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.”