There have been various changes over the years to the NDPS act and its modern-day provisions due to events over the years. The base for this draconian policy was developed during the opium wars of the early 19th century when the opium trade in British colonies flourished. As a result, we have the modern-day Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent, which are essential precursors to the modern-day policy form we use today.
To monopolize government control over opium routes and sales, the opium act of 1857 and 1878 was enacted. After 1893, the colonial government realized the dangers of high drug consumption in conjunction with opium. In 1893, the House of Commons in the United Kingdom expressed concern about the increased use of hemp drugs due to easy availability in the Indian province of Bengal because it was near the Golden Triangle trade route. In 1894, they produced the Indian Hemp drugs commission report, the first Indo-British report on hemp and cannabis in India. However, in a country like ours, where cannabis and drugs have cultural significance, there has been minimal mobilization or focus on the issue of drug use. Despite this, The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1930 classified drugs by potency, but no specific policy was to control narcotics in general.
With this backdrop, the focusing events arose in the mid-1950s with the onset of the Vietnam War and the increased use of drugs and narcotics by Americans and others due to easy access. It led to more illegal drug trafficking in the USA, which led to the US’s Anti drug war campaign. This campaign sparked an international movement to ban drugs and enact anti-drug laws specifically in Southeast Asia, as it was the primary hub for producing narcotics. Despite the popularity of drugs in pop culture, a massive backlash by the UN and other countries led to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, which mandated a policy so strict that drugs and consumption can be stopped entirely in 25 years while focusing on illegal trade.
However, considering India’s culture and the significant role of religion in society, banning drugs and narcotics wasn’t feasible. It would have caused widespread religious mobilization, which could have resulted in political instability; thus, the policy formulation was resisted for two decades. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, through their campaigns against drug usage and trafficking, created substantial international pressure on the SE countries, specifically India, to pass an anti-drug law so strict that it crippled the entire trade route into the United States. Further, Adil Shahryar, jailed in the US for felony, fraud, and attempting to plant an explosive in a ship, among others, may have contributed to the acceptance of Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, for the Gandhi family apparently wanted him to be freed since he was the son of Mohammad Yunus, a close family friend.
Thus, both Rajiv Gandhi reaching out to the US for Adil Shahryar and Ronald Reagan with conservative ideas on prohibition and stopping trade routes changed the agenda and spurred the development of India’s first national policy against drug abuse, the 1985 National Drug and Psychotropic Substances Act. Soon after the rules were adopted, they were met with a backlash in the country that they were deemed impractical and draconian. The problem stems from the fact that the burden of proof was placed on the accused and a mandatory death sentence for those in possession of large amounts of drugs. In 1988, the first wave of corrections was introduced when the punishment for personal use of drugs was reduced to 1-2 years. Since drugs are a cultural part of Indian society, they cannot be punished so severely for personal use. The public at large supported this move.
However, because of the campaign and pressure from Ronald Reagan, the offenses under this act were made non bailable, forfeiture of property was introduced as well as strengthening mandatory death penalties. Only two MPs at the time, Jayanti Patnaik of Congress and Kamal Morarka of Janta Dal opposed this proposal. The attitude towards the policy change did not change significantly, however. During this period, many state high courts read down many sections of the law, forcing P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government set up a committee to examine the micro-exploitation of drugs.
After the committee’s 1997 report, it took several years for the law to take effect and for the effects of mobilization to be felt; eventually, during Vajpayee’s tenure, a few amendments were made to make the law a bit softer.
Yet again, provisions such as mandatory death sentences continue to cause havoc among the public and human rights activists. One of the main arguments was that a death sentence couldn’t be imposed for an offense if no lives were endangered. Moreover, the National Law University Delhi conducted a study that showed that between 2000 and 2015, only five such death sentences were handed down, of which four were commuted to life imprisonment on appeal, and one was overturned. It showed how an ineffective law frightened the public and created a lot of anxiety.
In the meantime, because such a wide margin missed the target, the main stakeholders, the drug abusers, never received any type of rehabilitation. This event highlighted the urgent need for changing policy formulations from unnecessary steps to progressive steps. Drug use in medical practice was also recognized and the various essential drugs specified in the act. This, in turn, encouraged farming activities and their legal use.
These recognitions came in tandem with the judgment by the Bombay High Court in 2011 that struck down the mandatory death sentence. Consequently, the UPA 2 government of Manmohan Singh formed a committee in March 2014, which added provisions for rehabilitation, essential drugs, and marked down the mandatory death sentence as non-mandatory.
However, the death penalty is still a part of the policy. With the buzz on drug abuse from Bollywood recently, the events are shaping up to a potential new mobilization, thus creating a likely change in policy agenda soon.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.