Rhea Chakraborty arrested by NCB: It's time India's debate on drugs came out of the closet

There’s no doubt whatsoever that some individuals suffer as a result of their use of narcotics — just as at least 260,000 people die each year because of alcohol abuse. Yet, prohibition has been proven, repeatedly, to do nothing other than corrupt law enforcement and enrich criminals.

Praveen Swami September 10, 2020 12:28:00 IST
Rhea Chakraborty arrested by NCB: It's time India's debate on drugs came out of the closet

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Even the peerless medical intellect of Sir Kailas Chunder Bose, Kaisar-i-Hind, Companion of the Indian Empire, Order of the British Empire, flailed in the face of the strange malady. His patient, “a healthy-looking Hindu girl, aged 16”, had presented with “all the symptoms of hysteria and I prescribed for her accordingly”. The girl awoke fine in the morning, just as the great doctor had expected. Inside hours, though, her hysteria was back: “At about 1 pm she became very cross and wanted to go to the adjoining room where she had her box containing betel leaves and spices”.

The truth could not long be hidden from the great doctor, though: “on opening the folded betel leaf”, he wrote in the British Medical Journal, “cocaine was discovered and then on being questioned the girl made a clean breast of the whole thing and further said that there were three more girls under the same roof who were taking cocaine in pretty large doses”.

A hundred and eighteen years have passed since the good Dr Bose’s shock-horror discovery of drug fiends cosseted inside colonial Calcutta’s zenanas. The hysterical tenor of reportage around the underwhelming discovery that the actress Rhea Chakraborty may conceivably have purchased marijuana for one of the 31 million Indians who use it, though, tells us that the Indian culture of self-deception and hypocrisy around narcotics has endured.

The one good thing that could come of the Chakraborty case is that it could bring debate on India’s narcotics culture out of the closet. Each year, the war on drugs Imperial Britain began, and Independent India has ferociously pursued, claims the lives of tens of thousands of young people. Many of those lives, data from around the world teaches us could be saved by decriminalisation.

Ever since 1985, when then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government enacted the now-notorious Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, successive governments have sought to break the butterflies inside users’ minds on the wheels of the criminal justice system. The effort has been gargantuan: In 2018, the last year for which figures have been published, a staggering 63,137 cases were registered under the Act, 38,175 of them involving personal consumption, rather than trafficking. To get a sense of the huge criminal justice resources this effort consumes, there were, 29,017 cases filed for murder, 33,506 for rape and 30,822 for robbery.

Although the Narcotics Control Bureau registered a three-fold increase in volumes of seized narcotics in 2013-2018, one to three percent of Indians are estimated to be addicted to narcotics, compared with 0.1 to 0.2 percent in most European countries. The expert Devendra Dutt has argued that the rising levels of seized drugs are simply a function of supply: Ninety percent, on average, is sold to users, and 10 percent interdicted by authorities.

In 2018, over 67 percent of NDPS trials concluded ended in a conviction — compared with just 27.1 percent of rape cases, or 26.6 percent of murder cases. Legal expert Tripti Tandon has noted many face “harsh and disproportionate sentencing”, but the tide of incarceration is achieving nothing. In large swathes of the country — most well known among them, Punjab, but also Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh , Rajasthan, Manipur and many others — ever-larger numbers of young people are using proscribed drugs, or misusing prescription medication.

To any sane person, it ought be clear that the coercion-centred war on drugs has failed in its stated purpose, reducing narcotics use and addiction. Across the world, law-enforcement driven efforts have met much the same fate.

Rajiv Gandhi’s Act was, in no small measure, inspired by the moral panic that drove former US president Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. The campaign unleashed in the United States in the 1980s — involving everything from the use of military force against narcotics cartels to aggressive policing — led, by 2015, to a tripling of arrests for possession, to 1.3 million a year. A resident of the United States is now estimated to be arrested every 25 seconds for narcotics possession.

Yet, there has been no positive impact on the narcotics landscape: substance-misuse has grown, as have deaths from overdoses; the supply of synthetic drugs like fentanyl have overwhelmed entire communities. The war on drugs has also fuelled racial tensions: Black Americans are, for example, four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Whites, and face longer prison sentences.

Luigi Solvetti, in a report for the Swiss Federal Office for Heath, noted coercive regimes had no impact in retarding drug use in Italy either. Ever since 1912, when drug-use entered the legal lexicon, the country experimented with multiple punishment regimes. Harsh sanctions introduced  1954, Solvetti noted, did not prevent the drug boom of the 1960s. Increased punishment against drug traffickers in 1975 did not retard trafficking; indeed, it grew. And harsh new laws legislated in 1990 had no visible impact at all

“The first and most impressive fact that emerges from the Italian history of drug policy,” Solvetti noted, “is the lack of visible impact of the various legislative actions in this field. What is particularly impressive is the lack of visible impact as regards the – in most cases increasingly – repressive actions

Faced with a similar crisis, Portugal conducted one of the most radical, and successful experiments in drug policy in 2001: The country decriminalised the use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and other illicit street drugs. Inside five years, levels of drug-related deaths had dropped radically, along with HIV infections due to needle use, as well as narcotics-linked street crime. Larger numbers of addicts, now no longer fearing the law, began seeking medical help.

Perhaps most important, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organised Crime has recorded, levels of drug use in Portugal are now well below the European average, and their adoption among the most-vulnerable cohort aged 15-24 has declined. There are multiple hypotheses for why this happened — but one plausible proposition is that legalisation reduced drug prices, reducing incentives for street pushers to promote their products.

Even though Portugal’s model was to lead to a radical reconsideration of drug policies in countries across continental Europe, as well as in Mexico, the United States persists in seeking to swat mosquitoes with a sledgehammer — with predictable results.

The mind-altering properties of drugs have been used for a welter of medicinal and recreational purposes, embedding them in many ancient cultures. The Atharva Veda recorded cannabis as one of five great plants which might “deliver us from woe”. Even today, Delhi residents have to travel no further than the Shiva Temple near Nigambodh Ghat, or the Nizamuddin Dargah, to see the living form of this drug culture. We can only imagine what might happen if the Uttar Pradesh Police sought to evict marijuana from the Kawariyas’ yatra.

Like the ladies of the Calcutta zenana, who in fact used cocaine to relieve dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps, or the working-class Delhi men who were found by the colonial health administrator AW Overbeck-Wright to using it to delay orgasm in 1920, millions of Indians have participated, and still participate, in a sophisticated — if secret — drug culture.

Following Imperial Britian’s decision to proscribe cocaine in 1900, the historian James Mill's work teaches us, Indian resistance was sometimes violence. Police who raided a cocaine warehouse in Mumbai’s Ghati Gully in 1934 were attacked with lathis and glass bottles: The Statesman reported that “overwhelmed by numbers, the small excise party were forced to beat a retreat with four of their men injured”.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that some individuals suffer as a result of their use of narcotics — just as at least 260,000 people die each year because of alcohol abuse. Yet, prohibition has been proven, repeatedly, to do nothing other than corrupt law enforcement and enrich criminals.

Early in the 19th Century, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham laid down the classical legal test of when punishment does not serve legitimate ends:

1. Where it is groundless: Where there is no mischief for it to prevent.
2. Where it must be inefficacious: Where it cannot act so as to prevent the mischief.
3. Where it is unprofitable, or too expensive: Where the mischief it would produce would be greater than what it prevented.
4. Where it is needless: Where the mischief may be prevented, or cease of itself, without it: that is, at a cheaper rate”

India’s drug laws fail all these four conditions.

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