Regulation on substance abuse disproportionate to health risks, says report
Alcohol and tobacco can be more harmful to individuals and the society than recreational drugs like cannabis and ecstasy that are governed by disproportionately strict regulations, according to a report released by the Global Commission on Drug Policy on Tuesday.
Of the four psychoactive substances -- alcohol, heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine -- that cause the highest levels of harm, two are regulated as the most dangerous substance, one as moderately dangerous. Alcohol is not subject to any international regulation. Of the four substances with lowest levels of harm, two were regulated as most dangerous, too, according to the report. This skewed regulatory framework leads to economic losses with a high number of people incarcerated and people in need not having access to opioids.
“I see the number of people locked in prison because of drug use or possession and that is not how people need to be treated. When I see people without access to pain medicines, when I see drug cartels causing havoc, I know that the system needs to be fixed. We need a more rational, a humane system that primarily protects people,” said Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, member of the commission and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The regulations also result in a disparity in access to pain medicines globally, with only 4% in India who need it getting it. Only 0.2% of those in need in Afghanistan and Nigeria, and 0.8% in Haiti getting it, the report shows.
In comparison, western countries have it in excess, with 3,150% drugs needed available in the US and 3,090% in Australia.
Alcohol and tobacco are the most commonly used legal psychoactive substances used in India. About 14.6% of people consume alcohol and 28.6% use tobacco. Among the illegal drugs, cannabis is the most popular, with 2.8% of the population using some form of cannabis -- bhang (which is restricted but legally available) and charas and ganja. “The only logic to having these in a lax regulatory framework is that there are a large number of users who are not dependent on it. This number is lower for other drugs. The latency period or the time it takes to develop a dependence on alcohol and cigarettes is also much more as compared to other drugs. The grey area here is cannabis and a strong case can be made for relaxing regulations on it,” said Dr Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Delhi’s only mental health care hospital. “This is the prevention paradox. Countries, including India, try to curtail supply and availability of drugs that are illegal but have been proven to have fewer harms, than those that are legal and more harmful ,” said Dr Desai. The report advocates local regulations to take into consideration the cultural aspects.
“Bhang, charas and ganja have been in use in India for thousands of years and are culturally accepted and used in certain festivals. So is opium in parts of India. But the flawed international policies, which were adopted in India too led to stricter regulations on opium and more and more people switched to heroine and injectibles that are more harmful,” said Dr Atul Ambekar, professor at the National Drug Dependence and Treatment Centre at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), who headed the Union government’s study to map substance use in India.
In India, an estimated 57 lakh people use opium as compared to 125 lakh who use heroine, a study done by AIIMS showed.