Why do we need laws? Laws are rules which are required for the general safety of citizens. They are enforced to protect our rights, to prevent other individuals, organisations, or even governments from walking over our rights. Laws aren’t an end unto themselves; they are an attempt to achieve a fair and peaceful society.
Drug laws were made because substance abuse, if not restricted, could permanently destroy public health. While addiction to marijuana and hashish are rare, even if very real, psychotropic substances like LSD and MDMA could lead to long-term dependency, or worse, instant death from a single overdose. There are other concerns with the use of drugs like heroin, like the spread of STDs due to the sharing of needles among users. Long-term addiction to narcotic and psychotropic substances has destroyed lives, families, and even societies.
However, the one fact that is clear from the experience of the United States of America in its War on Drugs – kicked off by President Nixon in 1961 – is that using law enforcement agencies to restrict the sale of banned substances is not just a failed method, but also counter-productive. A study by the British Medical Journal found that since 1990, despite ever-increasing efforts and spending on the War on Drugs, the global prices of drugs have dropped, and quality has improved.
People are snorting better cocaine for cheaper as the years go by, despite governments’ best efforts to crack down on drug dealers. Lived experiences in India reaffirm these findings, and police officers too attest to it.
That is why enforcing the law for the sake of it, an easy trap to fall into, could add to our woes. The Telangana government could currently be on the brink of doing that.
Over the past few days, a wide-ranging drug scandal has engulfed Hyderabad. It has all the necessary ingredients of a voyeuristic news story. There are, of course, the drugs, but also glamorous film stars, iron-fisted police officers, boy-next-door criminals, dramatic interrogations, juicy investigation gossip, public spats and direct political involvement.
The nature of morality and police action on substance abuse in India is to penalise the substance-abuser. Broadly, there are two types of abusers – first, those who indulge for fun; and second, victims who pick up the habit to escape emotional pain. There are also strong class markers in cases of substance abuse, and users from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds almost definitely fall deeper into the spiral when the law cracks down on them.
Those adults who do it for fun should not be too much of the government’s problem. If rich, privileged, adults want to fall into addiction and end up in rehab paid for by their families, it is their problem. We are a country with limited resources in law enforcement, and we cannot be bothered with expending too much of tax money on this group of people.
As Telugu filmstar Rana Daggubati said recently, "Honestly, the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. If a filmmaker or an actor takes drugs, it really doesn't bother me. They are adults and it's their lives and they can do whatever they want. The dangerous story about school kids doing drugs worries me. That's something that needs to be taken more seriously and addressed immediately. When youngsters who don't have a mind of their own are doing drugs, it scares me," he said.
Rana is no public policy expert, but there is more than an iota of truth and sense in his position.
There is no point in interrogating stars for hours or forcing them to give blood samples – what are we trying to do here, make examples of them? Most adult drug users know what they are getting into, and will continue to do so. And let’s remember, only 10% of users globally are problem users suffering from disorders – others are casual users.
There is no sympathy required for the film stars involved in the scandal as users. After all, they knew that they were indulging in an illegal activity. But we would be wrong in assuming that the menace of substance abuse would stop with criminal investigations and convictions. And neither is it efficient of limited police and legal resources to treat them as criminals.
But simultaneously there’s also an important point that Telangana CM KCR seems to understand – that with problem users and those lacking agency, like children, nothing is to be gained by turning the law on them. He has since taken a ‘wise and pragmatic’ approach in asking police officers to not treat users like criminals, but victims.
The Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act, the umbrella law in India to deal with drug trade, penalises users too. According to the Act, no person shall “produce, manufacture, possess, sell, purchase, transport, warehouse, use, consume, import inter-State, export inter-State, import into India, export from India or tranship any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance.”
What’s worse is that it clubs together the use of softer drugs like marijuana with far more dangerous and addictive ones like heroin. Legally speaking, this only incentivises both users and drug dealers to move to harder drugs, since the punishment is the same for all.
And the law cannot even take into account legal substances that can be abused such as petrol or correction fluid thinners, which is often the case with the most vulnerable members of our population like street children.
Substance abuse must be a public health issue. We need social policy on how to prevent kids from abusing banned substances, and that starts at home. Parents have to sensitise kids about the ill-effects of drugs, not attempt to threaten them into not using. And where parents cannot take on this burden, there is a need for effective social intervention through outreach programmes and health clinics that can care for those who cannot care for themselves.
We have to move away from the ‘punishment model’ towards more sensitive social policies which deal with treatment of addiction, focus on better parenting and schooling and take a non-confrontational approach with users. Health and social services for users are more important than an increase in special police squads.