RESHAPING THE PUBLIC NARRATIVE ON DRUG LAWS IN INDIA
Advocating for decriminalising drug consumption in the NDPS Act and focusing on a rehabilitative approach for drug users instead
As per government estimates, over 3 crore Indians use cannabis and over 2 crore use opioids in one form or the other. Around 1.5 crore of such users are dependent on drugs. Increasing drug abuse has thus become a pressing public health concern for society in general and the government in particular.
The response, however, has been inefficient and almost entirely reliant on criminal law. Specifically, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Act, 1985 ('NDPS Act'), which drives the framework of drug law in India, punishes the consumption of drugs with imprisonment for up to one year, which, as Vidhi's research shows, ends up exploiting small time users while traffickers continue to operate.
Over the past two years, in particular, consumption of drugs in India has attracted substantial government and public attention due to arrests of high-profile Bollywood celebrities in cases involving consumption of cannabis. This has been an opportune moment for Vidhi to drive the public narrative towards reforming the NDPS Act to ensure that the law brings cartels and traffickers to book while rehabilitating drug users who need support instead of harsh punishment.
Criminalisation of drug consumption under the NDPS Act is exploitative
To analyse how the NDPS Act uses an overtly punitive approach towards drug consumption, Vidhi published three pieces of research:
Criminalisation Leads To Exploitation: The Mumbai Story No One Knows About studies the use of section 27 of the NDPS Act in Mumbai to showcase how ill-conceived and loosely drafted laws facilitate arbitrary police action. It specifically demonstrates how criminalisation of drug use has become a tool to target and exploit the poor and young cannabis consuming population in the city. For instance, the research showed that more than 97% of all cases under the NDPS Act in Mumbai involved personal consumption of drugs and 88% of those arrested were under 40 years of age.
The research also highlights how the justice system worked in convoluted ways, where 99.7% of those accused eventually pleaded guilty to the offence they were charged with, leading to a very high conviction rate. Most of these persons were daily or manual labourers.
Another report by Vidhi on the Case for Decriminalising Cannabis Use in India argued that the law overwhelmingly victimises the marginalised and the poor, without having any real impact on drug consumption. This research found that even though the United States of America ('US') pushed for drug prohibition across the world in the last century, 26 states in the US have now decriminalised and eleven states have legalised possession and consumption of small amounts of cannabis. The report emphasises that drug prohibition has its roots in racist American policies that India must shun.
The third report by Vidhi, Sikkim's Alternative Model to Tackle Drug Abuse: An Analysis of the Sikkim Anti-Drugs Act, 2006, analysed Sikkim's approach towards increasing drug abuse. The research showed that decriminalising drug use and dealing with addiction as a health problem reduced the stigma attached to it. It helped drug addicts access de-addiction and other healthcare services without fear of arrest, and importantly, the number of undertrials for drug offences in Gangtok Central Jail reduced dramatically from over 200 to just 66. Thus, the researchers argued for a similar public health based approach that focuses on prevention, de-addiction, and treatment, to replace the current criminalised response to drug abuse.
As the arrest of Bollywood celebrities for cannabis consumption made headlines and gripped public imagination, Vidhi intervened and shaped the public narrative through drawing on its extensive research to inform the sharply polarised debate.
Researchers wrote for leading newspapers and digital platforms, and participated in numerous public debates on the issue of criminalisation of drug use and the need to revisit the NDPS Act, establishing their point through hard-hitting data.
Vidhi's findings were quoted widely, including by the Times of India in its editorial, the India Today Magazine in its editor's note and cover story, and on prime time shows on television, among others.
Taking forward its path breaking work in From Addict to Convict: Working of the NDPS Act in Punjab, published in 2018 which analysed the deployment of the NDPS Act in Punjab in-depth, Vidhi has today become the leading authority on the drug law in India and the country's foremost voice advocating for decriminalisation of drug consumption. It has been approached by state governments to provide first drafts of a law that will decriminalise drug consumption.
'A recent Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy study notes several aspects of the ban including driving sales underground, leading to dangerous adulteration and boosting more potent psychoactive drugs.'
— Times of India,
'This Act has seen the State invest disproportionate resources into prosecuting consumers. A study last year by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy noted that most people arrested for cannabis possession are the poor and marginalised, while the bigger sellers escape unscathed.'
— Aroon Purie,
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF INDIA TODAY