming the drug. With 5gm of the banned spice commanding a price of around Dh2,000, it is anybody’s guess how the children can afford it.

Sociologist Dr Rima Sabban said if it is true that children are sourcing drugs from the internet, it would require the use of credit cards. “This is a serious concern as it becomes a family issue. It is not easy for drugs to seep in if there is good monitoring both at home and in schools. If parents are too busy and leave children to their own, they could be influenced by third parties who are destructive.”

Dr McCarthy said substance abuse doesn’t necessarily entail big money. “Many children are addicted to substances that are household items which serve as vapour drugs like cleaning agents, paints, nail polish and sprays. They are generally available at home and can even be bought for small sums at neighbourhood groceries and supermarkets. We have also heard of cases where audacious children pinch prescription pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets.”

She said do-it-yourself drug tips from the internet are also taking their toll as in the case of a 15-year-old boy who made and consumed nutmeg tea with instructions from a website. He ended up in a coma for three days. “Parents should constantly look out for danger signs among children and promptly seek professional and medical help (see box).”

The authorities are also urging parents to treat those addicted to drugs as patients and send them to rehabilitation centres. In the five cases of drug abuse among school students last year, parents were asked to get their children medically treated and the peddlers were tracked down and arrested.

Note: Some names have been changed to protect identity

 Helpline: The number to call to help fight the drug menace: 800400400


Danger Signs

The signs that parents and teachers should look out for in children include hostility, mood swings, excessive laughter, depression, withdrawn behaviour, secretiveness, making excuses, lethargy, poor concentration, sleep problems, change in friends, runny eye and nose and poor appetite.

Once a drug problem is identified, medical treatment must immediately be sought as addiction can lead to breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, muscle atrophy, convulsions, chronic depression, hallucinations, aggression, epilepsy, coma and even death.