The Drug Dilemma

It is no lie that the issue of decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs has always been a double-edged sword for policymakers across the world. Buoyed by the success in the West, several organisations have time and again advocated for the legalisation of drugs, particularly cannabis in India. But it is imperative to understand that drug decriminalisation or legalisation is not a public policy choice that is suited to a superficial debate. It requires analysis and research of an order that has been well absent despite the never-ending attention the issue receives.

To begin with, drug legalisation refers to the ending of all government-enforced prohibition on the distribution, sale and personal use of specified drugs. On the other hand, drug decriminalisation calls for reduced control and penalties compared to existing laws.

The Portuguese Decriminalisation Model

The very first country to decriminalise possession and consumption of all kinds of drugs was Portugal in 2001. Back in the 1990's, Portugal was in a tight grip of heroin addiction. Thousands of people could be seen on the streets engaging in drug use. Over 1% of the population was hooked on heroin and the country faced the highest rate of HIV infection in the entire EU. The government response to this menace was something that all of us are familiar with - harsh policies implemented by the criminal justice system and the leaders speaking against drug use. A result of this was that by the late 1990's, half of the population in the prisons was charged under drug-related offences. 

But in 2001, the country took a historic step in favour of decriminalisation. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Portugal has experienced no major increases in drug use. Yet it has seen reduced rates of problematic and adolescent drug use, fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS, fewer drug-induced deaths, and a significant increase in the number of people receiving treatment. Since then, some form of decriminalisation has been adopted in 30 countries with significant differences and levels of effectiveness.

Analysing the Two Sides

Decriminalisation of drugs comes with its own set of pros and cons which are far more complex than what it is presented to the general public. The standard economic theory supports the intervention of the government in drug markets because of the negative externalities involved. However, prohibiting a good does not eliminate the market for it. The prices of the product rise and supply becomes difficult to procure leading to the creation of a black market of the product. Apparently, prohibition policies have not worked as planned, and have generally resulted in just a changed format of supply and demand. 

It is evident that drug use of any kind does involve negative externalities. However, the procurement of drugs in the illegal market probably generates more negative externalities than its purchase in the legal market. One of these additional externalities includes the ‘environmental’ effect of the drug trade. The environmental effect refers to the influence that the perception of neighbourhood can have on an individual's susceptibility to drug dependence. When drug offenders on release return home, they are often most concentrated in relatively few urban centres and poor neighbourhoods facing various social challenges. Statistically, most of these released individuals are often booked for some offence within the year of their release, and thus, this turns into a vicious cycle. This is because the incarcerated individuals are more prone to drug dependence as compared to the general population. With more people on the lookout for drugs in the illegal market, the income-generating crime that may result from the markets’ high prices and the violence associated increases as the disputes cannot be solved through legal procedures. Criminalisation inhibits the quality control of the drugs supplied leading to more accidental and overdose deaths along with a significant increase in health risks. Prohibition, therefore, has not only reduced the size of the drug market but has also led to greater negative externalities: the balance between these two effects is what any country desires!

The advocates of drug decriminalisation have pointed out various expected benefits such as reduced number of arrests, increased uptake into drug treatment, reduced criminal justice costs and allocation of funds from criminal justice to health systems and minimised social exclusion of people who use drugs. This helps create a climate in which these drug users are less fearful of seeking and accessing treatment, utilising harm reduction services and receiving HIV/AIDS services - a step towards protecting people from the wide-ranging and crippling consequences of a criminal conviction. However, it is also a fact that much of the above-stated benefits are not supported by substantial evidence.

It is also crucial to analyse the counter-arguments to the decriminalisation of drugs. One of the major concerns is that decriminalisation may encourage experimentation. Individuals may have genetic vulnerability towards drug use making them more susceptible to addiction and accompanied health risks. Allowing these individuals to have open access and possession of drugs seems like an open-door policy leading to adverse effects. Although many argue that decriminalisation would have no impact on drug prices, free-market economics has a different approach. In the absence of a legal barrier in effect to prevent drug access, it implies a greater supply of drugs which might lead to a fall in its prices. If some people abstain from experimenting with drugs due to price barriers, this move would make them more susceptible to experimentation. In the above list of pros, it was pointed out that decriminalisation would lead to reduced costs of incarceration and treatment. However, the current infrastructure is not well-suited to support the added number of individuals who would seek out help. This implies that added costs would come in the form of building assets to handle the needs of society. And if the implementation goes awry, the resulting costs could be even higher. Thus, given the positives and the negatives, the move toward decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs has to be in accordance with the social and economic infrastructure of a country. The move will unanimously lead to a huge cultural change and added impact on healthcare, law and order, and other components of society.

Is India Ready for the Move?

India is currently grappling with a growing drug problem, especially in the states of Punjab and Manipur. As per the United Nations World Drug Report, 2019, drug use in India went up by almost 30%. The drug laws, thus, seem to not have been much of a success when it comes to the menace of drug possession and consumption. Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985 was passed to curb the problem of drug abuse and was further amended in 1989, 2001 and then in 2014. The Act provides the provisions for search, forfeiture and capture of those who indulge in drug activities from any place in India.

With an increasing number of countries undergoing decriminalisation in some form or the other, the demand for it in India has been getting stronger. Sikkim in 2018 became the first state to no longer prosecute drug users and somewhat treat them as patients rather than criminals in order to encourage treatment options and rehabilitation. But, decriminalisation might not be the best way to handle the situation in India. This is in light of the already vulnerable health care system and the various loopholes existing in law and order. India is struggling to control the use of three addictive substances - tobacco, alcohol and areca nut. As per the Global Adult Tobacco Survey by the World Health Organisation (2016-17), 270 million Indians use tobacco and it kills around 1.35 million Indians every year. Nearly 30% of India’s adult population is using alcohol, leading to 3.3 million deaths. Legalising drugs in the wake of this situation might only worsen the above-mentioned alarming statistics.

In 2019, a petition was also filed by the Great Legalisation Movement India Trust seeking decriminalisation of cannabis. Cannabis has been known to possess several medicinal properties and can be used as a cure for various diseases. However, people against this have pointed out that legalising cannabis may lead to its surge as a gateway drug, with research supporting that 45% people who consumed cannabis went on to try other illicit drugs as well. India is home to the maximum people in the youth category and a significant portion of the population is still immersed in poverty lacking access to basic necessities. The employment rate in India is struggling. People in various parts of the country are still not literate. With a large section of the population being highly vulnerable, increasing the access of drugs might prove to be fatal. 

In the end, it is important to understand that a move meant to be beneficial for society may end up making the same society fall apart if not tackled with care and if implemented in haste. It is truly a fear of the unknown that plagues this debate. No country has the ability at present to predict how the entire society would react if drugs were decriminalised or legalised. It is a risk that a country must take only after the existing infrastructure has been upgraded to support its implementation. How these countries take on the decriminalisation of drugs is yet to be seen.


Rajsi Sah

A happy and curious person in love with art, music, and sunsets. Currently a student of Economics at Shri Ram College of Commerce, I have a profound interest in economics, finance, politics and policy-making. Also, a foodie at heart!

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.