Distributive policy

We need humane drug policy based on public health and harm reduction

Photo: Bret Kavanaugh/Unsplash


  • Drug addiction is a complex and prevalent health problem in India and across the world.
  • But despite the growing crackdown on drug cartels in India by law enforcement, drug use and reported cases under the NDPS Act 1985 are on the rise.
  • The National Crime Records Bureau reported nearly 60,000 cases under the NDPS Act in 2020, which is a doubling in the last decade alone.
  • We therefore need to examine the effectiveness of current legal frameworks in deterring drug abuse and addiction, as well as the constraints of focusing on supply-side strategies.

Drug addiction is a complex and prevalent health problem in India and across the world. However, despite the growing crackdown on drug cartels in India by law enforcement agencies, drug use and reported cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act 1985 are on the rise. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported nearly 60,000 cases under the NDPS Act in 2020, which has doubled in the past decade alone. This raises questions about the effectiveness of current legal frameworks in deterring drug abuse and addiction, and the constraints of focusing only on supply-side strategies.

The NDPS Act of 1985 criminalizes both “possession of drugs for personal use/consumption” and “possession of drugs for trafficking”, thus treating drug users and traffickers as criminals. It fails to recognize drug addiction as a disease, requiring treatment and rehabilitation, rather than punitive action. Furthermore, crime data suggests that law enforcement agencies focus disproportionately on cases of personal drug use rather than the root problem of drug trafficking. What is even more concerning is that despite the increase in drug seizures, drug treatment and rehabilitation continues to be a low priority. A national study conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2019 revealed a 75% treatment gap for drug use disorders, revealing that among those who need treatment for substance use disorders, very few receive them.

It is time for an effective and compassionate reassessment of India’s drug policy that is based on scientific evidence, rather than a sole basis of repression, punishment and incarceration. Sound drug policies must consider the proportionality of the criminal justice response and prioritize public health and harm reduction, that is, reducing the harm associated with drugs. This is based on the premise that treatment of drug use disorders is the key operational objective towards drug demand reduction.

What are some of the steps a progressive government invested in people’s health and well-being can take? During the winter session of Parliament which has just ended, I submitted a resolution by an MP in favor of a “humane drug policy based on public health and harm reduction”, which was to be introduced on December 23, 2021. However, due to the premature conclusion of the session, the introduction did not take place – here are the policy recommendations contained in the resolution.

First, the Union government must seriously consider amending the NDPS Act to decriminalize the possession of “small quantities” of drugs for personal consumption (“small quantities” as defined in the NDPS Act of 1985). The state must ensure that people apprehended for personal drug use are directed to mandatory drug treatment or rehabilitation rather than being prosecuted and sentenced to punitive measures. As part of the amendment to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the government should also consider making a distinction between drug addicts, first-time users and recreational drug addicts.

Beyond legislative action, various measures need to be taken in terms of policy implementation. First, beyond policing, the National Drug Addiction Fund must be used effectively for drug treatment programs and other evidence-based treatment facilities for substance use disorders. While the current NDPS Act provides some scope for rehabilitation, the actual implementation is very poor. People who use drugs must be able to access these services without being threatened with punitive sanctions. Second, the government should conduct regular state-level surveys to assess the extent of substance abuse disorders, the degree of substance abuse, and related health implications such as viral hepatitis and HIV. Such regular collection of micro-data would capture at-risk districts and population groups at risk, and thus better inform policy response.

The Northeast region is particularly susceptible to drug abuse, as several states in the region serve as primary routes for the distribution of narcotics to the rest of the country due to their geographic location. A combination of environmental and structural factors, such as underdevelopment and insurgency, have made local youth highly vulnerable to drug abuse. Despite a smaller population, several states in the Northeast have illicit drug use above the national average and a worrying prevalence of HIV, primarily among injecting drug users. Therefore, alongside the ongoing crackdown on drug traffickers, there is a need to provide health and wellness services to individuals and communities affected by substance use.

A 2015 UN study titled “Women who use drugs in North East India” examined how these women have significantly different needs and higher risks than their male counterparts, and therefore the need to formulate policies and programs that respond to these specific needs and risks. It is crucial to highlight the fact that drug policies disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Thus, the health and well-being of these communities must be prioritized when developing Indian policies on illicit drugs.

There is an urgent need to prioritize treatment, education and rehabilitation – because stigma, shame and silence only perpetuate this disease. The channeling of funds that would otherwise be used primarily for incarceration, primarily towards treatment and rehabilitation, will go a long way towards getting to the root of drug addiction. As a society, we must collectively consider and take action to minimize stigma and discrimination. There is a need to move beyond a criminal justice approach to a human rights and health-based approach to drug abuse, as well as legal regulation and control.

Pradyut Bordoloi is a Lok Sabha Congress MP from Nowgong, Assam. He received help from Evita Rodrigues, LAMP grantee, for this piece.