Tackling it the right way

Source: By A Ravindra: Deccan Herald

An old disease, festering unattended to, has suddenly come into the limelight, thanks to the film world feeding the visual media with some of its own intoxicating drugs. The death of a young and handsome actor (suicide or murder?) has unwittingly turned attention to the menace of narcotics, though the cacophony of the TV channels is still centred around the trial of a female actor by media. Interestingly, the investigating agencies have with great speed started cracking down on drug peddlers who were quietly carrying on their trade under the unseen umbrella of the very same agencies.

The story of consuming drugs to enhance one’s sense of wellbeing or to reduce tensions goes back to ancient times. In India, the reference to cannabis plants is traced to as far back as 2000 BC and that of opium cultivation to the 10th century AD. In modern times, the British, true to their calling, organised opium into a large commercial enterprise. With a view to controlling the cultivation of poppy and the manufacture of opium, they brought in the Opium Acts of 1857 and 1878. Much later, another law, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, was aimed at regulating the use of drugs, mainly cocaine and opium, for medical purposes.

Drug trafficking started in the US at the beginning of the 19th century when Chinese immigrants to California introduced the practice of opium smoking among Americans. Morphine became popular during the American Civil War (1860-65) when the soldiers started using it as a painkiller. With rising demand for narcotic drugs, a black market developed and smuggling across countries became common. Powerful mafias came into existence, particularly in South America, with Colombia becoming the epicentre. In the 1980s, the Madellin Cartel, an organised group of drug suppliers headed by Pablo Escobar, began operating and cocaine was shipped through Panama and Mexico to the US. 

In India, the trio of Karim Lala, Haji Mastan and Varadaraja Mudaliar, the well-known underworld dons, were engaged in drug trafficking, apart from gold smuggling and illegal gambling between the 1940s and 1980s. They also had clout in the film industry, which got strengthened with the emergence of ‘D-company’ under the notorious Dawood Ibrahim, who still figures in Interpol’s list of 10 most wanted criminals. India continues to be a major transit point for illicit drugs from the ‘Golden Triangle’ -- the area where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, also the largest producer of opium in the world- to Europe.

No country in the world is free from the menace of drugs. The global market for illicit drugs is estimated at $400 billion a year. Drug addiction is going up, registering an increase of 30% in the last 10 years. In India, two national surveys carried out in 2004 and 2019 reveal that drug abuse continues to grow unabated, with opioid (opium and poppy husk) users rising from two million to 22 million.

A number of measures have been initiated to deal with drug abuse and to control illegal trade. The UN adopted a Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988 to “prevent and combat drug abuse and illicit trafficking” at the international level. The US has taken some stringent action. In the 1980s, it created a Drug Task Force to combat cocaine trading that was leading to increasing violence. As a result, the Colombian National Police captured several members of the drug cartel and extradited them to the US where they were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

India introduced the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985 and created a Narcotics Bureau in 1986 for enforcement of the law. The Act has provided a list of banned and controlled substances for medical and scientific purposes. The punishment for violation of the provisions of the Act ranges from six months to 20 years of imprisonment and fines depending on the severity of the offence. The Ministry of Social Justice came out with a National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction in 2018.

While we may have stringent laws to control the abuse of drugs, at core, the issue needs to be viewed from a human and behavioural perspective. Despite all the efforts of the UNODC and individual countries, the problem is showing a worsening trend. Some voluntary organisations have questioned the approach of the UN and US, which emphasise eradication of production and criminalisation of consumption, which has resulted in an upsurge of corruption and erosion of the rule of law. It is argued that people should no longer be punished for what they put into their own bodies but only for crimes against others. A Global Committee on Drug Policy comprising political leaders, Nobel laureates and former presidents and prime ministers has called for the responsible control of drugs through careful regulation.

The problem is too deep-rooted and widespread to lend itself to purely punitive remedies. The new-found enthusiasm, targeted at a few offenders, which could be coloured with biases and prejudices, must make way for more lasting solutions. We need to adopt a realistic approach, combining legal measures with treatment and counselling. Some countries, like Portugal, are moving towards adopting less restrictive practices. Uruguay has legalised the use of marijuana. The penal provisions, particularly those prescribing harsh punishments for minor offences and deviations, need to be reviewed. Let us be alive to the fact that drug abuse is carried into the prisons.

The human being behind an unhealthy practice rather than the offence per se must be the focus of attention. According to the National Mental Health Survey of 2015-16, there is a 75% treatment gap for disorders, indicating poor accessibility, utilisation and quality of healthcare. The Deaddiction and Drug Treatment Centres in government hospitals must be strengthened and the facility extended to private hospitals. A crucial segment of the population to be addressed is the youth, who tend to become victims of drug abuse easily.