Experimenting With Death

For several years now, Israelis have not been going to India and other destinations around the world to tour or trek. They're going to take drugs. Thousands return with severe problems, yet little is known about what drives them to near-destruction

Each year, 30,000 backpackers - equivalent to one-third of all Israeli 21-year-olds - head for India. Almost 2,000, or about 1 in 15, return home in need of psychological treatment for drug abuse. Close to 600 are hospitalized.

Hilik Magnus can't quite put his finger on the exact time and date, but he knows that around five or six years ago, a new type of client began to request his unique services. Until then, he had been dealing with Israelis who had been swept away in the rapids of a Peruvian river, or hikers who might have fallen from the steep cliffs of a Bolivian mountain range, or adventurers buried beneath an avalanche in the Himalayas. But the frequency of phone calls he began to receive from alarmed parents, who would tell him other sorts of stories, grew progressively greater.

"At first, we weren't aware of the significance of what these parents were telling us," says Magnus, who has for the past seven years has headed the Harel-Shiloah insurance company's backpacker rescue team. "They'd say that their son or daughter had gone completely insane and that we had to rescue them. We'd go out there without knowing what was waiting for us. When other cases like this began to pile up, we began to wonder if maybe an entire generation had gone insane.

"At the time, whenever we would have to look into a story about an Israeli who'd gone missing, the insurance company people would ask if this person was using drugs. They were hoping it would reduce their accountability. I soon realized that if we treated all the travelers this way, we could simply stop issuing insurance policies. Almost all Israeli backpackers overseas are involved with drugs in one form or another."

All of the organizations and groups that deal with backpackers are in complete agreement with this statement: The majority of Israeli backpackers use drugs. Since the advent of the Israeli backpacker phenomenon in the 1980s, the "time-out" that young Israelis take between the end of their army service and the start of "real life" has been characterized by experimentation in the narcotic realm.

Experimenting with drugs in the three most popular destinations for the post-army crowd - India, Southeast Asia and South America - has become an integral element in their attempt to break free, if only for a few months, from the pressures of Israeli reality. Jaime's Farm in Ecuador, for instance, became a pilgrimage site for Israeli backpackers in the early `90s. They would flock to the pastoral site in order to experiment - in a controlled environment - with the hallucinatory effects of the peyote cactus.

By the mid-1990's, drug experimentation was just another element in the whole package of going abroad. Usually it was secondary, not as important as the encounter with exotic sites and different cultures or difficult physical challenges. Since that time, however, something has happened to the Israeli backpacker. At first, and to a certain extent even now, a distinction was made between backpackers who went to the East and those who went South. The conventional wisdom was that the South people were more interested in different cultures, long treks and breathtaking landscapes. Those who headed to the East were looking for quiet.

The favorite sites of Israeli backpackers in East Asia and South America essentially reflected this generalization: the hub of Israeli backpacking life in South America is Cuzco, the Inca capital that is loaded with archaeological treasures, and which serves as a launching point for treks to Machu Picchu. In the East, the Israelis prefer the island of Koh Samui in Thailand and the coastal province of Goa in South India. They do not come to the spectacular beaches of Koh Samui or Goa to bone up on local culture, and most certainly not to take long treks. All they want is to lie on the beach, sip a fruit shake through a straw, dance at parties, smoke hashish, marijuana or charras (the Indian hashish) by day and swallow LSD, Ecstasy, and magic mushrooms at huge trance parties by night.

Snuffed out

In the past few years, say Israeli backpackers, travelers from other countries and local residents, Israelis have gotten a reputation of being the most obsessive drug users. They are the ones for whom smoking drugs and taking pills have become their sole pursuit; they are the ones that consume the largest quantities of any drug they can manage to get their hands on.

"The visit to India by most Israeli backpackers has altered; what was once a pleasure trip is now a drug camp," says Magnus, describing the change that has taken place in the Israeli backpacker culture in the past few years. "It's been years since the travel agencies in Manali [a destination for Israeli travelers in northern India] have sold any tour packages to Israelis. They don't go rafting, don't take treks. They don't do anything. They move en masse into the guest houses in these regions, where you can get good charras, and then proceed to wallow in them for months on end. They open their eyes in the morning and right away stick their head into a chillum [a tool for smoking drugs]. And they keep this up all day long. People are in an utter state of apathy. It is an environment of young people in their early 20s, but there isn't any sort of sexual atmosphere there. People simply look snuffed out."

Statistics released in August by the Anti-Drug Authority, in the wake of a visit to India by heads of the organization and senior Health Ministry officials, indicate that the travelers are not only snuffed out, but also damaged. Based on the authority's data, 600 backpackers are admitted each year to psychiatric hospitals in Israel due to problems resulting from drug use during their trip abroad. About 2,000 others are treated in private frameworks.

The essence of these statistics only becomes clear when the entire picture is considered. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, some 50,000 Israeli backpackers go abroad each year. In order to understand this statistic, one must bear in mind that the entire population of 21-year-old Jews in 2003 was less than 87,000. In other words, close to 60 percent of all Israelis in this age group go backpacking. The 2,000 that return with mental problems caused by drug abuse abroad represent 4 percent of all backpackers, and about 2.5 percent of the entire age group.

Anti-Drug Authority officials claim the news is even worse. According to their data, the majority of backpackers who return to Israel with signs of psychological damage come from India, the destination of about 30,000 Israeli backpackers each year. In other words, about 6 percent of those who travel to India will come back with psychological problems, and 2 percent will be hospitalized. It is worth repeating this statistic: One of every 50 backpackers heading to India will be hospitalized. Many of those who return to Israel in a dismal mental state do not even receive treatment.

Dr. Mickey Reiter, deputy director of the Health Ministry's Addictions Unit, says the authorities have been aware of the problem for three or four years, but that very little is known about the characteristics of the afflicted backpackers. No governmental authority, institution or ministry - such as the Anti-Drug Authority or the Addictions Unit - carries out systematic follow-up on the destinations from which most of the drug-afflicted Israelis have come. The "worst" countries are India and Thailand. No one has bothered to find out if drug abuse is worse in certain specific areas of the two countries; no one knows if there is a correlation between the age of the drug users and their chances of entering a psychopathic state as a result of drug use. Nor does anyone know which drugs and in what quantities are the primary causes of psychotic states.

The connection between service in combat units and psychological problems caused by drug abuse has never been investigated; nor has the connection between social characteristics and psychic harm caused by drug use. Do most of those afflicted come from cities or from moshavim, are they religious or secular? It remains unclear. Even the ratio between the numbers of men and of women suffering from psychological trauma is not really known.

Prof. Nachman Ben-Yehuda of the Department of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says that the Anti-Drug Authority data seems to be too general as well as inadequate. "When you say that 2,000 people are affected, then I want to know exactly what sort of damage we are talking about - in what period of time, what exactly happened to those who were afflicted, what was their status before they went traveling, was there a control group, is it only the drug that affected them, or were there other factors, such as exposure to another environment?" he says.

"Singling out drugs from all the other influences and experiences the traveler has gone through, and maintaining that it is the drug and nothing but the drug that caused the problem, just doesn't seem very serious to me, and I have my doubts about it. A person who is borderline psychotic or shows signs of mental illness, and then goes overseas and in so doing exposes himself to a very pressurized environment, because of the differences of culture and language, and on top of all this adds the element of drug use - is definitely exposing himself to great risk. But I would like to see a lot more data."

Full moon party

Chaim Messing took over the job as chairman of the Anti-Drug Authority a year ago, and since then has been trying to infuse some energy and activity into the organization, which people in the know say has been stagnant for the last 20 years. This past July, in response to the alarming facts and figures about the number of Israeli backpackers who abuse drugs, and after Magnus implored them to go, a delegation from the authority visited Manali.

"We got off the plane, broke up into pairs, bought `harem' pants and dressed like bums because we didn't want to threaten or frighten off the backpackers. For all intents and purposes, we were backpackers," says Messing. "We met randomly with lots of Israelis there and heard them talk about their experiences. The climax of our visit was taking part in the `full moon party' they had there.

"People told us they came to India to get stoned. They see nothing wrong with taking drugs. When you ask if they are doing drugs, many of them say they only consider chemicals such as LSD and Ecstasy to fit that description. They don't consider charras a drug at all. For several years already, Israelis have not been going to India to tour, or to do treks. Every month there is this full moon party, which goes on for three full days. Thousands come from all over. They go completely wild and put everything they can get their hands on into their bodies."

At the party the Anti-Drug Authority people attended in July, two participants, a South Korean and a Briton, died of overdoses. Messing asked himself if it is the state's duty to treat citizens who, of their own free will, do harm to themselves outside the country's borders.

"On the other hand," he says, "there are an awful lot of people affected by this phenomenon. In India, let there be no doubts: 98 percent of the travelers smoke. I saw listless people who did nothing. The number of appeals we have been getting this year from parents of backpackers in need of help was double that of last year - from 300 to 600. This is the major issue that the Israeli consulate in India deals with. If we take the position that this will be the exclusive responsibility of the backpacker, in the end it will cost Israel much more. In Israel, people have begun to understand that it's preferable to respond to the problem at the time and place that it is being created."

After the anti-drug officials' trip to India, it was decided to dispatch two representatives to Goa or Manali, to provide "first aid" to drug abusers and try to locate Israelis in especially bad shape. "They will give all the explanations and try to increase awareness of the dangers. If there is a need to rescue Israelis, they will be able to help," says Messing.

He agrees with the assessment that drug abuse by Israelis far exceeds that of backpackers from other countries. "In the area where we were staying, 90 percent of the drug users were Israelis. Israelis aren't afraid of anything. We have a permissive society. We have to alter the public mood in regard to drugs. In Sweden, for example, they reached the conclusion in 1988 that drugs lead them to an abyss. A society that does not catch itself in time will not be able to treat the problem later on."

Like shell shock

In terms of treatment, parents of the afflicted backpackers do not have many options. Dr. Alex Grinshpun, head of mental health services at the Ministry of Health, states that admitting a backpacker who abuses drugs to a psychiatric hospital could potentially disable him for life. He claims that the most appropriate treatment for "strung out" individuals is similar to that prescribed for soldiers suffering from shell shock.

The only place in Israel that offers this type of treatment is Kfar Izun ("Equilibrium Village") in Sdot Yam. The village was established in February 2001 to offer services to backpackers suffering from mental health disorders brought on by drug use, with the aim of restoring them to society as productive citizens. The village has 24 beds, and the average stay is three to four months. The cost: about NIS 9,000 a month, with subsidies available from the Ministry of Health and the Anti-Drug Authority.

The director of the village, Omri Frish, a social worker by vocation, argues against the myth that entering a psychotic state and sustaining psychological damage from drug use can usually be related to a specific drug, a specific quantity or a specific situation. "Having spent two-and-a-half years here seeing the people who come in," says Frish, who was part of the delegation that visited India in July, "I have concluded that it can happen to anyone. Each person has a certain threshold, and you can never know what that threshold is. Travelers pass around supposed instructions for use among themselves, and they take certain precautions, but it boils down to the luck of the draw. You cannot rely on it."

Frish emphasizes that as opposed to the common assumption that only those who use hallucinatory drugs such as LSD, mushrooms or Ecstasy risk a psychotic episode, "recently, there has been an increase in the number of people coming to us with episodes brought on by smoking charras. In the 1960s, the percentage of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, was between 6 and 8 percent. The stuff the Israeli backpackers are now smoking in India is about 60 percent THC and sometimes more. Not only does the concentration have an effect, but also the quantities. We saw people in India who were doing 100 chillums a day. The Indians themselves - who smoke quite a lot - told me, `We smoke shanti ["laid-back"], but the Israelis, they come at India like a punch in the face.'"

At Kfar Izun, the ex-backpackers go through individual and group therapy, workshops and must also keep themselves busy - usually in sharp contrast to the lifestyle they had while traveling abroad. The atmosphere is serene, but not idle, and the patients - who were not allowed to be interviewed - looked content and not at all like the stereotypical drug abusers. Frisch reports a success rate of 90 percent, which is substantiated by others in the profession who are impressed with Kfar Izun.

Anthropologist Daria Maoz, who is investigating the culture of Israeli backpackers in India, began examining their characteristics after realizing that "the character of the trip to India had changed, and people began smoking drugs from morning to night." In her book, "India Will Love Me," published by Keter, as well as in the doctoral thesis she is writing, Maoz describes the trip that the young backpackers rake after completing army service as a moratorium.

"Few people get a `time out' from society in which they can experiment with all sorts of experiences without being punished. In Israel, young people do not get their moratorium at the customary age; instead, they go into the army. This engenders extreme frustration and a sense of deprivation, which later erupts. People are trying to complete the moratorium they missed, and among Israelis this is expressed in very intense drug use, more than among citizens of other countries."

Maoz also emphasizes the herd mentality of Israeli travelers. They travel in large groups, she says, which to a great extent replicate the social structure of an army platoon. The set of rules followed by these groups includes the need to wear a "trekking uniform" of sorts, leaders who function as commanders, and the exertion of strong social pressure on members to use drugs.

"When I asked people what they are doing in India, they say they are freeing themselves, and doing whatever they feel like doing. Many of them are in denial of this, and many others try to argue that even though they may have traveled in a large group, they were actually the exceptions to the rule, who looked at everything from the sidelines, critically."

Maoz thinks the opening of the local office of the Anti-Drug Authority is a smart move. In her opinion, the orgy of drugs in India is a sign of repression. "One Indian woman once told me that the Israelis take so many drugs because they don't want to think. Israeli society is very demanding and these kids, who have gone through a tough military service, want to escape."

Magnus agrees: "The phenomenon is a mirror image of society. The young people who leave here are our ambassadors to freedom, and represent the desire of all of us not to be here in the current situation. But if we want to treat this problem, we won't find anything in India and Thailand. The focus is here."