Poppy powder ruining young lives in the GTA
Peel police and Punjabi-Canadians are alarmed by rising number of youth hooked on opium derivative
March 28, 2010
On weekends, as Air India's Toronto-Amritsar-New Delhi flights touch down in Amritsar, a man in an SUV with "The Hermitage" emblazoned on both sides of the vehicle waits patiently in the parking area.
Sometimes he picks up two people, often a larger group. He drives them to a location on the outskirts of the northern Indian city, where they register for a stay ranging from one week to a month.
The Hermitage is not a hotel, resort or spa but a fancy addiction treatment centre where, for roughly $400 to $500 a week, men from the Punjabi community in Brampton and Mississauga try to get rid of their dode addiction.
"We get at least a dozen patients from Canada every month," said Jagdeep Bhatia, administrator at the hospital, adding most are from the Toronto area.
Dode, or poppy powder, is a derivative of the highly addictive and illegal opium commonly used in Punjab, India. It tends to produce an initial high, then a calm but wakeful feeling that lasts several hours. In recent years it has become increasingly popular among Toronto's Punjabi community. Truckers and construction workers use it to stay awake and alert for long hours while on the job.
But local leaders say they are seeing an alarming increase in the use of dode among young people, as well as signs that more people are becoming addicted to the drug.
It is popular, in part, because it is easy to obtain. Despite a police crackdown that saw 1,280 kilos – $2.5 million worth – of dode seized two weeks ago from a Mississauga storage facility and homes in Brampton and Toronto, stores in Peel Region still sell it surreptitiously. Dode was made illegal in Canada about 18 months ago.
It is relatively inexpensive, too: the almond-coloured powder is $40 for 10 grams, enough for a full day for an addict. A gram of cocaine might cost $80 to $100. Dode (a single poppy is called doda) is created by grinding the husks and seeds of the poppy plants and is consumed with tea or water, making it one of the easiest drugs to consume.
It also happens to be one of the toughest to treat.
"We know how to get people off it," said Bhatia, adding Punjabis from Toronto prefer to seek treatment in their own language than to seek help at an addiction centre in Ontario. "There's no communication problem here with us. They can tell us whatever they want. Also, it's far from their families and friends and they can get treated without anyone knowing they were addicted."
The Hermitage isn't the only such centre in northern India treating people from Canada. Parneet Bhullar's 15-room centre at Jalandhar, about 350 kilometres north of New Delhi, treats patients from this country year round.
At Bhatia's centre, each patient spends time with a counsellor and a treatment plan is drawn up. He wouldn't say what drug was used to wean them off, but one source said methadone is commonly used.
Bhatia acknowledges there is a good chance of relapse due to easy availability of the drug. "That's what I hear from my patients," he said.
Despite Peel Police's seizure of such a large dode shipment earlier this month, many more probably made it to their destination, said Sarbjit Singh, an addiction counsellor at Punjabi Community Health Services in Mississauga.
"Everyone knows how easy it is to still find dode at South Asian stores, truck stops, truck yards," said Singh. "You can have it delivered at home too ... you just need to know the right people."
More alarming, he says, is that its use seems to be spreading to younger people, and from South Asian teens to other high school students. Singh, a former addict who has been a counsellor for more than a year, has met high school students hopelessly addicted to the drug.
Just two weeks ago, Singh met a scrawny 17-year-old high school dropout from Brampton – also a dode addict.
"I wasn't shocked ... just really sad," Singh said. "Everyone is addicted to this drug. It was only a matter of time before it caught on with young people, too."
Five years ago, one dried-out poppy would sell for 25 cents in Peel stores. As more people became addicted, the price rose to $1, then $2 and more. Sellers began grinding the flowers and selling them in small doses for users to drink with water or tea. Now it is sold in Ziploc bags and little boxes.
Traditionally used by men, dode is now also being used by women, said Brampton Councillor Vicky Dhillon. Dhillon says he has met women who work long hours in factories and are consuming dode-laced tea.
"Yes, I know there is a ban on the flower and the plant, but more people still seem to be getting addicted to it," said Dhillon, who has been calling for community action to spread awareness about its addictive nature.
"It's like a scourge in this community," said Dhillon. He recently went to a Brampton family's house where the addicted husband hadn't worked in a year.
"His wife was working at a grocery store ... earning minimum wage but he still took money from her for his addiction."
Hundreds of families are impacted, yet most efforts by Peel Police are futile, Singh said.
Keeping an eye on certain stores or suspects isn't going to rein in the bigger wholesalers, he said.
Peel officers are trained to identify the drug, said Const. Wayne Patterson of Peel Regional Police. "If confronted with dode, I believe a majority of officers would be able to identify it."
Patterson acknowledged concern over its use spreading to high schools.
"That's its potential and it's very scary."
This was front page news on the Toronto Star