The problem

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THE moment we think of mind altering substances (MAS), alcohol and tobacco come to mind because these are widely advertised, glamorised, and governments make huge amounts of money from taxes on them. In the financial year 2000, the Government of Maharashtra reportedly collected Rs 1900 crore from alcohol taxes alone. But historically, governments have attempted to impose prohibition restriction of both manufacture and sale; this gave rise to the Mafia in the US and several organized criminal syndicates in Mumbai and Gujarat.

Excluding alcohol and tobacco, there are numerous MAS. We can group them under three categories.

* Natural products (cannabis products – ganja, charas, bhang; opium poppy, coca leaf, some varieties of mushrooms and opium. In India our concern is restricted to cannabis and poppy).

* Derivative products (heroin from opium; crack and cocaine from coca. In India, heroin is considered a major problem).

* Pharmaceutical drugs, some of which are highly addictive.

Of the various MAS, the manufacture and consumption of alcohol/tobacco would be approximately 100 times more than all the other drugs put together. In Mumbai in 1997, there were about 46000 cannabis + opium + heroin users; there were 3.6 lac tobacco users and 3.4 alcohol users. Nationally, the number of consumers of alcohol or other drugs can only be guessed since no valid national study is available. Alcohol users would probably be over 100 million; cannabis users may be 10 million, opium users may be around 3 million; and heroin users may be around 0.5 million. It must be remembered that just as there are occasional, binge, regular and chronic drinkers, there are various shades of users of cannabis and opium. Though most heroin users tend to become chronic users, recreational use of heroin is not unknown.

Governments have established Food and Drugs Administration departments to approve and to provide guidelines for the production and distribution of pharmaceutical drugs. Medicines with mind altering properties are placed under a category which can be dispensed only under medical prescription. The WHO has established an expert committee to review medicines across the world. It is of interest to note that heroin and cocaine were initially welcomed as ‘wonder drugs’ and were banned only subsequently. In India, Mandrax was banned only in the late 1970s. It was popular with psychiatrists. Coca Cola contained coca extracts in the initial years (1886-1906). Heroin was marketed as a medicine by Bayer (Germany) from 1898 and it was only in 1924 that it was banned.

Globalization and liberalization of the Indian economy began in the mid 1980s. But worldwide homogenization of laws to curb the use of opium and cannabis began as early as in 1912 through various protocols. The following were the stages of control over these substances and their derivatives:

* Religious leaders and reformers in many cultures have been against the use of MAS laying down ethical/moral foundations discouraging their use. However, in India, the use of cannabis and opium has enjoyed religious, social, cultural, recreational and medicinal sanction.

* Monopolizing profit: The British created mechanisms for controlling production, processing, vending and exporting opium and made huge profits. They began with the ‘Patna opium’ (in Bihar and United Provinces); extended their control over ‘Telengana opium’ in the Princely state of the Nizam. But it was much later that they managed to control the ‘Malwa opium’ produced in the current day M.P. and Rajasthan. Capital formation in western India was directly linked to the smuggling of opium to China against the edicts of the British by Parsee, Marwari and Gujarat entrepreneurs. The British also made large profits through taxes on local consumption because they were the monopoly suppliers.1 While for the British, the Dutch and other colonial powers opium was a major article of trade, the US did not get involved in the opium trade. But in the post colonial period, particularly during the Cold War, there was proliferation of cocaine from Latin American countries into the US, and from Afghanistan to many countries.

* Medical reasons: Opium and heroin are physically addictive; i.e. if one were to stop taking opium/heroin, s/he will suffer from lacrimation, stomach cramps, loose motion, shivering and sweating alternatively – all of which stop within seconds of taking another dose. Both drugs also generate tolerance: the body needs a bigger dosage over a period of time to give the same effect.

However, opium has numerous medicinal properties and hundreds of formulations are made from opium extracts in allopathic medicine. India continues to be one of the major legal suppliers to pharmaceutical companies in India and abroad (the US buys 80% of its requirements from India). But worldwide, the cultivation of opium has been put under strict control; registers have be maintained and sent to the International Narcotics Control Board every three months by producer countries.

Cannabis too has medicinal properties though its medical use in allopathy has only recently been admitted and permitted in some parts of the world (including a few states in the US).

The UN banned the non-medical/scientific research use of cannabis and opium in 1961, though no scientific evidence was advanced for the ban on cannabis. The function of the WHO in the UN system is to advise member states on issues that may pertain to public health with scientific data. A perusal of all the discussions leading to the adoption of the Single Convention shows that the WHO was represented in the meetings but did not furnish any data to indicate health hazards of cannabis. It was simply included at the bidding of the USA. In our communications with the WHO, after much prevarication, officials admitted, ‘Some substances have been put under the list for banning not necessarily for the harm they may cause in some cultures but on international solidarity considerations’ (personal communication).

It was only in the late 1980s that scientists injected large doses of tetrahydrochloride (THC – the active principle in cannabis) in the brain of rats and evolved indicators of what high doses of THC can do to the human brain and body. But this in a sense is intellectual fraud. Ganja or charas in its natural form has thousands of compounds and THC is just one of them. THC research findings are not synonymous with cannabis research. Nature is symbiotic. It is like touting the findings on the impact of heroin as the findings of opium.

There are many myths around cannabis. Zimmer and Morgan,2 whose work provides a comprehensive review of all major research and reviews on the subject till 1996, list a few myths:

* Marijuana’s (ganja’s) harm has been scientifically proved; Ganja has no medicinal value; Ganja is highly addictive (unlike opium/heroin, ganja is not physically addictive); Ganja is a gateway drug – those who start with it invariably graduate. While those on hard drugs today may or may not have begun first with ganja, the vice versa is not true. There is a high level of brand loyalty among drug users; only scarcity may push the user to change his/her drug of choice; Ganja kills the brain cells; Ganja causes amotivational syndrome; Ganja impairs memory and cognition; Ganja causes psychological impairment; Ganja use causes crime; Ganja is more damaging to the lungs than tobacco; and Ganja impairs the immune system.

The dynamics of drug control dramatically changed after they were made illegal and their use criminalized. That takes us to the next set of measures.

Law making and the ruling classes: As a former Director General of Police pointed out, ‘A crime free society is an impossible dream. There has always been crime, there will always be crime. Crime can be induced unwittingly by social change, it can be increased by legal change; crime is one price for freedom and at times the means of securing progress. Society accepts that some crime is inevitable and ineradicable; therefore the aim must be to contain it within tolerable bounds... The principle is that the price of wholly eradicating crime is too high to pay... as it would require punishment which a civilized society cannot accept without losing the reputation of being civilized. It is too high a price to pay in resource terms, since the enforcers would outnumber the rest of society and they would need their own police and so on ad infinitum. The administration of the criminal justice system required would be so large as to consume too high a share of available resources. Society therefore has to compromise with crime. Thus, if large gaps in the scale of wealth and social privileges are not narrowed down from time to time, crime will flourish alongside prosperity.’3

Society classifies crimes and indicates the punishment accordingly. Opium consumption was made an offence in the 1930s itself. However, it was not considered a serious crime; the punishment was three months imprisonment or Rs 10000 fine or both. At that time and till the mid-1950s, the law had a benign attitude toward opium addicts. The government created a master list of habituated persons, registered them and made provisions for regular supply of pure opium through government depots at controlled costs. Thus the addicts did not have to commit crimes to raise the money to feed their habit. Cannabis was openly sold through licensed shops; it grew wild and no one bothered about it all except the Gandhians and other social reformers.

That was the Indian definition of crime relating to drugs. But the Americans and their allies in the UN system made another definition in 1961. The Cold War dynamics in Pakistan and Afghanistan contributed to the proliferation of heroin in the region and Indian cities saw the emergence of brown sugar (crude heroin) since the early 1980s. Though this caused alarm, the modalities of handling the problem were never discussed in any forum.

The Government of India accepted the new definition of drug related crime and made drug use a ‘heinous crime’ with a punishment of non-commutable ten years rigorous imprisonment for opium use and five years for cannabis use by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. Overnight, millions of cannabis and opium users theoretically became people committing an offence worse than murder by consuming these and other drugs. What enjoyed social respect by custom and tradition and was treated by law as a ‘no grave case’ metamorphosed into a horrendous crime.

Maintenance of Law and Order: Once the law is made to criminalize drug use, then the administrative mechanism for enforcing the law must be put in place. We have a law that sentences ganja users to a minimum term of five years and users of other drugs to ten years. We have numerous agencies empowered to search, seize and arrest person/properties. Veen has presented the paradigm of ‘Drug Complex’ (analogous to the military industrial complex) which explains the proliferation, expansion and perpetuation of both the drug problem and the repressive machinery.4

Because of repression, the petty peddlers of drugs of yore and their progeny (in India opium production and sale has often been hereditary) have either had to tie up horizontally with other petty traders or with large organized crime syndicates to continue, expand and diversify their merchandise. Since criminalization of drug use and repression induced scarcity increases the price of the merchandise, more people are attracted to enter the business. When governments enhance their efforts to repress the drug industry, the remaining drug entrepreneurs re-organize their activities so as to reduce the risk of detection and prosecution. In the case of India, there were already numerous large organized criminal syndicates involved in smuggling gold, electronic goods, diamonds and so on.5 Drugs and guns are their recent additions.

The government also introduced preventive detention of persons suspected to be involved in drug related offences (PIT NDPS Act). The government had to scrap another law (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities – Prevention – Act or TADA) since it was patently misused against the minorities and select states (Kashmir had the maximum arrests under this act) which empowered the state to incarcerate the accused for six months without giving a chargesheet. However, in the case of narcotics, the general public has been lulled into thinking that these are dangerous people and must be dealt with severely.

Once the government connected organized crime to drugs, it had to develop a law according to the UN mandate to bring in a money laundering bill to control the conversion of ill-gotten money to regular economic purposes. This bill has identical provisions with the one on narcotic drugs. But while no one objected to passing the latter, the money laundering bill has been stalled and returned for review thrice.

The Government of India had to justify the changed definition of the drug problem. Enforcement experts coined the word ‘narco-terrorism’. Indeed, in some countries it may be the case in the context of macro social processes affecting different parts of the world. Our limited research indicates that we (India) may have blindly borrowed the phrase to justify our repressive measures. The home ministry has often alleged that militant groups in Kashmir, Punjab and the North East are trafficking drugs and the profits are sustaining their movement (purchase of guns etc.).

Even though we have no data for Punjab or J&K, we can categorically state that either the enforcement machinery does not work in the North East (the Narcotics Control Bureau has a zonal office there) or else it is the one profiting from drug trade (the Border Security Force in this region is often called Border Smuggling Force!).

It is insufficiently realised that militants do not need drug money for the simple reason that most locals do not accept the legitimacy of the Indian government and so spontaneously support the militants. Almost all government employees pay a regular ‘tax’ to the militants.

The drug most seized in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram is ganja. If militants are indeed indulging in drug trade for raising funds, they should be dealing in high-value drugs such as cocaine, heroine and not ganja which grows all over Kashmir and the North East in the wild. Though countrywide seizure of cocaine is itself small, not a single ounce has ever been caught in the North East or Kashmir. Heroin seizures too are small in these parts, though our officials often claim otherwise because of the region’s proximity to Myanmar (one of the golden triangle countries).

The second prong for legitimizing this draconian law is linking it to organized criminal groups, automatically evoking images of violent murders, extortion, and so on. In India, organized crime groups have a long history: gold trade and the film industry. Drugs and arms became part of their repertoire only in the late ’80s. A third plank is to show that drugs make users into criminals. While in some countries heroin and crack users do commit crime to support their habit, this has not been the case so far in Mumbai (not even 8% of addicts had committed any crime in our sample of 3000 patients at NARC). A fourth plank is to stigmatize and marginalize the addicts through the media. Repeated portrayals of the worst-case addicts in the media create an image that is hardly typical of drug users in India.

A fifth plank is to create a health scare by the use of slogans such as ‘drugs kill’. This despite any number of old people who have used opium and ganja all their lives, married, worked, had children and settled them while using these drugs.

Governments everywhere are inclined to assume ever greater powers over their citizens. Once the Government of India linked drugs and organized crime, it felt justified in arresting and incarcerating thousands of addicts and petty peddlers in jail, leading people to perceive law enforcement itself as a threat to liberal society. Out of the roughly 1.3 million people serving jail terms in the United States Federal Prisons, about 59.9% are casual and non-violent drug offenders. In the United States 565 out of every 100.000 inhabitants are in jail; in the Netherlands it is ‘only’ 66 (Veen, Drug Complex, 2000). The worst implication for democracy is the inclusion of drug related offences, including consumption, in the list of felonies. Felons lose their voting rights in the US. In some states as many as 30% of African-American males have been disenfranchised.

In Mumbai, police officers have been arrested for planting drugs on innocent people and extorting money for not filing a case. In a major scandal, a large quantity of seized heroin kept in the strong room of the police was substituted with talcum powder. Several top officers of the narcotics cell were summarily relieved from service for their alleged nexus with drug traffickers. The Dutch parliamentary commission that investigated these methods in 1996 found, for example, that 285 tons of drugs had been imported by the Dutch police, of which 100 tons had disappeared on the market (Veen, 2000).

Drug enforcement practices and the drug industry become part of more general efforts in the national and international domain to redistribute power, wealth and security. Though this can be clearly seen in some countries like Colombia, Morocco and Mauritius, unfortunately we do not have sufficient research studies in the drug field, though some documentation is available on organized crime groups.

Just as war is the continuation of politics by other means, so has the ‘war on drugs’ become an extension of foreign policy by other means. International drug policies therefore almost inescapably become enmeshed with geo-political and economic considerations. In the recent history of both industrialized (France, United States, Italy) and developing countries (Turkey, South Africa, Colombia, Mexico) many examples can be cited of cooperation between the secret services, political parties and other elite power groups with-drug trafficking-criminal groups in the repression of domestic opposition, the destabilization of foreign governments, and the support against geo-political foes. Equally, many opposition groups have discovered the importance of drug income to withstand (foreign) control over their territories (e.g., PKK in Turkey, Shining Path in Peru, and the Afghan mujahiddin).

From the very beginning the United States took the lead in building a prohibition regime. Especially since the 1980s, unilateral, bilateral and multilateral forms of pressure, intervention and collaboration were used to force governments to comply with prohibition and stifle the growth of the drug economy. Conditional development aid, extradition treaties (so called International Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties), new types of financial policing to ‘chase the money’ around the international banking system, financing and advising foreign military and police, political pressure and even outright military intervention are among the plethora of instruments applied in the relations between states in this war on drugs.

In many countries the military has been given the lead role in drug repression. In India too, the Border Security Force and military units posted in Kashmir and the North East have been mandated to control drug traffic. In the 1980s, the United States amended the Posse Comitatus Act that since 1878 had prevented military involvement in civil law enforcement to engage in drug law enforcement abroad. Equally, the Dutch navy is patrolling the Caribbean to interdict drug shipments.

Alongside accepting an alien definition of the drug problem, our officials have also put in place a repressive machinery. This has brought in organized crime syndicates into the drug problem. The high profits attract a large number of people criminalizing a segment of professionals such as lawyers, chartered accountants, pilots, chemists, bankers and transport operators. It has also contributed to corrupting our customs, police, judges and so on, thus undermining institutions of governance. Because governments have used drugs as an instrument of diplomacy, the diplomatic community and organized crime syndicates have been brought together in joint ventures in selective places. And as the problem is getting militarized the foundations of democracy are being eroded. The situation and its symbolic presentation enables governments to enact draconian laws against their own citizens. Is this what we want? It is time we ourselves define our own problem in the context of all the social processes that operate in our culture and country.





* The papers in this symposium were first presented at a UNESCO Seminar organised in collaboration with ICSSR, JNU and NARC. The research was supported under the UNESCO-MOST programme, The help of Sudha Raghavendran and Nishantini J. in editing and reducing the papers is gratefully acknowledged.

1. Amar Farooqui, Smuggling as Subversion – Colonialism: Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium. New Age Publishers, Delhi, 1998.

2. Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan, Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts. The Lindesmith Center, New York, 1997.

3. V. Vaikunth, ‘Crusade Against Crime: a multi-pronged approach’, The Hindu, 30 January 2001.

4. Hans T. van der Veen, The International Drug Complex: when the visible hand of crime fractures the strong arm of the law – understanding the intertwined dynamics of international crime, law enforcement and the flourishing drug economy. Center for Drug Research, Amsterdam, 2000. The authors gratefully acknowledge CEDRO’s website:

5. See Charles et al. Organized Crime in Bombay: a descriptive account. UNESCO, Paris, 2001.