How India’s drug laws fail those with substance use disorder

While the NDPS Act provides for rehabilitation of users, stigma and ineffective implementation fail those in need.

Six years ago, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) raided a rave party in the outskirts of Bengaluru. Students from various colleges were found in possession of LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) and hashish. The raids stood out because it was among the very rare occasions where the NCB had busted no suppliers or distributors, but just college students who were found using at the party. The drug seizures were in such small quantities that they could not be classified as ‘commercial quantity’ under the Indian narcotics law, so the cases filed against the students were not tough.

The NCB thought that a raid like this would instil fear among private rave party organisers, which continue to be held with impunity across India. But the raid had other consequences. One of the students, then a 19-year-old pursuing fashion designing, was rusticated by his college despite the court having taken a lenient view and him having submitted a certificate of recovery from a de-addiction centre, as mandated by the court. His parents did not want him to live under their roof any longer as he had “brought shame upon the family”. “His family wanted him out as he was labelled an addict. It took a lot of persuasion and counselling to reconcile them,” says an NCB official, recounting the story.

Instances of arrested users having to face unfair consequences is not rare. In May this year, the Bengaluru police arrested two drug peddlers. “In most cases, the police tend to go after the peddlers’ suppliers. The arrest of suppliers leads to arrest of distributors. However, in this case, the police recovered the accused’s mobile phone and called up his contacts or users,” a Central Crime Branch officer said. The police arrested eight users. They were produced before the magistrate and sent to judicial custody. They eventually got bail, but all of them lost their jobs, according to an investigating officer.  

Over the last couple of months, the death of Bollywood actor Susant Singh Rajput and his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty’s alleged involvement in a drug case has dominated headlines. Karnataka’s Sandalwood drug case too, with many parallels to the Rhea case, has played out in the media with high intensity. Simultaneously, the Karnataka police have been making massive marijuana seizures across the state, and large quantities of synthetic drugs are being caught at airports.

Lack of sensitivity

While our news cycle is dominated with stories about drug busts and drug use, one aspect has stood out: the insensitivity towards those using the substances. The phrase “drug addict” is being bandied about on television channels, often interchangeably with “drug user”. This is not legally problematic, as the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act criminalises drug users, and does not distinguish between a recreational user, a person dependent on a drug, or a person with substance use disorder. But this lack of clarity in the law, coupled with a culture of moral judgment against drug abusers, is causing more stigma against drug users, many of who need medical help and psychological counselling.

“The NDPS Act is a very comprehensive and sensible legislation but there are some aspects which need change. Especially, in terms of how users are viewed. There needs to be a demarcation as to who is a recreational user, who is a dependent and who is an addict. There is also a need to conceal their identities as those who are addicted to a drug, suffer from substance use disorder,” says Dr Chandrashekar, Chairman of the Karnataka State Mental Health Authority.  

A recreational user is one who uses a narcotic or psychotropic substance for pleasure, and is not necessarily addicted or dependent on any drug. A user can become dependent on drugs like marijuana, MDMA or LSD, and opioids heroin, and cocaine, can be addictive. “The NDPS Act does not make this distinction,” Dr Chandrashekar adds.  

Decriminalising the user 

In 1972, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was held in Geneva by members of the United Nations. At the time, the Richard Nixon administration in the United States wanted member nations to bring in strict laws to curb the use of drugs. The rise of recreational drug use in the US had led Nixon to call for a worldwide ban as he termed it the “War on Drugs”. India too participated in the convention and 18 years later, the NDPS Act came into effect.  

Lauded for being stringent and an “airtight” legislation, the NDPS was subsequently amended in 1988, 2001 and 2014, to include more provisions for rehabilitation of users. However, the legislation still criminalises users, even those suffering from substance use disorder.

Section 21 of the NDPS Act not only penalises possession, distribution, manufacture and sale of any narcotic or psychotropic substance but also penalises users. Section 27 lists the punishment for consumption of drugs. However, this section also makes provisions, where the judge presiding over a case can either sentence a user to a maximum of one year in prison or issue an order to send the user to a de-addiction centre. The said user should then produce a certificate of recovery from the de-addiction centre. Section 64A provides users immunity from prosecution if they agree to be rehabilitated in a de-addiction centre. This chance is given only once. If the user relapses, then they would be prosecuted for both offences and will be liable for imprisonment. While this has been a relief to many users, there is still another flaw with it – not all users are “addicts”.

“Since the legislation has existed for decades, the general perception is that drug users are criminals. Despite the NDPS Act being so diverse, it still terms any user as an addict, and punishes consumption,” says K Revanth Rao Gopalaswamy, a lawyer who has researched the NDPS Act and appeared for several defendants accused under the law.  

“In most cases where people suffer from substance use disorder, be it alcohol or drug use, there is a very likely chance that they will relapse. Rehabilitation is about the willingness of the user to seek help even after relapsing. Giving them one chance is not enough,” Dr Chandrashekar adds.  

He further states that drug-abuse must be decriminalised and users with mental health issues must be mandated to seek help from expert psychiatrists or psychologists, who can help them with the process of recovery.  

The NDPS Act is not entirely insensitive. Under section 4(2)(d), the Act mandates the Union government to take measures for identification, treatment, education, after care, rehabilitation and social reintegration of users.  Section 7A mandates the constitution of a National Fund for Control of Drug Abuse. “The Fund shall be applied by the Central Government to meet the expenditure incurred in connection with the measures taken for (a) combating illicit traffic in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or controlled substances; (b) controlling the abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; (c) identifying treating, rehabilitating addicts; (d) preventing drug abuse; (e) educating public against drug abuse; (f) supplying drugs to addicts where such supply is a medical necessity,” the Act states. Besides, the Union Department of Revenue too has notified rules under the NDPS Act, which mandate rehabilitation of drug users. 

However, there is stigma around those who suffer from substance use disorder. A large part of the stigma comes from the lack of awareness among the public and also among those in the law enforcement, says Revanth Rao.  

“The problem lies with how people with substance use disorder are viewed. Firstly, people should stop calling them addicts. This is a mental health issue and it is called substance use disorder,” Dr Chadrashekar says. 

Revanth Rao, who is currently working on several cases involving students, who were booked under the NDPS Act, is trying to help erode the stigma they suffer. 

“We should treat them with love and not with mistrust. We should be providing them (users) care and not be doling out prison sentences, where they become hardened. They inadvertently end up doing more drugs as there is absolutely no rehabilitation in prison,” he says. 

De-addiction centres violating rights

According to the Karnataka Health Department, the state has psychiatric facilities in district hospitals, government medical colleges and the Dharwad Institute of Mental Health, where the state provides treatment for substance use disorder.  

“Every district hospital earmarks 10 beds for this, government medical colleges provide 30 beds. Most of these beds are occupied by patients with alcohol addiction. If there are people addicted to drugs and they come to us, we treat them just like any others. However, less than 5% of patients across the state are those who are addicted to opioids,” Dr Chandrashekar said. 

Speaking to TNM, Rizwan Merchant, a Mumbai-based lawyer specialising in cases under the NDPS Act, says that a large problem lies with how the de-addiction centres resort to human rights violations.  

“These centres are located in all states and are centrally funded. They are not being maintained at all. They charge tons of money and the patients are chained to the beds, without proper food or hygienic wards. The Union government is supposed to take up this issue and every major hospital should have a de-addiction centre so that they are able to treat this better,” Rizwan Merchant says. 

He maintains that the Union government earmarks huge amounts of money towards prevention of drug use and rehabilitation and yet, most of these centres have no proper staff. According to the Karnataka State Mental Health Authority, there is only one doctor in each de-addiction centre. 

“Most government de-addiction centres in states like Telangana do not even have trained psychiatrists or psychologists to treat patients. When the de-addiction centres themselves are not operating properly, how can users be rehabilitated?” Revanth Rao questioned. 

The lack of awareness

The Karnataka government has a radio program on 102.4 FM called ‘Mano Chinatana’, which talks about substance use disorder. Dr Chandrashekar says that the program is aired every week on Friday as a part of the government’s awareness program.  

He also says that ASHA workers are mandated to speak about the ill effects of drug use in government schools and colleges. Public service announcements are made in railway stations, bus stops and posters are hung at these places. 

“But a large portion of it is for nicotine addiction. People are lured into using drugs. Peddlers look at people who are vulnerable, especially college students and they will never realise it is bad. A larger problem is the lack of awareness that this is a mental health issue and the government is trying to address it,” he says.  

Revanth Rao, however, maintains that neither the police investigating these cases, nor the public are adequately aware of what substance use disorder is or how those who suffer from it behave. He maintains that the awareness programs need to be tailor-made for the audience since peddlers especially target students.  

“I appreciate the radio programme. However, more outreach is required, so maybe social media and other media should be used like how it was used to create awareness about COVID-19. Like awareness about smoking tobacco (gutka etc) and alcohol, wherein the consequences of drug intake is mentioned, this too should be elaborated, so as to make people aware of the consequences. This is to prevent drug use, resulting in lesser demand and collapse of the drug market,” he adds. 

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