Once again, Punjab Police is facing the heat. Not from terrorists, but from the drug menace. The recent incidents of drug overdose-related deaths have brought the spotlight back on the drug menace in the state, and on the role of the Punjab Police in curbing it. Or, as many allege, its role in aiding and abetting the drug cartels. The drug-related deaths have coincided with tough action against police officials suspected of having direct links with the drug cartels. Prima facie, the sequence of events seems to confirm the worst fears of the public about the links between the drug cartels and the police. This perception may have some justification but, as with most perceptions, it draws attention from a more thoughtful and effective response to a problem.
Faced with a massive public outcry and criticism in the media, the government of Punjab has announced a series of measures to tackle the drug menace. These include mandatory drug tests for all government employees, proposing the death penalty for drug peddlers and a more intensive crackdown on drug consumption and distribution by Punjab Police. Taking their cue from the top, some overzealous authorities have gone a step forward and even banned the sale of syringes without a prescription. What is startling is that there is no reliable data about the scale of the drug problem. The best figures available are based on a very small survey. So, the measures being adopted are in response to a problem whose scope and size are, at best, a wild guess.
The reaction to these measures has been mixed. And it is, of course, premature to comment about their effectiveness. Or whether steps like mandatory testing would be administratively feasible, or legally tenable. What is beyond dispute is that the drug menace has been an intensely political and emotive issue in Punjab for the last five years or so. It was a key issue in the assembly elections of 2017. It is an issue that has found expression in films like Udta Punjab, a title which has entered popular lingo, as well as countless songs that form the core of Punjabi pop culture. This acknowledgement and celebration of drug consumption in Punjab’s popular culture is completely at variance with the overt religiosity of Sikhs and the key tenets of the religion. Despite this dichotomy, the tragic loss of lives due to a drug overdose, and the visible emotional trauma and financial stress caused to drug addicts and their families, mean that it is entirely understandable that no political party can afford to be seen as being soft on drugs. Not just in Punjab, but anywhere in the country. This is also the situation in most societies around the world.
But before Punjab embarks on its own war on drugs, it might be worthwhile to look at the methods adopted by similar campaigns elsewhere. Broadly speaking, there are four distinct approaches. They differ from each other in emphasising the role of coercion, through legal or extra-legal means, and the role of counselling and care, in tackling both the consumers and suppliers of drugs.
At one extreme is the approach of the Philippines, where the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has given carte blanche to the law enforcement agencies. As a result, by some estimates, as many as 12,000 people have been eliminated in police encounters since 2016. Its impact on drug consumption and distribution in the Philippines is not known. But it has provoked protests within the country and more strident condemnation from agencies and governments around the world. More seriously, in February 2018, the International Criminal Court in the Hague announced an inquiry into the tactics adopted by President Duterte. Even an otherwise enthusiastic proponent of no-nonsense policing like myself feels a sense of unease at such extreme tactics. One can only imagine the long-term impact of such indiscriminate and unaccountable brutalisation on a society. While a section of our society too might advocate such measures, I can only hope that they are a lunatic fringe. Such tactics would also be completely against the constitutional values and the political culture of our democracy.
The second approach is America’s much publicised War on Drugs. This emphasises the role of punishment of both drug users and peddlers. It is accompanied by generous military aid and robust military interventions in drug producing countries. The War on Drugs began in the time of President Richard Nixon and was given a fresh impetus during the tenure of presidents George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton. By some estimates, it costs the US some $50 billion a year. For that kind of money, its results have been underwhelming. The street price of most popular drugs in cities like New York has remained roughly constant in inflation-adjusted terms indicating that the availability of drugs has not really been affected. However, if the aim of the policy was to lock up anyone associated with drug consumption and distribution, it has been a grand success. The US today incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other democracy. And a large proportion of these is for non-violent drug offences. In the Indian context, given our clogged criminal courts and overcrowded prisons, it is difficult to see how this approach can be adopted.
The two other approaches to anti-drug policy are closely related. They emphasise decriminalisation for recreational users and harm reduction through treatment for addicts. They differ on the decriminalisation of distribution. One approach favours complete decriminalisation and strict regulation of drug supplies, while the other is more ambivalent about it. Decriminalisation of users only has been adopted by certain states in the US whereas countries like Canada, Portugal and Holland are experimenting with decriminalisation of consumption and distribution. These are novel experiments and their results are yet to be fully understood. However, purely looking at the results from more muscular approaches like the Philippines and the US, these two approaches would appear to be more relevant in the Indian context.
Apart from legal and economic constraints of adopting a US-style War on Drugs, there is also the issue of cultural attitudes with regard to consumption of specific substances like marijuana and opium. In large parts of the country, the consumption of these two substances has great social acceptability. As SSP Haridwar for nearly three years, I handled the security for the festival with the largest annual consumption of marijuana, namely the Kanwar Mela. This is, of course, dwarfed by the once in 12 years Kumbh Mela that attracts devotees of Lord Shiva and bhang from all over the world. Try strictly implementing the NDPS there, and you will have a full-scale riot. Similarly, opium consumption has widespread acceptability, especially in Punjab and Rajasthan. And not all users are addicts who are causing irreversible harm to themselves and their families. Just as everyone who consumes alcohol is not an alcoholic, anyone who consumes these substances should not be treated as an addict, or worse, a criminal. The failure of our drug policies to make a reasonable distinction between a recreational user and an addict is the collective failure of our moral imagination. A greater failure is the tendency to treat compulsive addicts as despicable criminals, and not as fellow human beings in need of care and counselling.
For far too long, on the issue of drugs, the compulsions of electoral politics and sheer demagoguery have trumped common sense, decency and the overwhelming evidence about what clearly doesn’t work. Worldwide, the tide of public opinion is slowly turning against the police-led, enforcement and punishment-based approach to drug control. The Global Commission on Drug Policy that included notable figures like Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and the late Asma Jahangir came out with a report in 2011 advocating complete decriminalisation. The government and people of Punjab must engage in serious reflection and debate based on accurate data about the scale and nature of the drug menace on this vital issue, before adopting a cure that may turn out to be much worse than the disease.