India has been grappling with a severe drug problem, which has largely been ignored. It has been estimated that there are about 8.5 lakh people in the country who inject drugs. Around five crore Indians reported having used cannabis and opioids at the time of the survey (conducted in the year 2018). Alcohol is the most abused substance in India. The age group of drug abusers has decreased from 25-30 years to 15-20 years, which is an alarming situation.
Historically, the criminalisation of drugs started because of the USA’s war against drugs in 1971. This went on to become the reason why some countries even criminalised drugs they had never heard of before. In the late 19th century, opiates were being used by elderly white women for their chronic ailments and it was completely legal. However, as soon as thousands of people from China started coming to America for work and using these opiates, they became prohibited.
The same old story of racism seems to be the driving force. When African Americans and Mexicans started using the plant, something which was against the then prevalent societal norms of racial discrimination, bang came the law prohibiting the usage of cannabis. When the conception of the laws are based on who is using the drug, how can one not expect it to be discriminatory? And to no one’s surprise, this is slowly changing; cannabis has now been decriminalised in 15 states.
This is not the first time the USA has prohibited something and then rolled back on their decision. In the 1920s, the USA prohibited alcohol to increase the productivity of the workers. But the decision was rolled back after they realised that they were losing out on tax revenue, and organised crime received a major boost due to bootlegging.
A study found that alcohol consumption fell, at first, to approximately 30% of its pre-prohibition level; but over the next several years, increased to about 60–70% of the level. Eventually, it was legalised in 1933. We can see that prohibition had no effect on the abuse of a substance on a long-term basis.
In early 2019, the United Nations chief executive board, representing 31 UN agencies, endorsed decriminalisation of drug possession. India needs to decriminalise all drugs, this is the time to take radical decisions.
This endorsement comes from experiences of countries like Portugal. In the 1990s, Portugal was suffering from a severe heroin addiction problem — it is estimated that nearly 1% of the population were regular users. But in 2001, it took a radical decision of decriminalising all drugs. Even though drugs remained illegal per se, the possession of small amounts of drugs would not lead to arrest.
The Portuguese government saw a way to rehabilitate the victims through healthcare system and not the criminal system. Before decriminalisation, around 90% of funds were spent on fighting drugs and just 10% on healthcare. But after 2001, the ratio was reversed. The number of rehabilitation centres increased from 6,000 in 1999 to 28,000 in 2008. And the number of those using heroin fell, from about 100,000 to around 50,000 today. Also, drug-related deaths have fallen dramatically.
In 2015, Portugal had just six deaths per million people, the lowest in Western Europe, and a tiny fraction of that in the U.S., which had 245 deaths for every million people.
The major mistake that the States have made is of treating drugs as a criminal issue rather than a health issue. The cost of criminalising is humongous. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that the cost of policing low-level drug possession offences in the USA exceeds $4.28 billion annually, and this does not include the massive additional cost of courts in the USA. But, if these drugs were legalised, the government could start generating tax revenue, which can then be used to regulate the market to make it safer.
Similar trends have been observed in Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, and England where people, who have been addicted to heroin for many years and repeatedly tried to quit but failed, can get pharmaceutical heroin. Illegal drug abuse, overdose, criminal activities, and arrests decreased, while health and well-being improved; taxpayers benefited and many of the addicts ended up quitting as well.
We have to take a humanitarian, compassionate and kind approach by rehabilitating the victims through healthcare system, and not the criminal system. India must set up more rehabilitation centres.
This creates a climate in which people who are using drugs in an unhealthy manner have an incentive to seek treatment. This would improve the cost-effectiveness of our limited public health resources, and also reduce the number of people arrested, incarcerated, or otherwise swept into the justice system.
The article was originally published here.