While deterrent punishment for consumption of narcotics or psychotropic substances is sorely needed, the most abused pharma preparations in India include cough formulations and benzodiazepines

A House Panel on the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Amendment) Bill 2011 that laid its report in the ongoing Budget session of Parliament deserves praise for being realistic to the burgeoning drug and substance abuse menace to society. Though India enacted the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, popularly known as NDPS Act, in 1985, the Act was amended twice since then through the NDPS (Amendment) Act 1989 and the NDPS (Amendment) Act 2001 to align domestic laws in conformity with our commitment to global Conventions. But as more anomalies surfaced, the NDPS (Amendment) Bill 2011 was introduced last September to beef up the provisions of the Act.

The House Panel under the Chairmanship of the BJP leader Mr. Yashwant Sinha, while broadly endorsing the provisions in the amendment Bill, rightly demurred to reducing the punishment for consumption of morphine, cocaine and heroin by six months from the extant one year in the light of the provision entailing maximum six months imprisonment for trafficking of small quantities. Rightly the Committee opined that legislation prescribing deterrent punishment for consumption of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances is sorely needed. Hence contrary to the proposal in the Bill, it pitched for the maintenance of status quo in respect of punishment for consumption of morphine, cocaine and heroin. It went a step further in the case of trafficking in ‘small quantity' by proposing to enhance the jail term to one year from the extant six months term in the NDPS Act.

Salutary concerns

Considering the contention of the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) President Mr. Hamid Ghodse that “available evidence on drug-facilitated crime is increasing globally” with young men and women repeatedly being victims of such crimes, mainly with a view to committing sexual assault or compelling them into prostitution, the Indian legislators' concerns on this score are salutary. In its latest annual report, the INCB has gleaned details on over 12,000 seizures of globally controlled substances sent via illegal Internet pharmacies, including over 6500 seizures of internationally controlled licit substances and over 5,500 seizures of drugs of illicit origin. It is shocking that India was identified as the leading country of origin for these substances, accounting for 58 per cent of the substances seized, while the United States, China and Poland were also identified as countries of origin.

A major source of concern voiced by the INCB is that the abuse of drugs by injection is increasing in South Asia. This has reached significant proportions in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Drugs abused by injection in the region include heroin, prescription opioids and mixtures with other controlled substances. This has led to a spurt in the HIV and Hepatitis-C infection. Related to this disquieting development is that India and Bangladesh continue to be used by transnational organised criminal groups to divert precursors of amphetamine-type stimulants, because of the wide availability of precursor's ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in these countries.

A traditional practice

Most of the amphetamine and methamphetamine available in the illicit market in tablet form in India has been smuggled into the country. By contrast, most of the amphetamine and methamphetamine available in the illicit market in powder form has been illicitly manufactured in the country. A total of 47 kg of amphetamine was seized in 2010 and four kg were seized in the first half of 2011.

Most of the seizures of MDMA (“ecstasy”) in India are reported in Goa. The report also draws attention to the worrisome feature that illicit cultivation of opium poppy supervenes in several parts of India. Virtually all of the opium poppy cultivation is estimated to be at least 7500 ha. Interestingly, in India cocaine is trafficked in small quantities by courier!

The smoking of opium in India continues to be a traditional practice, a country in which the level of opium abuse is one of the highest in Asia. “Chasing” (inhaling the vaporized form) and smoking are the most popular pathways of use among drug abusers in South Asia, though some have switched to abusing drugs by injection with the practice spreading rapidly.

As if all these appalling abuses are not enough, the most abused pharmaceutical preparations in India include cough formulations, containing codeine and various benzodiazepines including analgesics. The abuse of pharmaceutical preparations in India is “facilitated by the failure of many pharmacies to comply with prescription requirements”. As some of the preparations abused in India are in Schedule III of the 1961 Convention for which a prescription is not mandatory, the Board rightly urged the Indian authorities to ensure pharmacies comply with prescription requirements, besides making sure that over-the-counter pharmaceutical preparations are not diverted to be used for non-medical purposes. It is time India got genuinely sensitive to the issue before the demographic dividend manifest in today's youth population turns a liability tomorrow because of laxity in laws.

geeyes@thehindu.co.in