By Ananya Singh
Can rising drug abuse in India be stemmed by the legalisation of marijuana? Yes, according to India’s Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi. At a Group of Ministers (GOM) meeting, Gandhi proposed legalising the drug for medicinal purposes. The meeting was held to revise the National Drug Demand Reduction Policy to address India’s crisis of drug abuse.
Marijuana, easily available despite governmental bans is accorded the status of the world’s most ‘exploited illegal drug’. An approximate 125 million people consume the drug, in some form or the other. Multiple studies and researches have led to marijuana legalisation in foreign nations including Netherlands and parts of USA. Citing these countries as examples, Maneka Gandhi proclaimed that India could benefit by legalisation. While a draft of the national drug policy has been approved, whether the government will support legitimisation of cannabis derivatives is debatable.
A century ago, while India was still under colonial rule, the first study on marijuana was conducted. The British in their Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report (1893-94) concluded that “the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all.”
Cannabis was legal in India until the introduction of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985. Pressure from the US and international sources pushed the adoption of the NDPS in India. The Act categorised cannabis derivatives under hard drugs, banning them all.
The Act further imposed stringent punishment for production and consumption, prescribing imprisonment ranging from six months to 10 years. Despite restrictions, the illicit production and sale of the drugs continue.
Some for, others against
The GOM meeting’s purpose was to scrutinise the draft policy for reducing drug demand and abuse. Maneka Gandhi addressed the concerns regarding legalisation by exemplifying drug policies in many foreign countries. According to her, it should be legalised for medicinal use, “especially as it serves a purpose in cancer.” Medical cannabis is a renowned pain-killer and is widely used in alleviating the side-effects of chemotherapy.
The Indian Ministry of Social Justice conducted a national survey in collaboration with AIIMS, covering students, transgenders and commercial sex workers. Maneka Gandhi addressed the need to extend such surveys to drug-prone areas such as those living near railway stations. She further stated the need for setting up de-addiction centres in such areas.
In the Indian scenario, Maneka Gandhi is not the first Minister to voice support for legalisation. BJD’S Tathagata Satpathy made headlines in 2015 by calling the ban on cannabis “elitist.” Similarly, MP Dharamvir Gandhi introduced a bill to “legitimize cultivation, production, possession, manufacture, sale, transport, and inter-state export, import, use and consumption of soft drugs”.
In response to the issue, G Latha Krishna Rao, Social Justice and Empowerment Secretary stated legalisation may be inappropriate keeping in mind India’s low literacy rate.
An opponent for abuse
Studies have been conducted on the beneficial effect of cannabis in reducing opium addiction. India is facing a rising problem of drug misuse. The worst affected state remains Punjab. According to the Punjab Dependence Opioid Survey (PDOS) 2.3 lakh people in the state are heavily dependent on opioids, with the most exploited drug being heroin.
A study (published in The Journal of American Medicine Association) analysing the link between cannabis laws and the deaths caused by opioid overdose in the US reveals that “medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates”. Researchers attribute an increased opioid dependency on its illegal use as a pain reliever. Considering the similar effects of cannabis in alleviating pain, replacing opioids with cannabis will prevent overdoses. This can only be possible by allowing legal access to medical marijuana.
Further, decriminalisation of production and consumption will help reduce the pressure on Indian prisons currently overflowing with inmates.
If legalised, India will be treading the tried and tested path of providing for a drug reform policy. In 2013, Uruguay was the first country to legalise marijuana. Netherlands has decriminalised the drug and has the lowest drug-related deaths in the EU. Many others have followed suit, such as France, Jamaica, Croatia and Columbia. As such, a number of countries have completely or partially legalised marijuana.
Legalisation is a bold move. However, it has produced positive results across the world. Portugal was the first nation in the EU to take this step and today records a reduced rate of drug use among teenagers. HIV infection due to infected needles has also declined. Further, by providing a legal space for addicts to seek help, Portugal doubled the number of its in-treatment patients.
Colorado in the US introduced cannabis for recreational purposes with the first retail store opening in 2014. Studies revealed no increase in marijuana use post legalisation; in fact, its use among high school students dropped by a small percent. On the other hand, Czech Republic, while exercising strict control over access, records the highest rate of consumption in the EU.
Summing up the global situation, a study conducted by doctors at McLean Hospital’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse stated “The growing body of research that includes this study suggests that medical marijuana laws do not increase adolescent use and future decisions that states make about whether or not to enact medical marijuana laws should be at least partly guided by this evidence. The framework of using a scientific method to challenge what might be ideological beliefs must remain an important driver of future research on marijuana policy.”
Have to avoid tipping the balance
If India decides to legalise marijuana, the nation will have a number of successful drug reform frameworks to base their policy on. For success, India must focus on a consolidated approach to legalisation. The decision to allow legal production of marijuana must work in tandem with increased efforts to rehabilitate existing users. The authorities must maintain a balance between the two. Centres for de-addiction and rehabilitation must be set up to provide facilities to dependent users.
The grim reality today is that despite a ban, drugs are available and will continue to be produced. Frequent users will find a way to acquire narcotics, whether it is deemed legal or not. Those who keep an arm’s length distance between drugs and themselves are unlikely to begin consuming if marijuana is legalised.
The government must make an informed decision and only approach legalisation post excessive research. Studying the existing links between cannabis and opioid abuse is important, as replacing opioids may be fruitful in reducing overdose-induced deaths. As always, implementation will finally determine whether efficient governmental regulation is able to curb the growing crisis of drug abuse.
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