Over the last few months, Indian citizens have been forced to watch an ongoing media circus in the form of relentless, and often unwarranted, coverage of the allegedly high prevalence of recreational drugs in the country’s film industry (colloquially known as Bollywood). Painting a narrative that projects only India’s elite as perpetrators of what is, in fact, a problem affecting urban and rural citizens amounts to sweeping the dust under the proverbial carpet. What is playing out on television, however, is nothing but a reflection of the moral high ground our society takes to wriggle out of such uncomfortable truths.
Instead of acknowledging drug abuse and addiction as a public health issue, the so-called protectors of India's cultural fabric use every possible trick in the book to vilify victims of addiction. From blaming the influence of Western debauchery to lamenting the sharp decline in Indian traditions, a never-ending list of justifications is offered to divert attention away from the real issue – that addiction is an illness and needs to be treated as such. This reluctance to acknowledge ground realities is not restricted to ordinary citizens; various Indian governments have done little to address the problem.
In July 2004, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and India's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) jointly published a report which highlighted that “drug misuse is a pervasive phenomenon in Indian society.” What should have raised eyebrows was the disclosure that the report was published 18 months after it was completed “because its findings were not acceptable to the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was in power until May this year .” According to a senior government official, the BJP government refused to accept the existence of such a problem since they considered it “antithetical to Indian culture and embarrassing.”
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, India’s primary drug-control law, was enacted over three decades ago. Despite being amended a few times since then, the law is ambiguous or silent on critical issues which are the subject matter of discussion these days.
Although the NDPS Act deals with the possession, buying and selling, production and use of narcotic or psychotropic substances, it does not distinguish between individuals who are suffering from a substance use disorder (SUD) and those who are recreational users. “Addict” has been defined as “a person who has dependence on any narcotic drug or psychotropic substances.” This definition is flawed because some individuals may be dependent on a chemical substance temporarily, but that itself does not make them addicts. Conversely, even sober addicts can experience a relapse and start abusing substances again.
By advocating shock and awe tactics as deterrents, India’s narcotics regulations fail miserably. The hounding of Indian film actors and the associates who work with them is a case in point. Another big drawback of the NDPS Act is that it criminalizes “users”, whether they are individuals possessing small quantities of a drug or comprise those who are suffering from a severe SUD. This perpetuates deep-rooted stigma and questions the moral integrity of users instead of helping them find avenues to rehabilitate and recover.
A critical fact which our socio-legal system overlooks is the existence of a scientific consensus that addiction is a “chronic but treatable medical condition involving changes to circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control.” Individuals may start taking drugs for several reasons – to get a high, to relieve stress, under peer pressure, or even for medical reasons. While this initial decision may be voluntary, repeated drug use changes the brain’s wiring and interferes with the ability to practice self-control. Which is why, despite knowing the harmful effects of drugs, people addicted to such substances find it hard to stop.
India’s drug-related problems do not start and end with Bollywood. To understand the magnitude of SUDs, it is imperative to stop sensationalizing the issue and, instead, focus on the unseen side of the problem in the country.
“He was my only son, but I had started wishing that he would die… And now, I cry the whole night with his photograph in my hand.” These heart-rending words of a mother, whose 25-year-old son died from an overdose, highlight the devastation of families in Punjab, a state severely impacted by drug abuse. Whether it is India’s northeastern states, the slums of Mumbai, or Delhi and Bengaluru’s streets and by-lanes, illicit drugs have infiltrated nearly every part of the country. More worryingly, the problem is not restricted to adult users; India’s streets and slums abound with children and teens who are addicted to drugs.
Instead of shouting themselves hoarse over the Bollywood-drugs nexus, anchors of some self-righteous media outlets would probably serve the country better by shining a spotlight on the real issue of drug abuse and addiction along with the lack of treatment facilities. Even the Indian government has acknowledged the magnitude of the problem by stating that SUDs are a “significant public health concern in the country.” It has also admitted that evidence-backed treatment needs to be made available “at the required scale” for people with SUDs.
In what can be considered a major step forward, the Narcotics Control Bureau has identified 272 districts which are most affected by drug abuse problems; Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and the Northeastern states have the highest concentration of such districts. The government of India has also launched Nasha Mukt Bharat, an annual action plan (2020-21) for these 272 districts. It is hoped that more such initiatives will be undertaken to identify vulnerable population groups and aid their rehabilitation.
The brouhaha over the alleged drug scandal in the film industry will die down soon enough, and some mainstream media outlets will find another sensational issue to force down people’s throats. India’s drug-related problem, however, is a real issue which requires a sustained campaign from the government as well as the media to increase awareness, reduce stigma and encourage affected individuals to seek help for a condition which can be treated.
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