The Centre must help Punjab on the drug issue
The 2009 notification to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Act, 1985, that emphasises a punishment-based approach must be revokedUpdated: Aug 01, 2018 11:07 IST
Punjab is facing a huge drug addiction crisis. At least 23 people have reportedly died due to the addiction in June alone. But, unfortunately, the law dealing with drug addicts has only made the situation worse; the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Act, 1985 (NDPS Act), prima facie criminalises drug addiction.
The law assumes that decriminalising addiction is tantamount to condoning use of drugs, and advocacy by human rights groups to decriminalise the act has fallen on deaf ears. The legislature, too, wants deterrent punishment for drug use. This brings the addicts into the fold of the criminal justice system and they eventually end up landing in jail at the end of the trial. Regardless of its nature — whether it is about addiction or trafficking — an NDPS case takes an average of about four years to conclude.
Small details matter. The 2009 notification to the NDPS Act passed by the department of revenue assigns punishment on the basis of weight of the total drug substance recovered, and not, unlike earlier, on the individual pure drug ingredient. For example, in a case in Moga, an accused with 5,000 tablets of lomotil with 12 grams diphenoxylate was sentenced only for six months, as 12 grams was considered close to “small quantity” classification. But now, somebody caught with 50 grams of white powder, with five grams cocaine in it, will nevertheless be convicted for the entire 50 grams, and not just five grams.
This notification has changed the quantum of sentencing in judgments across Punjab. The judgments in the cases in which the drugs were recovered after the 2009 notification differ starkly, and two cases from Barnala in which the convicts were found with diphenoxylate drive home the contrast. In 2013, a 70-year-old woman was arrested with 1,800 white tablets containing diphenoxylate. She pleaded her age and poverty as mitigating factors to reduce her sentence. In the other case, a 65-year-old man was found carrying 1,500 tablets containing the same substance. As per the judgment, each tablet contained 2.2 mg diphenoxylate, which would amount to a total of 3.3 grams. This is only slightly larger than the small quantity category (2 grams for diphenoxylate). The man pleaded with the court for a lesser sentence, based on his age and inability to walk. But in both these cases, applying the 2009 notification, the court sentenced them to 10 years mandatory minimum imprisonment.
The NDPS Act does not allow for remission or suspension of sentences, which means that both the convicts will be spending a major part of their old age in prison. There are many such incidents of people being targeted harshly, and disproportionately, by the law that is meant in fact to target traffickers, not to victimise people.
To nudge Punjab towards a drug-free state, government should take a two-pronged approach. And for that, the state desperately needs the Centre’s help. For one, it is clear that criminalising addiction does not lead people to abstain from drug use. They consume drugs regardless of the law’s stand on this. And that’s why legislators need to change their approach towards criminalisation of drug use. In 2012, the parliamentary standing committee on NDPS Act refused to even consider decriminalisation of drug addiction citing what they called a “medical maxim” — prevention is better than cure. But the fact remains that we are unable to prevent drug addiction even with a law as stringent as the present one; the criminalisation approach hasn’t worked, and it is time we realised it.
Secondly, the 2009 notification must be revoked. It has, and will, only lead to victimisation of more people, creating avoidable tragedies.
Neha Singhal is senior resident fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Aug 01, 2018 11:07 IST