Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Contributing Editor Dr. Kawal Deep Kour.
Policymakers in India have responded to proliferating reports of substance use disorders with great concern, opening the winter session of Parliament with a discussion of drug addiction and ways and means to reverse the trend. Even formerly radical ideas are on the table: it is likely that a Private Member’s Bill calling for the legalization of medicinal opium and cannabis will be introduced this session. This measure indicates policymakers both understand there is a problem and are willing to address it from new angles. Though the government of India and its people are currently debating the issue, drug policy reformers hope this bill will create pathways for a more progressive, less punitive set of laws. That this conversation is happening at all evinces a broader trend toward flexibility among governments across the globe, particularly regarding the therapeutic use of cannabis and the costs of the international “war on drugs.”
The legal debate over legalization in India centers on Article 47 of its national constitution, ratified in 1949, which outlines one duty of the state: “to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health… and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” While our knowledge of drugs and their injurious potential has increased a great deal due to social practices research, Indian drug policy discourse is dominated by medical and scientific rhetoric. Research from this perspective is often preoccupied with health problems associated with drug use. Focus on the discrete biological mechanisms or epidemiology of drug use is insufficient for understanding (or potentially influencing) behaviors related to intoxication and substance use disorders. Social scientists around the world believe there is an urgent need to incorporate more perspectives from anthropology, history, sociology, and cultural and gender studies, which remain secondary to laboratory sciences. (Regardless, most informed debate is limited to the professional academy. Public engagement by all of these disciplines should become the norm, not only to dispel myths about drugs and their use but also to perhaps help those struggling with related disorders.)
These competing frameworks result in confused approaches to drug policy. Article 47 is still invoked to justify and reinforce prohibition, but a careful reading suggests the foundation for a more progressive policy is already written in the directive. Recall that Article 47 requires the state to “raise the nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health.” In this spirit, the National Drugs and Psychotropics Act of 1985, the foundation of Indian drug policy, was amended most recently in 2001 to allow more scientific drug research and encourage private industry to enter the international pharmaceutical opium market. One state, Uttarakhand, read even more into the legal change and recently became the first in India to legalize the production of industrial cannabis. These steps help pull us from the mess of complete prohibition, which continues to ensnare other Indian states and countries elsewhere.
Prohibition is a flawed approach that ignores lessons from history. In 1976, the National Committee on Drug Abuse, chaired by Dr. C. Goplan, concluded that the elimination of drugs was a utopian idea and instead advocated for their “control and minimization.” Among the committee’s most significant recommendations was establishing a National Advisory Board on Drug Control featuring representation from academia, government, NGOs, and other interest groups. It called for long-term research programmes on different aspects of the problem to formulate evidence-based policies. This proposal never came to fruition, and forty years later progress has been incremental, but it is gratifying that Indian researchers so long ago envisioned a foundation for connecting scholarship to policy that continues to resonate globally as a viable model. It is this ongoing disconnect between research, policy, and practice that ails present drug policy in India and elsewhere. Existing national medical discourse masks the complexity and dynamism of drug use, but even new work among social scientists must overcome significant disciplinary barriers, public preconceptions, and policy inertia in order to make a meaningful impact regarding drug use or its potential problems.