In the coming winter session of the Parliament, which begins on 16 November 2016, Dharam Vira Gandhi, a member of parliament from Patiala who was suspended from the Aam Aadmi Party in August 2015, will table a private member’s bill to amend the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. The bill proposes that the definition of “narcotics” and “psychotropic substances” in the act, which currently includes all drugs, be classified into “soft” drugs—which are naturally grown, such as opium and poppy husk—and “hard” drugs—which are synthetic compounds and laboratory or industry-made chemicals. The proposed amendment also suggests that the possession of soft drugs be decriminalised, and its growth and sale be regulated by the government. “We are seeking a classification of drugs so petty drug users are not unnecessarily penalised,” Gandhi, who is a heart specialist, told me when I met him in October in Patiala, at his clinic, which was teeming with patients. Gandhi said that the regulated supply of opium and poppy husk for medical and personal use would be crucial in providing relief to drug users and to “rid society of dangerous unsupervised medical and synthetic drugs.”
Gandhi’s proposed amendments mark a radical departure from the approach that the police and governments have historically used in their attempts to curb the drug menace—primarily, to discipline and punish drug users. In its present form, the NDPS act and its implementation fail to pursue the real perpetuators of the drug business—the financers and the suppliers. The blanket banning of narcotic and psychotropic substances has resulted in the the propagation of a ban-smuggle-promote model, where a banned substance is brought back into the market through illegal smuggling, and promoted by dealers looking to ply their wares. Gandhi’s proposed change could transform how the the consumption of drugs is dealt with throughout India, especially in states such as Punjab, Manipur, Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh, where drug use is widespread and has become a significant public-health risk.
Widespread drug abuse is perhaps one of the gravest issues currently facing Punjab. According to data released by the Narcotics Control Bureau, in 2014, seven states had more than 500 drug-related arrests. Of the nearly 12,000 arrests that year, about 22 per cent were from Punjab—over 3,500 arrests. Over 2,800 of these were cases of heroin addiction. In June 2016, the Indian Express reported that in the districts that see the most drug use, the Punjab police arrests an average of 25 drug-users a day, and that, in 2014 and 2015, one person died in custody every four days.