A state in India is moving forward with a bold plan to decriminalize drug use in an effort to get more consumers in treatment, Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling announced on Wednesday.
At the same time, the government intends to increase penalties against people convicted of selling illicit drugs.
“The jail term for those trafficking in drugs will be increased, but the consumption of drugs will not be considered an offense,” Chamling said, according to Telegraph India. “Drug use is an ailment, a disease.”
“We will soon bring about changes in the law.”
The move comes as India grapples with a growing drug problem. Rates of prescription opioid and heroin seizures in the country climbed again in 2017, to about 4,700 kilograms, the Times of India reported.
A number of countries have either decriminalized drug use or are currently considering policy changes to decriminalize. Portugal, often cited as a success story for drug reform efforts, has seen rates of drug overdoses and HIV infections plummet in the years since the country decriminalized in 2000. Argentina lawmakers will soon weigh decriminalization for small amounts of drugs, while also increasing penalties for traffickers.
And in Norway, which has historically resisted drug reform, talk of moving toward a decriminalization policy is also ramping up, Vice News recently reported.
Drug reform advocates have long called for humane approaches to drug issues, emphasizing the importance of treating substance use disorder as a health issue rather than a criminal offense. The Sikkim government seems to be embracing that position, to an extent.
“If someone is a criminal, he will hide,” Chamling said. “If you are considered sick, the stigma of being criminal will not be there.”
“We in Sikkim will not call those consuming drugs as criminals, but as patients. The government will provide them with treatment.”
But evidence showing that increasing punishment for drug sellers will prevent use is sparse. A 2014 research review came to the opposite conclusion, in fact, revealing that enhanced penalties against drug sellers does little, if anything, to deter use.
K.C. Nima, team leader of the substance abuse-focused NGO Freedom Facility, said that while the group was pleased about the drug decriminalization announcement, it was “not comfortable with is the enhancement of punishment for drug peddlers because seven out of the 10 peddlers themselves are drug users, and they peddle drugs to fund their use.”
Still, the shift in criminal enforcement for personal drug use is significant. Getting caught using drugs, including marijuana, currently carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a 2,000 Indian rupees (about $290) under the 2006 Sikkim Anti Drugs Act.
That said, for most of India’s history, cannabis has not been criminalized in the country. It’s actually been used in a religious context since about 2,000 BCE, according to passages found in ancient texts.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.