By Angad Bachhar:
It is a commonly accepted fact that drug abuse is on the rise in India. However, the true extent of the proliferation of drugs in this country will surprise many. According to estimates, there are approximately 70 million drug abusers in India. Data on drugs seizure by the Narcotics Control Bureau shows that consumption and smuggling of synthetic drugs, which are much more dangerous and addictive than natural ones, has been steadily increasing while that of natural drugs has been decreasing. Between 2009 and 2012, smuggling and consumption of cocaine and ephedrine increased by over 250% and that of morphine increased by over 500% while among natural extracts, only opium saw an increase over the same period, that too only because opium is used to manufacture heroin.
The most disturbing trend, however, is that drug use, particularly synthetic drug use is skyrocketing among children. According to a study commissioned by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), conducted in 27 states by AIIMS, heroin use among children was the highest in Meghalaya at 27.3%, followed by Punjab at 19.3%. Less than 15% children from Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Odisha abuse this drug while in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal the usage stood at 9-10%. 88.6% children from Mizoram, 25% in Meghalaya and Rajasthan, 23.5% in Maharashtra and 13 % children in Punjab abuse injectable drugs. Abuse of other drugs such as opium, inhalants and alcohol is also extremely high. The increasing use of injectable drugs also exposes abusers to a much greater risk of contracting diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.
After reading the statistics, it is fair to say that our drug policy has not worked as well as it was intended to. In some cases, it has led to other problems, such as overcrowding of prisons. Prisons in Punjab, which have an official capacity of 19,000, house a total of 26,000 prisoners, of which 45% are convicts and under-trials jailed under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.
Instinct would lead us to crack down harder on drugs. But perhaps we should first study the consequences of drug prohibition before we make any such decision.
The ‘War on Drugs’, started by Richard Nixon, has been an unmitigated disaster. Today, the USA imprisons more people than any other country in the history of the world, a significant percentage of whom are drug offenders. Due to the notorious ‘three strike laws’, many non-violent drug offenders are given mandatory prison sentences in excess of 25 years. The criminalization of drug offenders has led to many people being caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty because it is almost impossible for them to get jobs after being convicted. This also leads to very high recidivism rates. The war on drugs has also led to the militarization of the police force in the USA which has led to the police committing acts of violence on their own citizens. Arguably, the war on drugs has had an even more devastating impact on Central and Latin America because of the creation of gangs involved in the highly lucrative illegal drug trade. This has led to extreme amounts of gang violence across the continent, with 60,000 people dying of cartel violence since 2006 in Mexico alone. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also acknowledged the many ‘unintended negative consequences‘ of the drug war. The costs result not from the drug use itself, but from choosing a punitive enforcement-led approach that by its very nature, places control of the trade in the hands of organized crime and criminalizes many users.
Another consequence of the drug war is the vilification of drugs such as marijuana. Generations have grown up with propaganda against marijuana which clubbed it in the same category as heroin and cocaine. Yet, studies have shown that cannabis is less addictive than alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine. 4-9% of regular cannabis users are likely to become dependent on it as compared to over 20% of regular alcohol users. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are roughly 88,000 deaths attributable to alcohol use in the United States each year. In over 10,000 years of cannabis use, there has not been a single documented death caused by an overdose. Just 10 times the recommended serving of alcohol can lead to death, whereas a marijuana user would have to consume 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint in order to overdose, according to a 1988 ruling by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The journal ‘Addictive Behaviors’ noted that “cannabis reduces the likelihood of violence during intoxication”. According to a study by Scientific Reports, cannabis is 114 times less deadly than alcohol.
Even today, it is still listed by the United States as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside drugs like meth, heroin and cocaine. It has been labeled as a ‘gateway drug’ and has been stigmatized by society in general. It has also been portrayed as a drug that causes people to become violent. Because of this, people have been deprived of the many medicinal properties of cannabis, such as pain relief. By using a natural substance such as cannabis for pain relief, people can also avoid using synthetic, opium-based painkillers that have greatly increased the number of people dependent on drugs. Note the irony of a supposed ‘gateway drug’ saving people from using a real gateway drug.
Prohibition of any kind, be it drugs or alcohol, only leads to more problems, such as organized crime, while rarely solving any of the already existing ones. It retards development and leads to diversion of government funds from social welfare programs into interest groups such as the arms industry. It also makes criminals out of the very people it seeks to protect. In contrast, countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, Uruguay and even some parts of the United States have adopted different policies.
In the USA, Colorado, Washington State, Washington D.C., Alaska and Oregon have all legalised recreational marijuana while 20 states have legalised medical marijuana. Since then, U.S. Border Control has been seizing steadily smaller quantities of marijuana, from 2.5 million pounds in 2011 to 1.9 million pounds in 2014. Mexico’s army has noted a drop of 32% compared to the year before. The legal marijuana industry grew 74% in 2014 to $2.7 billion and will top $4 billion by 2016. This includes revenues from both medical and recreational marijuana. This means less resources for Mexican cartels to buy guns, bribe police and pay assassins. Coinciding with legalization, violence has decreased in Mexico.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized possession and use of drugs. Alongside decriminalization, Portugal also shifted drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health and also instituted a public health model for treating hard drug addiction. So far, the results have been very encouraging indeed. According to Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the proportion of the population that reported using drugs at some point increased initially after decriminalization, and then steadily declined. Drug use has declined overall among the 15-24 year demographic. There has also been a decline in the population who first experimented with drugs and then continued to use them. Drug-induced deaths have decreased steeply, as have HIV infection rates. After decriminalization, the number of people imprisoned on drug-related charges decreased and the number of visits to addiction clinics increased greatly.
On December 10, 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana. In an interview, then-president Jose Mujica said, “There has always been a conservative and reactive opinion that fears change.” The law’s main intention, Mujica said, was not to encourage the smoking of weed, but to seize an already existing market from illegal drug dealers. For Mujica, this is not an experiment in freedom and personal choice. It’s a health and public safety issue that requires government action.
Prohibition is not the answer to tackling the drug problem. The answer lies in either legalizing or decriminalising drugs, and in regulating and monetizing the market. This must be in conjunction with a comprehensive health policy that is aimed at rehabilitating drug abusers. With revenues of $500 billion, the drug trade is the third biggest industry in the world, behind the Oil and Arms Industries. Such an industry can provide great employment and tourism opportunities for a country like India, which sorely needs them.