Punjab on Drugs: Amarinder Should Offer Real Solutions, Not Words
Map of Punjab and illustration of drugs / syringe, used for representational purposes.
Map of Punjab and illustration of drugs / syringe, used for representational purposes.(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)

Punjab on Drugs: Amarinder Should Offer Real Solutions, Not Words

On 23 June, Kashmir Kaur found her 22-year-old son, a drug abuser, dead in a garbage dump in Prem Nagar, Kotkapura, a city in Punjab. Her cry went viral on social media. For once, a mother's lament drowned the disputed Punjab government’s statistics on drug abusers, the efforts of the Special Task Force, the goings-on in the rehabilitation centres, and shot through the hearts of ordinary people in Punjab.

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No Big Peddlers, Drug Smugglers Caught

The cry reminded them of the Punjab Chief Minister's promise, in the wake of the state elections, by the Sikh Holy Book – the gutka – at Talwandi Sabo, Bathinda on 15 December 2015: “(if elected) I will break the back of the drugs menace within four weeks.”

In those elections, drugs was a major issue. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress scorned Bikram Singh Majithia, leader of Shiromani Akali Dal, from the Badal family. In Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign, Majithia’s name was a mantra to rouse public anger. The Congress burnt Chitta Ravan effigies. Chitta, the colour white, stands for a concoction of drugs and other materials that abusers smoke or inject to get a high. Yet, 18 months into the regime, the Congress is nowhere close to controlling the drug addiction crisis.

The STF has arrested around 10,000 drug abusers and small peddlers, and charged them under the draconian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985.

It has remained spectacularly ineffective in catching any big smuggler or supplier. For the sake of news, some consignment of drugs is nabbed and declared every few weeks.

In October 2017, in a front page apology, The Tribune withdrew its Enforcement Directorate report-based stories of Majithia’s involvement in the drug racket. The Tribune’s board president was removed. Later, the chief editor resigned. In March 2018, citing the report prepared by ADGP Harpreet Singh Sidhu, heads of STF, and state Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu demanded Majithia’s arrest. Nothing happened. At the same time, Kejriwal apologised to Majithia. Whatever be the case (or not) against Majithia, what is preventing the government from coming clean on the issue?

Also Read: ‘Replace Addiction With Connection’: Dr Yusuf Merchant on Drugs

The Rot Runs Deep

In April, Punjab DGP (HRD) Siddharth Chattopadhyaya, probing the alleged complicity of Moga city’s SSP, Raj Jit Singh, in a drug case, told the Punjab and Haryana High Court that the role of State Police Chief Suresh Arora and DGP (Intelligence) Dinkar Gupta had come to light during the investigation. Immediately after the court hearing, CM Amarinder Singh held a meeting with the top police brass and asked them, “to put an immediate end to fighting their personal and professional battles in the courts and the media”.

The matter was hushed up.

Over the years, many junior officers have been implicated in drugs-related cases.

Though SSP Raj Jit Sigh has been suspended, his replacement Kamaljit Singh Dhillon also has a controversial past, with allegations of taking money to help three juniors in a September 2013 drug-smuggling case. The police, drug control machinery, narcotics bureau, smugglers, drug vendors, pharmaceutical companies, are all complicit in the drug business – the rot runs deep.

For a change, moving away from a discipline-and-punish approach, in May, on the suggestion of a US-based drug therapist and consultant Dr Kanwar Ajit Singh Sidhu, Amarinder Singh announced a two-member committee to prepare a comprehensive de-addiction and rehabilitation plan. Dr Sidhu’s Outpatient Opioid Assisted Treatment (OOAT) approach is not radically new but it falls under a larger three-pronged strategy – enforcement, de-addiction (including harm reduction and peer support) and prevention.

As work begins on this approach, Kashmir Kaur’s cries continue to rend the skies. Between 1 and 27 June 2018, 23 young men had lost their life to drugs.

Also Read: Delhi’s Dark Secret: Rampant Drug Abuse by Street Children

Punjab Rises in Protest

Tired of the government’s false assurances, Punjab rose in protest. Informally organised by the following people – journalist Baltej Pannu; former kabaddi player, drug user, reformed gangster Mintu Gurusaria; theatre activist and writer Pali Bhupinder; advocate Hakam Singh – the people launched the Chitte De Virodh Wich Kala Hafta – Maro Ja Virodh Karo (Black Week Against Drugs – Either Die or Protest) from 1-7 July 2018.

Any such protest is always poised on a razor’s edge – after all, 10-15 people gathering in any village, locality, town, city and conducting personal raids – even dispensing punishment,amounts to vigilantism.

Unregulated vigilantism can wreak havoc. However, through the week, barring a few vigilante incidents, Punjab displayed remarkable nerve. Its people came out in protest, social media display pictures changed, people carried banners and placards, human chains were formed, and the people maintained composure, exhibiting a rare level of maturity – a firm and resolute display of rosh – anger, without letting it spiral into mindless violence. It was the same during the farmer and labour rail-roko and the sacrilege protests in 2015, the violence over Ram Rahim’s arrest in 2017, and now.

The silent discontent could not have been louder.

Also Read: Kerala’s Pervasive Drug Problem: What Needs to Be Done

Punjab Govt’s Flawed Approach to Drug Crisis

On the second day of the protest, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh called the apolitical leaders for a meeting. The leaders were pleased that their memorandum had been accepted. They remain active on social media, giving interviews, and so on. However, using the protest as the basis, the Punjab Chief Minister fell right back into the discipline-and-punish approach and recommended the following:

  • Death penalty for drug peddlers
  • Dope test for all government officials
  • Banning sale of syringes without prescription.

Let us look at these strategies.

Death Penalty:

There is nothing novel here. Section 31A of the NDPS Act, 1985 amended in 2014, already has a provision for death penalty in the ‘rarest of rare cases’. This was done because in 2011, Justices A M Khanwilkar and A P Bhangale of the Bombay High Court had struck down the mandatory death penalty by declaring it violative of Article 21 of the Constitution (right to life).

It is football season and the CM has passed the ball to the Centre.

Given that the Centre took more than two years to get back to the state and call for changes to the March 2016, SAD amendment to IPC by adding section 295 AA calling for death penalty for those found guilty of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, it is anybody’s guess how long it will take for Amarinder Singh’s proposal to be be accepted, and ratified by the Parliament. That too for the whole country, not Punjab alone.

A recent study of the NDPS Act in Punjab by think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, clearly states, “The NDPS Act has failed to meet its twin objectives of deterrence and rehabilitation in Punjab”.

How mature is it to arm an already less effective law? Plus it will give rise to immense corruption by an already compromised police force.

Dope Test

The test is a dare thrown by opposition parties. It belies logic, but the Punjab Chief Minister has ordered it. Though some opposition leaders and the assembly speaker have got their own tests done, by what logic can one assume only the government officials are drug abusers? The fact is that the dope test is not an addiction test. Since heroin washes off quickly, one can be an addict but appear clean for a few hours and get a test done soon after to prove that one is not an addict.

Another person could have smoked cannabis a few days ago, not be an addict, and yet could prove positive because the substance stays longer in the body.

The main issue is a lack of empirical data on the number of drug abusers. Every new study contradicts the previous one and they all go against on-ground statistics. The government, wanting to add another statistic which will be contested in courts ad infinitum, is just keeping the people in an infinite loop.

Banning Arbitrary Sale of Syringes

Since most abusers take drugs intravenously, the government has now come up with a rule that no chemist is allowed to sell syringes without a prescription. This proves the government’s blinkered vision. When addicts do not find new syringes, they will likely share the ones they have, directly becoming vulnerable to the other major menaces stalking the Punjab countryside – Hepatitis-C and HIV.

Senior psychiatrist, Dr Anirudh Kala says:

They will then pass on these illnesses to their wives and partners. Are we even equipped to manage that? This is the reason many countries supply free syringes to addicts. It is called ‘harm reduction’.
Dr Anirudh Kala, Psychiatrist

It is remarkably sad how quickly the government lapsed back into its draconian mode and showed that the core issues are two-fold: a complicit political and administrative system unwilling to persecute big smugglers and suppliers, and rather, pursuing a discipline-and-punish approach. With poor rehabilitation facilities and a compromised police, the government now realises that it is hard to eliminate drugs from society. The political bluster now sounds like the drug-addled talk of an addict: when sober, every abuser talks about quitting drugs, seeking help, not wanting access to drugs – and soon after, they fail.

Dr Kala says, “Addiction does not disappear. The total quantum of drug and behaviour addiction in a society remains more or less the same over time. It can alter shape. You press it here to form a pit, it comes up elsewhere as a bulge.” He goes on to add:

The only choice is how much of which addiction the society wants to have at a particular phase in time, and that choice is relative at best. From that perspective, it makes sense to liberalise milder intoxicants.
Dr Anirudh Kala, Psychiatrist

A Holistic Approach is Needed

Instead of dealing with the drug menace holistically, in a change of rhetoric, Amarinder Singh now says his battle was against chitta. He claims the quadrupled price of heroin shows he has eliminated it. But abusers have simply moved on to other concoctions.

The recent deaths were instant ones, syringes still stuck in arms, the bodies turning black. 

ADGP Sidhu said the cause of these deaths is use of ‘cut’. Dr Piare Lal Garg, Former Registrar, Baba Farid University says, “From the statement it seems like cut itself is an intoxicant. But cut is not a substance in itself. Like dalda is mixed with ghee, sugar with honey, synthetic chemicals with milk, cut in drugs is heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, mixed with cheaper substances.

Cutting agents for heroin could be sweet soda, sugar, arrowroot, talcum powder, dry milk, detergents, etc.

Cutting agents in methamphetamine could be lithium, salts, iodine, chemical fertilizers, etc. Cutting agents for cocaine could be dish washing powder, boric acid, baby powder, caffeine, Benzocaine, Lidocaine, Phenacetin, Chloroquine, Aspirin and so on.

The solution to the war on drugs has to be holistic. As long as the government continues to keep its ears closed to Kashmir Kaur’s wails, keeps appropriating people’s discontent, and implements ad hoc measures, it will not do anyone – including itself – any good. While families continue to suffer, doctors are the first line of care in the war on drugs. Unless the government enrolls them, Punjab will further be pushed into this quagmire.

(The writer is an author and is working on a book on Punjab. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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