In recent years, India has seen a surge in cases of drug abuse, especially amongst our younger population.
When the Supreme Court ordered a government survey of the problem, it reported this month (December 2022) that a staggering 1.58 crore children and young adolescents (aged 10 to 17) are dealing with substance addiction.
The same survey found a startling 3.1 crore cannabis users and 2.26 crore opioid users, with around 25 and 77 lakh people facing dependency on both substances, in our country. The use of opioids in India is three times higher than the global average, and one-third of India’s total opioid users are categorised under “harmful or excessive users” or “drug-dependent”.
It gets worse. Deaths linked to drug abuse have also increased with the rise in consumption. These deaths are attributed to suicide, consequences of drug overdoses and the health impact of long-term drug use.
According to NCRB data from 2021, there were more than 10 lakh cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. Over the years, the trafficking, sale and consumption of recreational drugs and substances have also risen dramatically.
Suicides due to drug abuse and alcohol addiction have risen from 7193 in 2018 to a dismaying 10560 in 2021, There is no reason to imagine that 2022 won’t even be worse.
This is a national crisis. We have nothing to be complacent about in Kerala either.
There is an alarming increase in the usage of narcotics, judging by the rise in the number of narcotics-related cases in Kerala.
Cases registered increased from an annual average of 6,409 during 2019-2021 to 16,128 cases this year, just until August.
During the same period, 17,834 arrests were made for drug offences, compared to an annual average of 7,693 during 2019-2021.
In September, Keralites were shocked when 652 drug cases were registered within four days.
There is also an alarming trend of manufactured psychotropic substances becoming more prevalent than less harmful drugs.
Mental health problems, permanent organ damage, and premature death often follows.
Most of the drug supply originates in large cities outside our state and is distributed through organised networks using a number of channels, including clandestine freight transport, courier services and, worryingly, Malayali students based outside the state.
Instances of international transactions through the Dark Web are also not infrequent. Data reveals that substance abuse has increased among teenagers, college and school students in Kerala in the past five years, posing a serious threat to the State's future.
At the same time, the number of persons availing benefits under the National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction in the State has declined from 6,642 beneficiaries in 2017-18 to 4,887 in 2021-22.
While many a “No to Drugs” awareness campaign has been initiated in the State by various civil society forums, church groups and the Youth Congress, much more needs to be done to counter this situation.
While increasing awareness of the dangers of drug consumption is clearly essential, we need to take urgent steps to improve our monitoring of the situation and take stringent measures to eradicate the production and distribution of banned narcotic substances.
At the national level, some changes in legislation are needed. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985 is out of date and ripe for amendment. Paradoxically this should include reforms to decriminalise personal consumption of small quantities of drugs. Low doses of cannabinoids may even have health benefits. There is no point in criminalising modest levels of marijuana consumption, which only gives an incentive to drug-dealers and their mafia to sink their talons into our youth.
As Dr Ambedkar of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, points out, if a relatively less harmful substance is not available, another substance – often more harmful – fills up the vacuum. For example, after India banned and criminalised cannabis, it witnessed a rise in heroin use.
There is also a need to expand the categories of drugs and chemicals in the scheduled list under the law. A number of chemicals should be listed as trafficker’s substances in the list of controlled substances in order to prevent drug traffickers from getting hold of these chemicals easily. Further, strict penal provisions against drug traffickers should be introduced.
The government should clearly differentiate between users and traffickers, and decriminalise modest levels of personal cannabis consumption to bring it into the open and tax it (as with alcohol and tobacco) and offer treatment for victims of substance abuse.
Drug addiction is not recognised as a disease in the Act, which treats consumers and distributors of drugs the same by criminalising possession whether for personal consumption or supply.
Instead of providing institutional counselling and adequate support to both users and their families, the government continues with the policy of penalising drug users.
The government should factor in that unemployment, poverty, peer pressure, and unaddressed mental health issues are among the reasons that steer most people into the consumption of illicit drugs and substances and penalisation will not help to address and resolve this. Instead, a compassionate policy focusing on harm reduction is the need of the hour.
Parliament a rubber stamp?
On December 23, the winter session of Parliament adjourned sine die six days ahead of schedule, having started unusually late on December 7.
This truncated session is the latest evidence of the Modi government’s disregard for Parliament. Whereas under the UPA government the winter session usually began around 15 November and went on till Christmas, the NDA government has preferred shorter and shorter sessions, finding unacceptable excuses like the need for ministers to campaign in the state assembly elections at the end of November and early December.
Parliament is supposed to be the lodestar of our democratic system, the forum for the people’s representatives to voice the concerns of the public.
But this year it has met for only 57 days, whereas during the first two decades of Parliament, the Lok Sabha met for an average of more than 120 days a year.
Few sessions in the Modi years have held all their scheduled sittings.
Most were adjourned early for unconvincing reasons, or none at all. It is increasingly clear that the government sees Parliament as little more than a notice-board for its announcements and a rubber-stamp for its laws.
It is a matter of grave concern that the debate and deliberation that are at the heart of our democracy has so little place in the government’s understanding of the country it governs.