Anti-drug legislations in India are not only neglected in policy deliberations, but more so they continue unchanged even after the little academic research on the subject strongly suggests the need for revision. These suggestions are discussed below, along with a short history of how the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act came about in India. The NDPS Act was discussed, passed and implemented in less than a month by the Parliament led by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. There have been speculations, some backed by fact, as to what could have led to such a legislation in a country where, according to the British Government's Indian Hemp Drug Commission study in 1894, cannabis was concluded to have little or no negative effects. Quantification of the previously abstract usage of mind-altering drugs in India began during the British occupation. Over the next century, the policies followed by other governments would come to impact Indian perceptions and acceptance of cannabis usage.
The foundations of the NDPS Act can be traced to pressure from countries like the United States, following the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs by the United Nations in 1961. This legislation was primarily supported by Western bloc countries. India, which had previously opposed such reforms, became a signatory to it.
In religious and cultural terms, the organic substances categorised by modern western countries as prohibited drugs, had in the Indian subcontinent for centuries been in uninhibited use. The use of mind-altering substances hardly raised any alarm in society, particularly in cultural contexts, prior to the 1980s. The enacting and enforcement of the NDPS Act can be said to have drastically altered drug usage patterns, arguably leading to the proliferation of far more harmful patterns. These unintended consequences will be discussed below.
According to a paper by Molly Charles, Dave Bewley-Taylor and Amanda Neidpath for the Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme, such laws appear to have made dealers and consumers shift to drugs that are more expensive. "Evidence suggests that the new legislation exacerbated the problems arising from such structural changes. For example, far from reaching its goal of eradicating drug use, enforcement of the NDPS Act (1985) appears to have inadvertently facilitated a shift to harder forms of drugs and riskier modes of consumption."
In other words, since the Act imposes similar punishments for relatively harmless drugs and for harsher ones, dealers tend to go for the latter in hopes of better profits. Then, the proliferation of drugs like heroin, ketamine and other injectable drugs increases the prevalence of several kinds of infections. A 2002 paper by Pratima Murty which analysed gendered drug abuse patterns noted that of the seventy-five women studied, "45.3 percent derived their main source of income from sex work and drug dealing. In combination with the high incidence of injecting drug use, this reality clearly has serious implications for the management of HIV/ AIDS and other bloodborne infections."
Nor is it surprising that according to an OECD report, between 1992 and 2012 the per capita consumption of alcohol in India increased by whopping 55 percent, the third highest increase in the world. The report names alcohol consumption as one of the top 5 reasons for death and disability worldwide.
Different regions have witnessed differing impacts. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, growing crops for the drug trade offers lucrative deals to the locals. According to Molly Charles, the prevailing legislation doesn't take into account the harsher socio-economic realities of these regions, and how the cannabis grown in various parts of Himachal provides the people with the necessary livelihood, sourced from the demand for these drugs and their international value.
In Punjab, another state reeling under similar problems, as many as a third of prison inmates are being tried under the NDPS Act. This mass incarceration, coupled with the poor government response and rehabilitation efforts, fails on the promise intended by this legislation. Admission into government rehabilitation centres isn't easy, and the demand for these services far exceeds the existing supply. Some cannot even consider spending exorbitant amounts on private rehabilitation institutions.
As mentioned, the present legislation governing drug use was born of Western bloc pressure culminating in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Despite having signed the Convention, India has yet to make contextual changes to its laws. Even in the United States, 31 states have so far legalised the use of medical marijuana and 9 for recreational purposes.
Charles, thus, postulates that that by criminalising the social/ religious/ cultural/ recreational use of opium and cannabis in India, the NDPS Act has prompted the proliferation of alcohol, heroin, and other more harmful pharmaceutical drugs, and has given a new lease of life to organised crime syndicates. The denial of access to low-cost, accessible healthcare at the hands of traditional healers is another unintended consequence needing immediate rectification.
Amendments to the NDPS Act differentiated between commercial and small quantities, and between punishments for the same. Another amendment made the death penalty for repeated offences "optional". Nevertheless, personal use remains a criminal offence, with a six-month sentence. The lack of focus on rehabilitation, counselling, and consideration of socio-religious contexts has resulted in consequences surpassing the levels of crisis it was intended to deal with in the first place. India's anti-drug policies are pregnant with issues that are festering at an alarming rate.