Last Tuesday [26th June] was International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. One casually tuned into the lead story at 7 in the morning on Asianet News to find out that drug addiction in Kerala had gone up five times after a majority of bars were closed down in 2016 by the Congress led UDF government. During this period alcohol consumption had declined, the story mentioned. This turned out to be one’s thought for the day. Is alcohol a drug like cannabis, opiates etc? One has studied the problem of drugs and addiction for almost four decades and has learned that alcohol is indeed a drug. It comes in the category depressants [Drugs incidentally are categorized in to seven types on the basis of their effect on those who use them- for example while a depressant slows down, a stimulant speeds up or a hallucinogen disrupts communication within one’s brain and so on.]
Alcohol unlike other drugs is licit or legal and considered socially acceptable. It has since long been part of festivities and celebrations; for governments it is a major source of revenue. But it can lead to addiction which is accepted as a disease. It is considered a family disease as close relations of an addict suffers more than him; he indulges in domestic violence, starves his family, neglects his children to give a few problems.
Alcohol related diseases and alcohol related deaths are a major concern. It was estimated that in 2012 there were 3.3 million deaths in India due to alcohol consumption related diseases. No wonder successive governments have been concerned about this problem. But unfortunately the problem of addiction, first to alcohol and then to other drugs, is only showing an upward swing. Despite ban on alcohol advertisements in all the media especially television channels, surrogate alcohol ads rule the airwaves especially during popular national and international sports events. One sees it during the ongoing football World Cup in Russia or had seen plenty of them during the IPL [Indian ‘Paisa’ nay Premier League]. During the IPL Suneel Vatsyayan, a leading voice in the fight against drug addiction, prevention and alcohol advertisements blogged, ”The ongoing Indian Premier League [IPL] tournament has more liquor ads than one can count. There are ads for Seagram’s Royal Stag, Royal Challenge, Signature, Black &White and why [ASCI] Advertising Standard Council of India turning a blind eye to this charade of surrogate ads that are openly selling liquor and nothing else.
There are ads on air for Royal Challenge, Black & White, Signature and Chivas Regal. All liquor ads for sure, but masquerading as completely different products, mostly nonexistent”.
All concerned authorities seem to have closed their eyes when blatant violation of rules and regulations were adopted by the industry in circumventing the rules to unabashedly promote surrogate alcohol ads. They actually make fun of the intelligence of the average viewer. There appears to be active connivance of the industry, media and regulatory bodies. They succeed in creating an artificial or make belief world of celebrity lifestyle which cajole the young people to accept alcohol as a symbol of success and style. While on the one hand preventive agencies try to persuade and wean away young people from the reality of the danger of excess drinking of alcohol, the reel life of celebrities and the so called successful people portrayed in surrogate alcohol ads invite them to accept alcohol as a sign of success and prosperity.
The real tragedy is that it is often the poorer and the marginalized sections of our society who fall victim to deadly addiction. They tend to believe that alcohol is an antidote for all their problems; it gives them relaxation after a hard day’s work, give them a feeling of well being, good appetite and sleep, ability to forget their worries and so on. Needless to say, these are all false notions and soon they destroy their families and end up in some nondescript de-addiction or rehabilitation center which is a journey out of the frying pan into the fire. Of course there are professionally and scientifically run centers. Having visited a number of centers managed by people who had a drug/alcohol connection one can say that they were some of the worst places. People prefer private centers to government run facilities. It is reported that a Rs.5 crore 100 bed center inaugurated in Punjab in 2015 had just one patient whereas private centers are overflowing with patients. One of the main reasons is that private centers do not insist on the consent of the patients unlike government run centers.
The Indian Express, on the eve of this year’s International Day Against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking had carried a story on what happened to a number of de-addiction centers based on an inspection report on such centers submitted to the Delhi High Court. The front page story actually sums up the plight of the patients in such centers, “Asked to perform sexual favours, subjected to physical and sexual torture, treated as slave, not allowed to contact their families-and death allegedly due to torture or wrong treatment.” On the basis of writ petitions filed on unregulated de-addiction centers the Delhi High Court had asked the Delhi State Legal Services Authority [DSLSA] which submitted the report to the High Court on 1st June. “According to the report the DSLSA in fact had inspected 124 de-addiction centers, out of which 28 were found shut. In the remaining 96 centers the Authority interacted with 2135 inmates -750 said they were detained involuntarily”.
Responding to the report the Bench comprising justices S. Muralidhar and I S Mehta said that such violations of fundamental rights to life, liberty and dignity as enshrined in the constitution are “unconscionable.” The court said, “It is paradoxical too. On the one hand, there is fairly a large population of persons in need of de-addiction and on the other hand, we have several unauthorized and illegally run centers exploiting the situation, charging money and subjecting such persons to inhumane and degrading treatment.’’ The bench has also ordered the Delhi Police to act on the DSLSA report and to proceed in accordance of the law against the centers where such inmates have been subjected to inhumane treatment.
This Delhi High Court order will go a long way in regularizing the de-addiction and treatment centers for hundreds of thousands of drug and alcohol addicts in the country. There is dire need for such facilities. Government facilities are said to be grossly inadequate. Concerned civil society organizations and the voluntary sector need to come in the field with standard of care, qualified health professionals and counselors with residential facilities. Agencies like DSLSA or regulatory bodies need to ensure quality and effective de-addiction/ treatment and rehabilitation centers in all states if the scourge of addiction is to be eliminated. The problem is really serious and a new national policy on alcohol and drugs is required to combat it.
As one was concluding this piece on Monday [2nd July], breaking news from Punjab was flashed on all channels about the press statements followed by a tweet by Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh, “My government has decided to recommend death penalty for drug peddling /smuggling. The recommendation is being forwarded to the union government. Since drug peddling is destroying entire generations, it deserves exemplary punishment. I stand by my commitment for a drug free Punjab.’’ His intentions are appreciated notwithstanding the fact that there are provisions for death penalty for repeat offenders even in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act [NDPS] of 1985!
The problem of drug abuse in Punjab in the light of what the CM said on 1st July has to be looked at from another angle and the urgency for such a move. Before and during the state Assembly elections in Punjab the problem of drugs was a major issue. Media reports portrayed Punjab as ravaged by rampant drug trafficking and addiction. The Congress Party that trounced the Akali Dal-BJP coalition had assured that they will rid the state of the drug menace. Ground realities today, after fifteen months of being in power, despite some initiatives are not exactly praiseworthy. In fact The Tribune had come out with a story on 29th June with the headline, “Anger, fear in Punjab as June sees 23 Deaths from Drugs”. There are heart rending stories of parents wailing and mourning the death of their children from villages like Kotakapura and Cheharta. The police and other agencies are concerned and active but the intravenous use of deadly dugs like ‘Cut’ [a new addition to the terminology of adulterated heroin] has pervaded the length and breadth of the state. The authorities are almost helpless. It is indeed tragic that these deaths have taken place during the month of June, the 26th day of which is the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit trafficking.