Schoolchildren in the area attending the launch of the National Program for Drug Eradication which was held this week with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena and several other dignitaries

Fulfilling the government’s pledge to protect future generations from the drug menace, the National Program for Drug Eradication was launched this week under the theme ‘A Drug free Nation’ with raids and drug related awareness programs being heightened during the time period lasting till August 9.

It was during one such raid that 700 bottles of soft drinks, which had been laced with intoxicants, were found in Makola – North in the Sapugaskanda Police Division. The soft drinks which came with a spraying feature were aimed at being sold to school children with the Police seizing another 40 gunny bags of empty bottles which had been brought there to be filled with the intoxicating drink.

The soft drinks which came with a spraying feature were aimed at being sold to schoolchildren with the Police seizing another 40 gunny bags of empty bottles which had been brought there to be filled with the intoxicating drink

Sapugaskanda Police OIC P.G.S.R. Sanjeewa when contacted said investigations had revealed that intoxicants had been imported from China. He said the intoxicants were the color of popular soft drinks and the bottles were styled to make them look like the popular brands as well. “However, the drinks have an intoxicating effect like a drug for children,” he noted.

Police were able to recover 700 bottles filled with the intoxicant when they raided the warehouse that was storing them. The discovery of so many bottles has led the police to believe that this is a mass-scale operation targeting school children.

The priority now would be to track down the shops that would have obtained any of the intoxicant bottles issued through the warehouse, the OIC said. “There is no question that shop owners would not know the nature of these drink bottles. They have to be involved in the racket as well,” he pointed out.

With this being one of the many cases reported recently, there appears to be widespread concern regarding the welfare of children among educators and parents alike.

Speaking to The Nation, Ananda College Colombo Principal Kithsiri Liyanagamage spoke of challenges faced by educators in protecting children from such substances. According to him one of the greatest challenges lies with identifying the potential intoxicating items as they come in various forms and packaging. “Most are packaged very attractively such as the bottles that emit the drink as a spray” he said adding that therefore it is difficult to dissuade children from consuming such things.

According to Liyanagamage, various drug eradication campaigns are carried out in the school while constant checks are also done by prefects to ensure such items are not brought in to school. “We also educate parents on such issues” he said adding that even though the school is one of great prestige it is located in an unsafe environment. “Therefore we are extra cautious regarding the children” he said. While admitting that such items may not contain large amounts of intoxicants never the less children should be discouraged from consuming them.

As preventive methods the Principal said Intoxicants (Madana Modaka) should only be permitted to be sold in pharmacies while it would be helpful for schools if Public Health Inspectors (PHI) could heighten the checks made by them in school canteens. “At times we feel we are fighting a losing battle as the manufacturers of these times come up with newer ways to attract children” he said.

Dr. Sanjeewa Ranaweera of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and former Chairman of the National Dangerous Drug Control Board said reporting of such incidents further creates a sense of curiosity in children. “With such wide reporting of such incidents, children will likely be enticed to go in search of such items” he said adding that therefore giving such national coverage will promote substance use. According Dr. Ranaweera therefore such raids should be dealt with on a local level.

Dr. Ranaweera opined that the media tends to sensationalize the various incidents, but do not report the test results as this is an anti climax to the hype built up by them. According to him, when tested most such items contain tobacco and other drugs available in the market. While if consumed long term, these can have adverse effects. According to him, children see many of these as the latest fad only to be discarded after a time period.
However, the message from President Maithripala Sirisena at the launch of the drug eradication program has been severe. While calling on children to not fall prey to the drug menace, the President has requested children to be mindful of its dangers.

“In Sri Lanka many such intoxicants are depressants, in other words give a sleep like effect” he says adding that it does not cause users to self-harm or be excitable. “This is what is interpreted as a high in Sri Lanka even though in reality it does not cause such an effect” he said. According to Dr. Ranaweera, authorities must make sure any efforts to eradicate drugs from the country are not counterproductive. He said that efforts must be taken to normalize the use of drugs in the country.

NCPA raises awareness

Speaking to The Nation National Child Protection Authority Chairperson Natasha Balendra said they had been receiving many complaints regarding substance abuse among schoolchildren. The NCPA for its part had been actively involved in educating and raising awareness among children and the community at large regarding the ill effects of these drugs, she added.

NCPA officials at district and divisional level had recently undergone a training program conducted by ADIC where they were briefed on the importance of changing perceptions among children regarding the usage of drugs and tobacco, she revealed. “Those engaged in selling these products target children with the perception that it is cool to use drugs and to smoke. Some use them as stress-relievers. Our campaign is aimed at changing those perceptions.”