By Archit Puri
“Seventy percent of Punjab youth is in drug addict. If this is not stopped soon Punjab will become like Mexico”, says one of the characters in the controversial yet significant motion picture – Udta Punjab
Now even though the credibility of the data in the above extract is obviously questionable, Mexico might not be the right country to bring up while discussing Punjab’s drug problem. Some answers though might lie in the Iberian Peninsula, the birthplace of explorer Vasco De Gama – Portugal.
Let’s first briefly shed some light on the problem in Punjab. Drug use in the state has since long taken the shape of drug misuse, turning into abuse and increasingly, the worst form: addiction–a chronic relapsing brain disease, usually requiring medical intervention. According to The National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), from a population of approximately 2.77 crore (27.7 million) people, around 2.3 million people are opioid-dependent, around 860,000 people are estimated to be opioid users. More than 123,000 people are heroin-dependent. Extensive unemployment due to industrialisation of agriculture, migration of workers from states like Bihar as well lack of industrialisation and non-existence of the service sector have been the main culprits leading to this situation. The figures provided by NDDTC are extremely alarming, and massive steps to need to be taken undo this epidemic.
Portugal: “It Was a Catastrophic Situation”
Portugal faced a similar situation in 2001. One of every 100 Portuguese — 100,000 citizens — was on heroin, users were dying regularly and rates of HIV infection from dirty needles stood among the highest in Europe. “It was a catastrophic situation,” Joao Goulao, a physician who treated many of those addicts, recalled in an interview this week. “You could see people everywhere using drugs. It was almost impossible to find a Portuguese family that did not have (drug-related) problems” With it’s back against the wall, Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, you name it — Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The drugs were still illegal, of course. But now getting caught with them meant a small fine and maybe a referral to a treatment program — not jail time and a criminal record. 15 years down the line, the results of this experiment are staggering. Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the UK, all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The EU average is 17.3 per million.Decriminalisation, by reducing stigma in the society helped users come out and openly seek help for their drug related problems.
Udta Punjab: Bringing it Back to the Ground
Coming back to Punjab, you can get jail time of 6 months to 10 years for possession and consumption of narcotics depending on the quantity and type of drug.Those seeking treatment can visit government as well as private de-addiction centers that have sprung up in the state, but they face an immense shortage of beds and staff. Patients also have to spend Rs. 200 a day for treatment apart from the Rs.1000 submitted as admission charge, since the Punjab government did a U-turn in 2014 regarding their policy of giving free treatment to drug abusers. The fear of being thrown behind bars and the financial cost attached to the treatment dis-incentivises the drug user to get himself ministered to at one the centers.
Decriminalising possession of drugs, which would facilitate redirecting of funds from law enforcement to setting up adequately staffed de-addiction and treatment centers along with provision of free treatment to those who cannot afford it can go a long way in cleaning up the state.
Efficient medical infrastructure could be complemented by setting up a financial reward system where law enforcement agencies are monetarily incentivised to bring drug addicts to de-addiction centers. For example a single unique database of the addicts across the state could be made, post which police officers could be paid a pre-defined sum of money for bringing in x number of names from the database to the centre (after verifying if the patient is actually a drug abuser). This would rapidly increase the number of sufferers seeking help and prevent any sort of harassment that they are usually subjected to by the police. This would bring in a societal change in terms of perceiving at addicts as patients who need help, rather than criminals who need to be prosecuted. These changes should lead to a large reduction in for demand of drugs, thus making it unfeasible to sell them in the state.
Such radical policy initiatives may possibly end up failing but it is beyond doubt that they need to be considered by policy makers as a solution to the problem. They need to be backed up by rapid industrialisation to reduce unemployment in the state, as well as setting up of higher educational institutes that deliver quality learning to youth of Punjab.
Politicians and policy makers and politicians need to act fast, or we might just end up losing an entire generation to Punjab’s sixth river, one full of heroin and opioids.
Archit Puri is a business student by qualification but a plethora of other things by admission. He has diversified interests like behavioral economics, game theory, culinary arts, beer, startups, game of thrones and others omitted due to lack of space.
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