For India’s War on Drugs to Succeed, Treatment Needs to be Stressed Over Incarceration

Policemen stand near burning cannabis plants during a drive against cannabis production, in Awantipora, south of Srinagar 16 October 2009 Danish Ismail / REUTERS
27 April, 2016

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.

The most recent amendment to the NDPS was enacted in 2014, and it legalised some of the narcotics required as a part of the de-addiction treatment. It also made the death penalty discretionary in cases of repeat conviction. While the supply of drug substitutes is progressive and, Singh told me, supported by the NCB, it can ultimately only succeed if it is incorporated into the approach of the judiciary and police.

Anand Grover, a member and co-founder of the Lawyer’s Collective, a non-governmental organisation providing civil rights litigation services, told me that while Indian addicts require opium substitution therapy, often the police disapprove. In Punjab, “people who give OST are arrested,” he said, along with those “who dispense legitimate medical products.” As a result, a lot of centres are not using OST and “cold turkey is not working.” Grover is one of over a thousand signatories of a recent letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanding “real reform of global drug control policy.”

This disparity of attitudes among different departments has obstructed the NDPS. Though it stipulates harsh penalties for traffickers, Sections 39 and 64a theoretically allow immunity for addicts agreeing to undertake rehabilitation. “It is a very stringent act but it is reformist,” Singh said. Yet with murky legislative intent, judges have often chosen imprisonment and fines over treatment. “The judiciary is not sensitised,” the doctor from Tarn Taran said. “They see them as criminals, not patients.” Since 1985, not one single drug offender in Punjab has benefited from these clauses. The result has been low investment in treatment centres and mass incarceration in jails where hard drugs are easily accessible but clean injecting equipment is not. In 2009, an Open Study Institute report noted that dozens of inmates often share a single needle.

The failure to administer treatment to Indian drug addicts is amplified by characteristic inertia in the justice system. 2014 saw 22,893 people convicted nationwide under the NDPS. Yet in that same year, 190,870 people were classed as “under trial” and charges were brought against 56,109 new suspects. As a result of judicial delays, addicts often languish in jail for so long while awaiting a decision on their rehabilitation, that they are released for time served.

Currently the demand for rehabilitation still exceeds its supply, which has caused a mushrooming of illegitimate private de-addiction centres that profit from the commercialisation of desperation. “Private clinics are very expensive, Rs 20,000 for one month,” Sanjay Gupta, Director of CHETNA, a health and education NGO, told me. Without licences or expertise, Gupta said, patients at these clinics are badly treated, sometimes even subjected to punishment and torture. Though scores of government hospitals offer de-addiction programs, they are limited. In Delhi, GB Pant Hospital reserves just five beds for addicts, while the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences offers brief group sessions on Wednesday and Friday afternoons.

By contrast, addicts in the United Kingdom, for instance, are prescribed a heroin substitute and assigned a drugs keyworker who develops a personalised care plan, and helps with housing, education and employment. Those with high dependency enter inpatient detox, lasting three weeks, during which time the drug substitute dose is gradually reduced. They then progress to residential rehab, where they are given a combination of individual and group therapy.

A key battleground in the war on drugs in India is the northern state of Punjab. In 2014, the state received national attention when narcotics became a key issue leading up to the Lok Sabha elections. With Rs 800 crore worth of drugs and liquor seized by election authorities, accusations linked Punjab’s predicament to its political establishment. In response, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment established 28 rehabilitation centres in the state, vowing to “curb the drug menaces.” And yet shortly afterwards, Al Jazeera reported that around two-thirds of Punjabi youths were using drugs.

At the NCB, Singh attributed the problem to the “golden crescent” of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The latter produces over 80 percent of the world’s heroin; narcotics make their way from the Helmand province in Afghanistan to Pakistani Punjab, where they are funnelled into its Indian counterpart, separated in part by a river that is hard to police. In 2013, 737 kg of heroin was seized in Punjab alone, well over half of what was seized nationally.

Over the phone I asked Amar Singh Chahal, commissioner of the Amritsar police, about the current state of drug use in the city. “It’s absolutely fine,” he said. “There is no problem.” Though he supported rehabilitation, “we are taking strong action against the supply chains”, he told me, before declaring that a drug bust had taken place the previous night. “You will find addicts in London and Paris,” Chalal assured me. “In Oslo people are taking injections in the open.”

Yet many people I spoke confirmed what Grover had told me, that Punjab’s police force fails to discriminate between users and traffickers. “Even for minor possession they are behind bars and not given bail even, for 6 months to a year,” the senior doctor had said. Grover claimed that 60 percent of Punjab’s prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Moreover, Punjab recorded the second highest number of deaths by drug overdose in 2014. “It’s a denial syndrome,” said Grover. “They don’t want to deal with it because it makes India look bad.”

Jaitley’s address at the conference on Tuesday evoked classic drug control rhetoric. “The three conventions adopted by the international community have served us well in limiting and managing the drug problem,” he stated. In what was perhaps a stab at regional neighbours, he said, “National efforts, however intense and severe, cannot adequately deal with the drug problem.”

The finance minister did mention a commitment to “treatment and after-care facilities through a public health approach.” Equally, Singh acknowledged that the “approach has changed to treatment.” While encouraging, extensive change will require coordination from lawmakers, the judiciary and the police, all of whom must see addicts as patients, rather than unproductive and communally harmful criminals.

The doctor told me that in the last five years he had seen drug use patterns shift from pharmaceuticals to smack and heroin, while the ages of his patients have steadily decreased. He told me that he has had patients as young as 14 years of age. India, like most of the UNGASS attendees, stands at a crossroads. The legislative potential for a modern and tolerant drug policy will be derailed if the issue continues to be denied. Now is the time for the nation to finally have the debate that the international community historically denied it.