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June 27, 2006 - Times of India (India)

OpEd: He Is No Outlaw

By K T S Tulsi, senior advocate in the Supreme Court.

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The global war on drugs seems to have been lost. Over the past 20 years, nearly two million people in the US alone have tested positive for substance abuse. The US continues to be the world's largest consumer of illegal substances.

Law enforcement agencies in the West are showing signs of frustration over the method and strategy of deterrent laws. A realisation is seeping in that it may be better to treat rather than punish drug abuse.

While legalising narcotics remains a distant dream for young addicts, its easy availability in European and American cities tells its own tale.

Drug enforcement agencies seem to believe that energy wasted on trying to prevent flow of drugs into the US could have been better spent in curbing demand.

Judges increasingly seem to use the carrot and stick policy, as substance abuse treatment has grown 50-fold in the 90s. Law enforcement agencies have realised that treatment is less expensive to society than jail and interdiction.

Is drug addiction more of a disease than a crime? Thanks to clues thrown up by medical science, state after state and country after country has opted for treatment over jail terms for addicts.

Just last year, California approved Proposition 36, and New York is in the process of rewriting its draconian Rockefeller-era drug laws. Americans believe that more people are likely to die of heroin overdose than in car accidents.

Therefore, they would like to shift the focus of repressive drug laws to rehabilitating drug users. How do drugs work on the human mind? Morphine works by docking with the cell receptor called Mu.

When this receptor is stimulated, transmission of pain to the brain is slowed down and release of dopamine is increased. Methadone can even be taken orally and its effect lasts for about 24 hours instead of four hours, as in the case of morphine or heroin.

Cocaine, heroin, nicotine, amphetamines and other addictive drugs alter the brain's pleasure circuits. These circuits are activated by one's favourite food, by sex, by winning a lottery or by being complimented about one's dress or appearance.

Pleasure circuits communicate in chemical language from neurone to neurone, affecting the firing of other neurones and producing a sense of happiness and euphoria.

An MRI snapshot of the brain reveals that at first during the rush-phase, there is a surge of energy and euphoria because of the increase of concentration of dopamine in the brain's reward circuit.

The only difference is that the drugs increase concentration more rapidly and more intensely than your favourite meal. Chronic use of drugs produces lasting changes in the brain, as it reduces the number of dopamine receptors.

With fewer dopamine receptors, there is a greater need of the drug for attaining the same high. The decline in the dopamine receptors leads to impotence, irritability, anxiety and depression.

While the initial use may have been about feeling good, its addiction results in distress and despair. Gradually, withdrawal symptoms deprive the addict of the only sense of joy.

That is why medical science likes to define drug addiction as a brain disease. While drug use may have started as a voluntary act, it is not easy to give it up. Counselling therapy and training are the new weapons in the armoury of a drug court.

Sixty drugs are now under study as treatment for cocaine addiction. Beating addiction requires every weapon and not the draconian sentencing policy.

Unfortunately, Indian law enforcement agencies have refused to take into account recent developments in medical science. In 1985, a stiff legislation was introduced, providing for deterrent punishment for drug trafficking offences which were made both non-bailable and cognisable.

Legislators came down hard on drug cartels and peddlers, prescribing that no sentence awarded under the Act can be reduced or commuted and even recommended death penalty for second conviction.

More than 15,000 people are in jails in the country, having been accused of drug offences. Sixty-three per cent of the prison population of those arrested for drug offences are undertrials whose guilt or innocence is yet to be established in a court of law.

Thirty-four per cent of these are young prisoners whose cases are still under investigation. Out of 15,452 drug prisoners who were in Indian jails in 1994, only 1,245 were convicted and 3,165 acquitted.

In 1998, the prison population of drug offenders came down to 12,061, perhaps because the number of acquittals mounted to 5,712. The law needs to consider the hardship caused by stiff prison sentences to young people.

Even when someone is found in possession of small quantities of opium or poppy husk, which could be used in Indian sweets or made into oil used for culinary and edible purposes in vast areas of the country, they could face long years in prison in the company of hardened criminals without bail or trial.

Such harsh laws have been given up in the West. A re-evaluation of the law is urgently required.

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