The policy of carceralism as punitive justice has been under fire in recent times. Perhaps no other social issue is as much a glaring indictment of the inefficacy of carceralism as the drug and substance abuse epidemic.
The NDPS Act (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act) was first enacted in 1985 under the Rajiv Gandhi government. Around this time, the war on drugs had stepped up under the Reagan administration and it was indeed, from US pressure, that the Indian government had enacted this legislation. It remains the country’s pivotal legislation regarding drug and substance abuse.
Nearly four decades later, the nation is still struggling in the quagmire of a substance abuse epidemic; 100 million substance addicted-persons nationally with over 70% increase since 2014.
This harrowing state of affairs demonstrates the law’s failure to tackle this issue.
Certain structural issues fuel the substance abuse epidemic. Carceralism does very little to remedy those structural issues, instead, it simply exacerbates them. Consider the fact that drug abuse does not decrease with incarceration; rather, Indian jails have seen a record increase in drug abuse among jail inmates resulting in high chances of overdose as well as higher risks of communicable diseases due to multiple inmates sharing a single needle.
Carceralism is a criminal justice policy that favours imprisonment as a solution or at least a deterrent, to the problem of crime.
This policy has, however, proven to be a colossal failure in dealing with the problem of crime. When it comes to drug abuse in particular, there is a range of deep-seated political, social, and economic factors.
Unemployment, inadequate wages, and poor working conditions lead affected individuals, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, to turn to selling drugs as a way to make some quick cash. Addicts from affluent backgrounds often resort to emotional blackmail to parents, as a means of acquiring drugs. This is where bigger players enter the scene. Professional drug racketeers take advantage of helpless individuals, often poor, working-class youth who are struggling with drudgery of work, addiction, familial issues, and other mental health issues, etc. They utilize their connections with drug suppliers (from outside the country, in the case of North India), and act as middlemen who form a supply chain with these youth as consumers and are often recruited as peddlers in exchange for monetary payment.
In 2016, the UNGASS On Drugs (United Nations General Assembly Special Session), globally, the most important initiative on combating drug abuse, focused on the need to shift to a rehabilitation-based approach as opposed to the criminalization (carceral) approach.
India is yet to catch up with this understanding. Not only have addiction rates skyrocketed (the COVID-19 global pandemic being a significant factor in recent times), but both demand and supply have also increased.
Politically-motivated bravado of promising death sentences for convicted offenders plays to the emotions of a disturbed society. An easy way for politicians to avoid confronting the complexities of this issue.
The problem is that drug addiction is seen as an issue of law and order when in actuality, it should be seen as a public health issue. These individuals need a robust system of rehabilitation, moral support, and improvement of their social environments. In a society with deep-seated moral and spiritual crises as well as an economy based on exploitation, and deeply flawed criminal justice delivery systems, jails and death sentences as deterrents have very little effectiveness.
Individuals undergoing drug abuse should be viewed as patients in need of care and not criminals that should be punished.
The rehabilitation approach in the country is ineffective due to several roadblocks.
In the first place, OST (opium substitution therapy), which is globally recognized as an important means of helping addicts begin their gradual recovery, is yet to be implemented at the required level.
The current public healthcare infrastructure is quite inadequate to handle the crisis. Even though the Union Budget 2023 allotment for the healthcare industry increased compared to recent years, experts pointed out the lack of investment in preventative healthcare measures.
Private clinics which have boomed capitalizing off the situation are quite unaffordable for the average addiction-undergoing individual.
This lack of healthcare facilities creates conditions for individuals to fall deeper and deeper into their addiction ultimately ending up spending years together in jail. Due to the notoriously slow process of our judicial system, these individuals end up serving their sentences and getting bail but without any recourse to de-addiction or rehabilitation.
Rather than getting caught up in appeals to emotions made by politicians for the sake of votes, people must hold the former accountable. There are certain key demands that civil society must demand forcefully from the political class to find a long-lasting solution to this problem.
• The first is to demand the upgradation of public healthcare systems and regulation of the private sector from taking undue advantage, in this regard.
• To strengthen local governance and equip primary healthcare centres with the necessary infrastructure required to deal with substance abuse at the grassroots level.
• To invest in world-class rehabilitation and de-addiction centres and skill training, support groups, and impart necessary skills to former addicts for re-adjustment in society.
• To expedite pending cases of under-trials in drug-related cases and make them join recovery programs as soon as possible.
• Civil society also has a responsibility to create awareness, fight stigmas and hold compassionate space for affected individuals and their families. Discrimination, shame, and worst of all handing over such individuals to the police without even attempting to offer rehabilitation are simply contributing to the exacerbation of the problem.
• Support groups similar to the 12-Step Program and Alcoholics Anonymous in the U.S. will go a long way in providing the moral, spiritual, and emotional support that these individuals are so desperately in need of.
• Here, it is interesting to note the concept of ‘Maristans’ in Islamic history. Under Muslim rule, the establishment of a psychiatric ward within the hospital system was one of the Islamic hospital’s distinguishing features.
• Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
• “We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.” The writer holds a postgraduate degree in Political Science and is Research Associate at CSR (Centre for Study and Research), New Delhi.