Drug addiction in Punjab: NDPS Act is making convicts out of addicts instead of punishing peddlers

An entire generation in Punjab being ruined by drug abuse is a fact that became a matter of huge debate and controversy when in 2012, the then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi erroneously said that 7 out of 10 youths in Punjab have a drug problem.

Four years later, huge protests were staged against the release of Abhishek Chaubey-directed Udta Punjab, which revolved around the issue of drug abuse by youth in Punjab. The drug menace in Punjab has become an issue that all stakeholders are keen to address but ironically do not want to accept, as it shows the state of Punjab in bad light.

Notwithstanding all attempts made by respective governments in Punjab to conceal or euphemise the abuse, the fact remains that time and again, various think tanks and independent researchers have come out with reports which shed light on the menace, while highlighting the lack of foresight and perspective in dealing with this issue.

Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, an independent think tank, has come up with a report titled 'From Addict to Convict: The Working of the NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act (1985) in Punjab'. Its focuses on how the NDPS Act, which was meant to deter drug traffickers and peddlers, has in turn been blatantly and arbitrarily used to punish the addicts.

Some findings from the study: From Addict to Convict
Background of NDPS Act
Punjab has the highest crime-rate for drug offences across India In 2013, 42.3 percent (14,564 cases) of the total number of cases (34,668 cases) were in Punjab — the highest crime-rate for drug offences across India.
Age-analysis 71.4 percent of all cases that came to NDPS special courts from 2013 to 2015 across 18 districts of Punjab involved accused aged 20 to 40 years. Out of these, about 40 percent were between age groups of 20-30 years.
Patterns in drug-related offenses
Category of cases Only 6% of all narcotics cases were of commercial quantity
Punishment Average sentence awarded to pharmaceutical drug cases was 10 years and above, far above the average awarded to narcotic drug cases, which was merely one to three months

The importance of the report lies in the fact that it highlights an important failure of the state machinery in implementing the NDPS Act. As correctly highlighted in the report, the NDPS Act — which consolidates laws related to the possession, consumption and sale of drugs — also seeks to achieve (apart from deterrence of drug trafficking through severe punishments) an important objective of rehabilitation of drug addicts. But in Punjab, law and order machinery has failed on both fronts.

While the failure in the first case can be attributed to various factors like porous borders, failure to rehabilitate the addicts raises serious questions on the intent of law enforcement agencies.

Neha Singhal, Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said, "The NDPS Act seeks to control both the demand and supply of drugs by criminalising production, trafficking and use. It prohibits the manufacture, production, possession, consumption, sale, purchase, trade, use, import and export of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, except for medical or scientific purposes. While there is extensive commentary on how political factors, cross-border trafficking, narco-terrorism etc have led to a proliferation of drugs in Punjab, there has been no attempt to understand how law has impacted drug use and trafficking in Punjab.”

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“In light of these reasons, and to fill the larger research vacuum surrounding the NDPS Act, we decided to evaluate the Act’s effectiveness in Punjab. The study seeks to ascertain whether the Act effectively meets its twin objectives of deterrence and rehabilitation in Punjab. It sheds light on larger questions — whether harsh punishments can lower crime rates, and whether drug addicts are being effectively rehabilitated into society under the NDPS Act."

The report, while analysing 13,350 cases registered in special courts in Punjab under the NDPS Act between 2013 and 2015, comes up with shocking findings that highlight the arbitrary use of NDPS Act, apparent most prominently from that fact that in many cases, the accused persons caught with the same amount of pharmaceutical drugs have been awarded different quantums of punishment.

Consider this fact from the report: In Jalandhar, an accused was sentenced to one year and six months of imprisonment, along with a fine of Rs 1,000 for carrying 50 grams of diphenoxylate. Similarly, in Amritsar, an accused was sentenced to one year and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 3,000 was imposed for carrying 500 grams of dextropropoxyphene. Even though the quantity of drugs found on both persons was almost commercial quantity, the judges gave them lenient sentences.

In contrast, in State v Balwinder Singh in Patiala, the accused was sentenced to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1,00,000 was imposed for carrying 500 grams of intoxicant powder containing dextropropoxyphene. The judge, while sentencing the accused, said, "Keeping in view of the nature of recovery, ie 500 grams of intoxicating powder containing dextropropoxyphene, which is on the verge of commercial quantity, he is not entitled to any lenient view."

“It is clear that sentencing for pharmaceutical drugs offences under the NDPS Act varies dramatically across districts and even within districts. While sentencing in cases involving narcotic drugs is remarkably uniform across districts, cases involving pharmaceutical drugs see marked variations, depending on the district as well as the judge dispensing the sentence. This makes justice dispensation akin to a lottery, with sentences primarily guided by judicial whimsy rather than law," states the report.

The report highlights another important fact: Due to its strict liability provisions, the law does not require information beyond proof of drug possession to convict an individual. The report finds, worryingly, that police narratives in chargesheets for drug offences are uniform and repetitive across all districts. This uniformity suggests that the police are not incentivised to look deeply into the reasons for possession, such as consumption, sale etc. It also indicates that penal sanctions under the NDPS Act do not distinguish cases of personal use and addiction from offences involving drug trafficking and sale. These sanctions also do not address the rehabilitative needs of users.

The report also highlights that “individuals who should have ideally received the benefit of probation or de-addiction have been directed to the criminal justice system, without being offered long-term solutions for addiction.”

It categorically states, “Till date, there has been no individual directed by the special courts to de-addiction centres."

Speaking at the release of the report, Justice Mukul Mudgal, former Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court, said, "The disparity that has emerged in the report is distressing. What is more distressing is the ignorance the judges show by sending the addicts to prisons instead of de-addiction centres. Long spells in prisons lead to interaction with hardened criminals and makes addicts hardened criminals as well. Commercial drug dealers are hardly convicted and this is something that needs to be reversed. Deterrence as a theory does not work."


Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 17:33 PM

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