Goa: from drugs to rehab

by AFP/Phil Hazlewood, Mar 25, 2009 | Destinations: India / Goa

Anjuna, March 11, 2009 - The easy availability of drugs in Goa has been a draw for many tourists since the days of the hippie trail in the 1960s. Now some are coming to the Indian resort state to kick the habit.

Several drug rehabilitation centres have sprung up near the sun-kissed, palm tree-lined beaches that attract some 400,000 overseas visitors every year, offering detox programmes at cut-price rates.

One of them is Saint Anthony's Hospital and Research Centre, a private 40-bed facility in Anjuna, northern Goa, a short drive from the bamboo beach bars that are a magnet for young, foreign ravers and ageing hippies.

Last year, 84 people were treated here for drug addiction. All but three of them were Westerners, its medical director Jawaharlal Henriques told AFP.

"Switzerland, France, Holland, Russia, Israel... There's no country you can leave out," the 61-year-old doctor said of clients' home countries.

"They've never been referred by any (foreign) doctor. It's always been someone or other telling (an addict) to come here. Some of them have seen it on the Internet also."

Places like Saint Anthony's show the darker side of Goa: what can happen when tourists succumb to the hard-sell of the pushers who openly offer marijuana, cocaine, LSD and amphetamines on the streets.

German tourist Michael is just skin and bones with sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, lank brown hair and has traces of vomit on his faded, green t-shirt. He is receiving treatment for heroin addiction.

"In Berlin I already had a little drug problem. I have a stressful job. I took a little bit of cocaine and amphetamines, then to calm down smoked charas (hashish) and brown (heroin)," he said.

"I wasn't that bad. I wasn't addicted. I could control myself and work."

Michael -- who asked that his real name not be used -- is in his late 30s, educated, has a job back home in the media and speaks fluent English. He came to Goa last November hoping to ditch his developing drugs habit.

"In the beginning it was fine," he said. "Then I met somebody. I smoked Chinawhite (a powerful, synthetic heroin) with him. It just got worse and worse and worse every day.

"After three to four weeks, I was dosing up to one gram every day. I lost myself completely."

Friends eventually brought him to Saint Anthony's after his own attempts at detox failed, he hadn't eaten for a week and had been robbed twice.

"The doctor talked to me and said everything will be fine after probably 10 days. I feel very weak but I can now eat again," he said.

Scanned copies of foreign passports lie on Henriques' desk in his white-tiled consulting room next to piles of medical case notes, scattered packets of prescription drugs and a battered, yellow typewriter.

"We take care of all types of patients," he said, reeling off cases such as the Italian lawyer and the English engineer who overused marijuana, or the Frenchman taking a potentially lethal mix of ketamine, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine and cannabis.

No one is turned away

At just under 3,000 dollars, drug rehabilitation here is a fraction of the cost in the West.

With Goa easily accessible by air, that makes detox part of the "health tourism" sector -- low-cost medical treatment attractive to foreigners.

But Henriques said that despite the price, patients rarely pay the full amount.

"There are so many patients who come to you. Some have no money. But the effort (to get treatment) is there. They tell you straight away they can't afford to pay more than 10,000 rupees (200 dollars)," he said.

"They are never turned away," he said. "The money has not been my criterion. It's a vocation. I'm doing what a doctor must do."

Many former patients are eternally grateful.

Andrey, a 40-year-old from Moscow with a twisted knot of dreadlocked hair, and his Swiss girlfriend Shannon arrive with flowers for the doctor.

There are warm smiles and hugs as they thank Henriques for helping Andrey quit heroin.

But good news has not always been associated with Goa, which made headlines for the wrong reasons in February last year when a British teenager was found dead on Anjuna Beach.

Scarlett Keeling, 15, had taken a cocktail of drink and drugs and been raped before she died.

State government officials warned soon after that places like Anjuna were "hotbeds for drugs and narcotic substances" and a police crackdown followed.

A senior police officer told AFP the drive had been largely successful, but Henriques knows that, much like anywhere else in the world and despite supposedly strict laws, "you can get drugs whenever you want in Goa".

"In Goa no one will approach me, but I know from my patients and others that peddlers are everywhere," he said.

That puts places like Saint Anthony's in increasing demand, he added.

For people like Michael, exposure to bars, backpackers hostels and beaches where cannabis joints are smoked as openly as cigarettes is too much temptation and he plans to return to Germany soon.

"If I stay here I'm really afraid I'll meet the same people again and it will start from the beginning," he said.

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