End the War on Drug Users

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November 1st has been observed as International Drug Users Day since 1995. Globally, there is a growing movement by activists and policy experts calling for de-criminalisation of drug users.

India has a long history of cannabis and opium use for social, cultural, religious and medical purposes. There are several examples of the use of these substances being sanctioned by particular communities. In sharp contrast today, India’s explicit constitutional aspiration to eliminate all forms of drug use from society is possibly the single most dangerous ideal that has fueled utter disregard for the health and rights of people who use drugs in India.

Political apathy is evident from the 2014 amendment to the principal Indian drug law, NDPS Act 1985, which leaves very little space for the promotion of evidence-informed and rights-based programming for drug users. The amendment does have a few positive features in its handling of harm reduction, treatment and recasting the death penalty. However, it enhances punishment for consumption and possession of small quantities for personal use from 6 months to 1 year, which is in direct contrast to developments in countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and even America where the War on Drugs originated. The response in India to drug use has primarily been a health services-based approach. Though it mitigates some aspects of vulnerability, this approach fails to address the central role that rights protections play in ensuring the overall wellbeing of drug users.

There is increasing evidence worldwide of the positive impact of law and policy reform on the health and well-being of people who use drugs, as well as on their social and economic productivity. However, progress in this area is hindered predominantly by the personal views and often moralistic outlook of policy makers informed by limited subject knowledge and general apathy towards an already outlawed and therefore marginalised community.

A recent study conducted under India HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Hridaya programme indicates that as many as half of drug users interviewed in four states across the country have cited fear of police action as a major barrier to access health services. This effectively ensures that these drug users are at increased risk of blood borne viral infection, overdose and injection related injuries. “Cops often patrol near drop-in centers to apprehend drug users as they are seen as easy sources of income, information and general entertainment,” laments a drug user in Haryana.

With funding from European Union, the Asia Action on Harm Reduction programme supports advocacy to increase access by people who inject drugs (PWID) to comprehensive harm reduction services and reduce stigma, discrimination and abuse towards this vulnerable population. In India, the three-year programme facilitates the engagement of key stakeholders and PWID through the formation and strengthening of State Drug User Forums as a platform advocate for their needs in the states of Bihar, Haryana and Uttarakhand.

The biggest barriers to a rights-based approach remain the laws that criminalise the use of narcotic substances except for medical purposes. Until India rationalises its policies toward drug use and improves services, PWID here will continue to face grim prospects. There can be no doubt that India needs a comprehensive, rights-based harm reduction approach, and we must end the war on drug users.

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The author of this post, Simon W. Beddoe, is Advocacy Officer: Drug Use & Harm Reduction at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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