Drug Epidemic Rages, Treatment Falls Short in Punjab

punjab drug taking india

India's northwestern state of Punjab has been suffering from an epidemic of problematic drug use for years, though recent reports of abuse in treatment centers, combined with poverty and corruption in the region, show the spread of this sad phenomenon is nowhere near close to abating. 

Estimates on the number of recreational and problematic drug users in the northwestern state of Punjab vary, though all paint the same bleak picture. A 2009 ministerial submission to the Punjab and Haryana High Court claimed that 66 percent of rural households in the state were home to a problematic user, while more recent figures have put the number of youth in Punjab suffering from drug dependency at anywhere between 50 and 70 percent. One doctor estimated this year that two out of every 10 entrants to drug treatment centers are below the age of 16 years.

As a report by Al Jazeera highlighted in April, the state's struggling economy and rising unemployment are key -- and all to familiar -- factors in stoking this crisis, with narcotics offering users the chance to at least temporarily escape from the pains of destitution. The situation is so severe in the Amritsar parish of Maqboolpura, for example, that it has been branded the "village of widows and orphans" as a result of the devastating impact drug dependency has left in its wake. By no means is this concentrated among the civilian population, either; reports have shown problematic use among Punjab's police force

Thanks to its location bordering Pakistan and proximity to Afghanistan, heroin and opium are two of the main drugs more commonly taken in Punjab. However, synthetic drugs such as crystal meth and other amphetamines are becoming increasingly common in the region. 

While this issue has ravaged Punjab, the state has been (unsurprisingly) ill-prepared in dealing with it. Amanjeet Singh, president of the Punjab State Drug Counseling and Rehabilitation Centres Union, told Al Jazeera; “In a state which has millions of drug addicts, there is an acute shortage of de-addiction and rehabilitation centres.” 

With the local government mired in economic difficulties, there are only 10 state-funded so-called "de-addiction" facilities, an enormous shortfall. Recognizing this gap, private institutions have sprung up and now account for 86 percent of all rehabilitation services in the state. However, many are woefully ill-equipped to treat drug dependency, with staff in some centers said to abuse and even torture patients, as research earlier this year revealed. 

The paper, titled "Comprehensive Evaluation of Drug De-addiction Centres (DDCs) in Punjab," was the result of visits to 10 centers in the state, some public, some private. Researchers found a "high rate of dissatisfaction ... at private DDCs," with patients citing "verbal abuse, physical abuse and even torture by the DDC staff" as reasons for this. What's more, facilities run by the Indian Red Cross were far better than private ones at ensuring that patients received follow-ups after they left treatment programs. These follow-ups greatly reduced the likelihood of relapse.

Dr Vikram Kumar Gupta, one of the researchers for the paper, told the Daily Mail: "A number of private drug de-addiction centres are violating norms and pursuing their own policies. There are no nurses and counselors. These centres are rarely inspected by the authorities which add to the woes of inmates." Former patients at private centers also told the Daily Mail that some of these DDCs lure problematic drug users with promise of free treatment, only to charge them enormous amounts once they are in their "care." Unsurprisingly, the reported success rate of these centres in treating dependency is around 20 percent. 

Despite these allegations, the local government has done little to combat the problem, claiming that they have not received any kind of serious complaint in the past two years, reported the Daily Mail.

Exacerbating this grave problem, there are cases evidencing the involvement of both police and politicians in the region's drug trade. One former head of the police told Al Jazeera that politicians would conspire with drug smugglers as a way to finance their political campaigns, stating, "None of these politicians have sold their properties, how do you think they are getting the money to lure voters?" 

In February this year the Indian government passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Amendment) Bill, 2014 (NDPS). Among the reforms to the previously restrictive NDPS Act were amendments affecting the health and rights of people who use drugs. These constituted a new clause allowing for the “management” of drug dependence through legitimizing opioid substitution therapies, along with other harm reduction strategies, as well as authorizing the government to “recognize and approve” treatment centers. Whether this will have any impact in humanizing the treatment of drug users, though, particularly in Punjab, remains to be seen. 

The melting pot of drugs, corruption, unemployment and abuse in Punjab is one that needs urgently addressing. Based on current trends, though, any meaningful action to tackle this problem appears far off.