India has been grappling with drug problems which has been largely ignored. It has been estimated that there are about 8.5 lakh people who inject drugs. Around 5 crore Indians reported to have 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 criminalization of drugs started because of the USA’s war on drugs in 1971. This then went on to become the reason why some countries have criminalized those drugs which they have never even heard of. In the late 19th century, opiates were being used by elderly white women for their chronic ailments and it was completely legal. But as soon as thousands of Chinese started coming into America for work and started using them, these opiates started getting prohibited.
And how did the prohibition of marijuana come into existence? The same old story of racism seems to be the driving force. When the African Americans and the Mexicans started using the plant, something which was against the then prevalent societal norms of racial discrimination, bang came the law prohibiting the usage. 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, now cannabis is decriminalized in 15 states. This is not the first time the USA has prohibited something and then had to roll back on their decision.
In the 1920s USA prohibited alcohol, to increase the productivity of the workers. But they saw 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 percent of its pre-Prohibition level; but, over the next several years, increased to about 60–70 per cent of its pre-prohibition 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 the decriminalization of drug possession. India needs to decriminalise all drug. 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 to decriminalize all drugs. Even though drugs remained illegal per se, the possession of small amounts of drugs would not lead to an arrest. The Portuguese government saw a way to rehabilitate the victims through the healthcare system and not the criminal system. Before decriminalization, around 90% of funds were being spent on fighting drugs and just 10% on healthcare. But after 2001, the ratio was reversed. Rehabilitation centres increased from 6000 in 1999 to 28,000 in 2008. And the number of those using heroin has fallen, from about 100,000 to around 50,000 today. Also, drug-related deaths have fallen dramatically. In 2015 Portugal had just 6 deaths per million people, the lowest in Western Europe and a tiny fraction of that in the U.S. which had 245 deaths.
The major mistake states have made is treating the drug problem as a criminal issue rather than a health issue. The cost of criminalising is humungous. 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 costs of court in the USA. But, if the drugs were legalised, the government could start generating tax revenues and also will be able 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 have failed, can get pharmaceutical heroin. Illegal drug abuse, overdoses, criminal activities and arrests all decrease, health and well-being improve, taxpayers benefit, many of them end up quitting as well.
We have to take a humanitarian, compassionate and kind approach by rehabilitating the victims through the 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 problematically have an incentive to seek treatment. Improves the cost-effectiveness of limited public health resources and also reduces the number of people arrested, incarcerated, or otherwise swept into the justice system.