In June 1998, over 100 world leaders descended upon the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York with a task: to eradicate narcotic drugs from the world. Holding a glass aloft, then UN Secretary General Kofi Anan toasted “To work together towards a family of nations free of drugs in the twenty-first century.” This proclamation was both optimistic and presumptuous, given that it came at the introduction to the conference. Delegates clutched leaflets bearing the face of a weeping child and the slogan—printed in bold white font—“A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It.”
Eighteen years later, both the supply and demand of narcotics have increased. In India alone, the quantity of illegal drugs seized between 2011 and 2013 rose by 455 percent. A senior doctor I spoke to in Tarn Taran in Punjab said, under the condition of anonymity, that the Indian war on drugs is failing. “It has backfired,” he told me. “We are seeing more drug users; they are put in prison where they use drugs more.” Maqboolpura, a neighbourhood in Amritsar, Punjab—the country’s most drug-ridden state—is referred to as “the village of widows” due to the number of young men who died as a result of drugs.
Last week, in the same hall, now newly renovated, world leaders met at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS). This time, discussions at, arguably, the world’s most important drug conference focused on the shift away from criminalisation and towards rehabilitation. But what remains unclear is whether India—represented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, and a delegation from the Finance Ministry and the Narcotics Control Bureau—will observe these reforms.
India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), signed in 1985, remains the country’s fundamental law to combat the use and traffic of narcotic drugs. The United States had been campaigning for a global war on drugs since the 1961. After two decades of American pressure, the Rajiv Gandhi government enacted the NDPS. This was India’s first narcotics legislation.
To comply with UN conventions, the NDPS imposed more stringent prison sentences and larger fines seemingly overnight, regardless of the intent to distribute or use. Just four years later, in 1990, a punitive amendment was enacted that imposed ten-year mandatory minimums, death sentences for repeat offenders and property forfeiture. A 2001 amendment introduced grading punishment based on quantity. “It is presumed that a small quantity is for consumption,” Rajender Pal Singh, the deputy director general (and current acting DG) of the Narcotics Control Bureau, told me on 22 April in his office. He explained that those arrested with small amounts are offered bail and the chance to undergo de-addiction treatment. It is noteworthy, however, that the NDPS doesn’t distinguish between naturally grown drugs such as cannabis, and chemically constituted substances such as heroin and cocaine.