Without Adaptive Intervention, Will The ‘War on Drugs’ Ever Succeed?

Besides grappling with the challenges of disappearing jobs, low investment, and a faltering economy, Punjab has a genuinely big issue to solve. This state in northern India has been scourged by the menace of drug abuse, for years now. Punjab’s proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with which it shares its border, has made it an easy target for people involved in the drug smuggling trade. Gradually, the state transformed from a spot on the smuggling trade route to one of the biggest consumer markets for heroin, in India.

In the 1980’s, Punjab was hit by severe communal violence which took decades to resolve. Now, the residents often comment that, “We got rid of terrorism only for it to be replaced with narcotics-terrorism.” A report by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, in Delhi, concluded that there were more than two hundred thousand addicts in the state.

The problem of drug abuse is not limited to Punjab. In India’s north-eastern state of Mizoram, the number of drug overdose cases has been on the rise since November of 2012. According to reports from the Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Mizoram, 328 cases of overdose and 13 deaths due to overdose have been reported in Mizoram between November 2012 and July 2013.

Globally, after 50 years of the war on drugs, the supply and use of drugs has not only increased—it has created a massive black market that contributes to violence, conflict and corruption. Social marginalisation and health crises across the world have rapidly increased due to the formulation of poorly designed drug policies and criminalisation of drug users. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985 has been instrumental in setting up a legal framework for drug law enforcement in India. The main focus areas include:

  1. Surveillance and enforcement at import points and land borders.

  2. Preventive and interdictive efforts along the known drug routes.

  3. Control measures at export points, such as air-passenger terminals, cargo terminals and foreign post offices.

  4. Improved coordination among the various drug law enforcement agencies.

  5. Identification and eradication of illicit cultivation and the wild growth of cannabis and opium poppy.

  6. Strengthening of the intelligence apparatus to improve the collection, collation, analysis and dissemination of operational intelligence

  7. Increased international cooperation, both in operational and long term intelligence as well as in investigations and mutual legal assistance.

India, like many other countries, has focused on tackling drug abuse by cracking down on suppliers and reducing supply in the drug market. It has failed as the black market for drugs is too large. Suppliers are constantly making new variants of synthetic drugs and, despite the vigilance of security forces, the market is expanding exponentially. In poorer countries, like Colombia and Mexico, adoption of similar policies has eroded critical civic institutions and created powerful mafia groups that control society and polity. After years of national drug strategies aimed at seizure of illicit drugs, there has been little to no effect on the availability, price and purity of drugs. Drug prohibition, in the short run, has always overshadowed reducing demand and harm by eliciting behavioural changes through effective drug education in the long run. This change is long overdue.

There are no laws governing the establishment and running of treatment centres. This has resulted in the proliferation of unauthorised ‘de-addiction’ centres. Rather than medical care, ‘punishments’ in the form of severe torture, which have led to death in many cases, are meted out to the patients. Further, rehabilitation centres, in the hinterlands of the country, lack access to adequate capital and infrastructure. Thus, facilitating the proper functioning of rehabilitation and treatment centres is an important step that the government must actively take to shrink the market for drugs.

Non-availability of data, in India, acts as a major hindrance in the framing of a comprehensive drug policy. The nature and extent of drug use, dependence and its associated health implications, which ought to be the most important considerations for a drug policy, remain unknown. The first and only survey estimating the extent of drug use was conducted in 2001-2002, which was more than a decade ago. According to that survey, there were an estimated 8.7 million cannabis users, of which 2.3 million were dependent (26%). The number of opiate users was estimated to be 2 million, of which 0.5 million (22%) were thought to be dependent. A central agency should be established to collect data and analyse trends about the magnitude and scope of the drug market.

India, like many other countries in Asia, has adopted extremely punitive measures to control drug usage. Many aspects of the NDPS Act are more barbarous than even those provided by the UN Drug Control conventions, such as provisions related to illegal usage of drugs, death penalty, etc.

Crime and addiction have not increased in countries where drug usage is limited to adults only. One notable example is Portugal where consumption of drugs was decriminalised in 2001. This resulted in the drug-related HIV transmission to plummet down by 44% from 1999 to 2018.

Drug liberalisation is increasingly becoming an important facet in the battle against drugs as major economies like Canada and the USA have followed suit in the decriminalisation/legalisation of cannabis.

It is time for India to redraft its decades-old drug policy and reignite the battle against drugs through adaptive intervention. Drug liberalisation, infrastructural development and education are becoming essential to the ‘war on drugs’. History stands testament to the fact that drug prohibition is not enough. Better policies led by data collection and analysis will help India combat the ailment of illicit drugs.


Ashima Makhija

I am pursuing Economics (Honours) from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. I spend my time solving fictional murder mysteries and avoiding real-life mysteries (seriously, when did I last open my course book?).

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