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How  our drug laws  fail to  tackle  the  real menace

Contrary to what popular debates suggest, drugs are a widespread health issue—and their influence may be rising, data shows.. Photo: Bloomberg Premium
Contrary to what popular debates suggest, drugs are a widespread health issue—and their influence may be rising, data shows.. Photo: Bloomberg 

The number of crimes reported under the NDPS Act has risen drastically, but it has not been enough to deter the use of potent drugs. The prevalence of addictive drugs such as cannabis and heroin is only growing, with personal use being penalized much more than trafficking, government data shows

The over-the-top media attention on drug cases and summons involving film celebrities creates a false impression that addiction is a trait of a certain industry, group, or class of people. This takes away the attention from the larger drug menace. Contrary to what popular debates suggest, drugs are a widespread health issue—and their influence may be rising, data shows.

Consider cannabis, the most consumed drug, and the second most addictive one, in India. As of 2017-18, India was home to 31 million cannabis users, or 16% of the global estimate, found a study conducted by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, on behalf of the social justice ministry. Used as ganja or charas, the non-medicinal use of cannabis has increased tremendously, and is often seen as ‘benign’ by the youth. But worryingly, the drug’s potency has quadrupled in some parts of the world, as also validated by addiction data.

The prevalence of opioids poses an even greater risk. South Asia, most notably India, is the biggest home to opioid users (35% of global) and “may have experienced very strong increases" in opioid use over the last two decades, said the United Nations’ World Drug Report 2021. Heroin, the most used form of opioid in India, had a higher rate of addiction among its users than any other drugs looked at in the AIIMS study.

The market for amphetamines, another highly potent drug, is expanding in the region. Meanwhile, cocaine has relatively very low consumption in India (1.1 million users), contrary to the perception created by the disproportionate limelight on high-profile cases.

Disease Burden

The discourse on drugs often takes a moral bent, overshadowing their danger to health and lives. Around half a million people died of drug-related causes in 2019, up 17.5% since 2010, the Global Burden of Disease study estimated. Of these, 128,000 were due to drug use disorders, mainly overdosing, while the rest were indirectly related to drug use, attributable to self-harm or diseases such as HIV-AIDS and hepatitis.

Among drug users, people who inject drugs (PWID) are the most vulnerable group. Out of 11.2 million such people in the world, 1.4 million have HIV—the infection rate is at least 18 times higher than the general population. The risk of Hepatitis C among these individuals is appalling, too, with every fourth new case being attributable to injecting drug use.

India has 850,000 people who inject drugs, of whom 37% are living with Hepatitis C infection. As many as 27% of them reported sharing their syringe with their peers.

Drug Crimes

Crackdowns on drugs do not seem to be deterring drug use and addiction. Over the past decade, cases reported under India’s drug laws have risen sharply, shows annual crime data.

Crimes reported under the primary law on drugs, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, more than doubled between 2004 and 2018, a period that saw the prevalence of opioids grow more than five times. The pandemic year saw only a slight decline in reported drug cases.

Even stringent laws are failing to check drug sale and consumption. Given the legal risk involved, peddlers set much higher prices than the production cost, so interception of even small quantities leaves them with huge profits, leaving their larger business unaffected. Moreover, addicts have little incentive to transition from a higher-potency drug to a lower-potency one: the law imposes similar levels of control and punishment even for drugs of varying potency, say opium and heroin.

Consumption vs Trafficking

India’s drug law treats both the consumer and peddler as criminals. In fact, more cases are reported every year for possession of drugs for personal consumption than for trafficking, crime data shows.

The current law allows imprisonment up to one year for those caught with 'small' quantities of drugs, irrespective of intent. Such rules blur the distinction between addicts, who need expert help, and dealers. The social justice ministry recently recommended decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal consumption in its review of the NDPS Act, and suggested compulsory treatment at government centres instead of jail term for them.

The AIIMS study noted that 44% drug users tried to give up their dependence, but only 25% of them received any help or treatment. India needs to make treatment more easily available, through both medicines and therapy, rather than labelling users as criminals and putting them behind bars.

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