Why the Parliament Must Carefully Consider A Private Members’ Bill to Decriminalise Natural Drugs

In the upcoming winter session of the parliament, Dharm Vira Gandhi, an MP from Patiala, will introduce a provate members' bill to decriminalise to amend the NDPS act, and to decriminalise the use of natural drugs such as opium and poppy husk. {{name}}
04 November, 2016

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.

In late July 2016, the state police conducted tests for drug use on a controlled group: aspirants for jobs of police constables. About 4.7 lakh young men applied, and on the first day of the recruitment process, 7,800 were tested for drugs. Of these, 3.7 percent, or 294 young men, tested positive for either performance-enhancing drugs or habit-forming ones. The previous month, Kiren Rijiju, the union minister of state for home affairs, had admitted in Parliament that since 2014, 53 policemen from various departments in the Punjab police were arrested for being implicated in drug-related cases. The police in the state commonly uses chitta—smack—as a threat to subdue citizens, to settle scores, and even to implicate fellow policemen. News reports have repeatedly confirmed that even in jails, drugs are easy to come by. In a note explaining the objectives of the bill, Gandhi noted that only 2 percent of those arrested are financers and suppliers of drugs, while nearly 88 per cent of the arrested are either users or addicts. It is here that Gandhi’s reform becomes key—the proposed changes to the NDPS would establish drug users as victims and not perpetrators of drug abuse, and protect them from undue stigmatisation.

“The question is not of abuse,” Dr Puneet Kathuria, a psychiatrist who practices in Ludhiana and Malerkotla, told me. “For centuries, opoids have been common in our culture. In fact, much of our labour-intensive farming and small-scale industrial growth in Ludhiana was a result of the slightly stoned hard-working farmers, farm workers and industrial labour.” Kathuria’s assertions—that opium and poppy husk, along with home-brewed liquor have been an age old phenomenon in Punjab—is authenticated by folk lore, folk songs, anecdotes, popular culture and academic studies. Kathuria said that about a decade ago, the quality of opium and poppy husk available in the state began to deteriorate. “People needed to consume more to get a high. That led to the shift in consumption patterns and rise of synthetic drugs,” he said. This, he continued, led recreational users and addicts to substances such as Schedule-H drugs—which cannot be purchased without a prescription—such as Lomotil, which is used to treat diarrhoea; Tramadol, an opioid pain medication; cough syrups; and Fortwin and Phenergan injections, which are also used to treat pain. When the government began to regulate the supply of these drugs, people moved to chitta, which was cheap and easily available, and amalgamations of chemicals—a “hazardous cocktail,” according to Kathuria. “The rule of thumb is: addicts move quicker to substances than the state can ban them. There is no end to the chase.”

During the course of my reporting in Punjab, I met scores of addicts. Nearly all of them spoke about two things. For one, they felt slighted by the system, whose insistence on treating them as criminals robbed them of a dignified method of getting help and treatment (a study commissioned by the ministry of social justice and empowerment, which was conducted across 10 districts in the state, found that even though 80 percent of the addicts had attempted to break their habit, only 35 percent were able to obtain help). The second was the prevalent business model through which the cycle of drug abuse is perpetuated: once a person is hooked and runs out of money to support their addiction, their dealers encourage them to find five or ten new recruits to whom they can sell their product. The addict thus becomes the local supplier. Not only does the criminalisation of addicts and users fail to tackle the root causes of the pattern of drug habits as they stand currently—such as the reduction in the availability of natural drugs—it also compounds the stigma that is already associated with drug use. “No one has ever died of natural drug use,” Gandhi told me. “People have been consuming opium for centuries but there are no recorded fatalities.”

“The reporting is less than real consumption because the patients are scared of NDPS,” a medical professional who is in-charge of a government-run National AIDS Control Organisation de-addiction clinic in Punjab told me. He added, “We can’t solve the issue through rhetoric, slogans, goodwill messages and jails.” The medical professional is a strong supporter of harm-reduction by way of decriminalisation, and of the Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST), in which illegal-opioid users are supplied with a replacement drug under medical supervision, in order to treat and manage their addiction. “We must reduce harm by prevention of sharing syringes to prevent HIV and Hepatitis C, accidents, health expenses, family distress, and loss of jobs. The drug menace is a social issue with a huge bearing on the economic eco-system of an individual,” the medical professional said.

Yet, in several de-addiction centres I visited, I found that addicts swung between heroin or smack and OST because government hospitals in Punjab ran out of the OST medicines such as Buprenorphine or Methadone before the treatment was complete. The OST drugs, which are also opioids, have also found their way out of regulated hospitals into the open market. The emphasis that the doctors place on care and recovery is draining out of the sieve of the state system.

In the past, various nations have flirted with different approaches to curb drug trade, but few have succeeded in doing so by punishing drug users. That prohibition is ineffective is well-known: in America in the 1920s, prohibition of alcohol spurred rampant bootlegging and the rise of an underworld, and was eventually repealed. Closer home, the prohibition in states such as Bihar and Gujarat has been widely criticised and has led to the development of large, unregulated black markets—in the former, prohibition was recently declared illegal by the Patna High Court.

The war on drugs in the United States of America, which began with the former US President Richard Nixon’s declaration of drug abuse as “public enemy number one,” has cost the US billions of dollars every year and has widely been proclaimed a failure. Its focus on incarceration has resulted in the disproportionate targeting of people of colour—especially young black and Hispanic men—and profoundly affected South America. Over the past few years, the US government has softened its stance on natural drugs—in nearly half the country’s 50 states, regulations on marijuana growth, sale and use have been enacted, which include both decriminalisation of possession and legalisation of growth for sale, and personal and medicinal use.

Decriminalisation is different from legalisation. With the former, the emphasis is on eliminating jail-time for drug users, while dealers are criminally prosecuted. Bolivia, which until a few years ago was notorious for coca—used to manufacture cocaine—has emerged as a success story in the war on drugs. In the past four years, it has reduced its coca production by 34 percent. It did so by first expelling the US Drug Enforcement Agency, in 2008, and then by promoting economic development in rural areas that produced coca, and allowing farmers to cultivate coca for personal use and to sell in authorised markets.

But perhaps the grandest story is that of Portugal, which cleaned up its act through a 15-year period of reform in which it decriminalised all drugs. Portugal did not respond as governments usually do, with zero-tolerance legislation and an emphasis on law enforcement—instead, it focused on prevention, education, and harm-reduction. Today, more than 20 European and South American countries have removed criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of certain—and in some cases, all—drugs.

There is no doubt that any proposition to amend the NDPS and decriminalise drugs will find resistance among political parties. This is especially true in Punjab, where the drug problem is rarely seen as a complex issue that requires careful consideration and where it has been refashioned by every party to suit their platform for the upcoming 2017 assembly elections. In October 2016, at a press conference in Chandigarh, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister in the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government asked the media to treat the drug issue as “a closed chapter.” The party has, in the past, regularly denied the proliferation of drugs in the state. The Congress, on the other hand, launched a campaign that branded the current dispensation “Chitta Raavan”—the Raavan of drugs. The party has also made the tall promise of eradicating drugs within four weeks of coming to power. The Aam Aadmi Party, the latest entrant in the state, has built its campaign on propagating a fear of drugs and against the state revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, whom they accuse of being a kingpin. The amendments can shift the status quo, and rob the parties of their respective poll platforms.

Punjabis can often be heard saying that the simplest solution to any wrongdoing—to mischief, to not studying well, to any deviation from what is understood to be the correct path—is a few tight slaps. Disciplining by punishment is ingrained in the state’s cultural ethos, but it has been unsuccessful in tackling its drug problem. Gandhi’s proposed change, which can regulate opiates and make them available to addicts, could serve as a first step to axing synthetic drugs from the system. Opium policies prescribed under the NDPS already allow farmers to grow opium legally, albeit only for sale to the government. To expand this system and allow natural drugs to be sold for personal use will not be possible overnight, nor will it occur by just a change in law. But by considering Gandhi’s proposition, and by treating drug proliferations as a public health issue instead of one of policing and vigilantism, the parliament can create a state that brings empathy to the care of its citizens. Decriminalisation for petty users and the re-classification of drugs is the need of the hour. It will allow administrations to form a grip over the problem instead of letting it bellow like smoke from a fire.