Press Release Towards a Health & Human Rights Approach to Drugs, June 30th, 2011

Clinic or Jail:NGO’s highlight pitfalls in Government’s anti-narcotics’ strategy

New Delhi, 30 June 2011: Is drug addiction a disease or crime, asked NGOs in response to the Government’s call to “think health, not drugs” on June 26, International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Calling for a revision of laws on narcotic drugs, a group of experts asked that drug use be viewed as a health concern and not as criminal or moral wrongdoing.

India’s response to psychoactive drugs is laid down in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, (NDPS Act). One of the harshest laws in the country, the Act criminalises cultivation, production, manufacture, possession, distribution and use of drugs, except for medical and scientific purposes. Penalties are severe; the Act carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years as well as capital punishment for repeat offences, which, as per a recent Bombay High Court ruling, is at the discretion of Judges. Consumption of narcotic or psychotropic drugs is punishable and results in imprisonment for six months or one year and fine.  Still, illicit drugs flow unchecked. Last year alone, authorities seized nearly 175 tonnes of cannabis, besides large quantities of opium, heroin and chemicals used to manufacture these substances.

“There is a limit to which punitive methods can control drugs”, said Romesh Bhattacharji, former Narcotics Commissioner, who worked first hand to disrupt illicit  trafficking and book narcotic offenders. “There is too much focus on end users. Police go on targeting ‘rave’ parties, arresting young people and tainting their future with criminal records. How will this help? What we need is rigorous intelligence and surveillance to track the source and supply, not sending drug users to jail.” 

The NDPS Act was amended ten years ago to provide immunity to drug dependent offenders, who volunteer to undergo treatment at government supported centres. Though well-intentioned, these measures have not been applied in earnest. “The lack of concern for treatment is evident in that the Government has, till date, not framed Rules under the Act” said Tripti Tandon, a lawyer who has litigated on treatment and death penalty for drugs. In the absence of regulations, private facilities have mushroomed, where drug addicts are beaten, subjected to torture, even killed. Courts have ordered closure of such centres, but the concerned authorities are yet to act. “If the Government allows drug users to be treated with such indignity, then its commitment to prioritizing health is seriously questionable”

Raju Raj Kumar, who was hooked to heroin in Manipur in the 1990s, said, “Although drugs were freely available, treatment was not.  Many of my friends acquired HIV by sharing injections while shooting up. I was lucky to have escaped the virus.” As a board member of the Indian Drug User Forum, Raju now supports AIDS control programmes for injecting drug users through the provision of sterile needles and oral substitution medicines.

“…. they [‘addicts’] are victims and there is no law in the world where I have heard that a victim or patient is punished.” “These sentiments were expressed by some Parliamentarians when the NDPS Act was introduced in 1985.  Now, twenty five years later, we are asking the same question, having witnessed the terrible consequences of criminalization.” said Luke Samson, of the Indian Harm Reduction Network (IHRN), a consortium of NGOs working for humane drug policies, who petitioned the Bombay High Court against mandatory death penalty under the NDPS Act.

“Whether peddlers or traffickers, narcotic offenders also deserve a fair and principled sentence.”remarked the IHRN President.

In her message, the Representative of the UNODC Regional Office for South Asia, Cristina Albertina reiterated that drug use must be addressed primarily as a health issue and that according to the UN Conventions, drug control efforts must be implemented in full respect of human rights.

Many countries are abandoning criminalization and adopting health measures for drug use. Ten years ago, Portugal decriminalized consumption, possession and acquisition of narcotic and psychotropic drugs for personal use. Addicts are supported through medical facilities while occasional users receive admonition. Contrary to fears, there has been no increase in drug use or dependence. “India must be open to examining and employing such models, especially in light of their positive results” noted Bhattacharji.

Panelists urged the Government to reorient its drug policy towards health and human rights, instead of crime and punishment.

Media Contacts:

Tripti Tandon: +919811013472

Luke Samson: +919810113678

Romesh Bhattacharji: +919868279350

Photographs from the Press Conference can be viewed HERE

All Photographs herein are the property of the Lawyers Collective, any unauthorized use of the same would be a violation of the Lawyers Collective Copyright over the same

All Photographs taken by Mehak Sethi