The arrests, made in connection with drugs seized in a cruise ship off the Mumbai coast that they were on, has received widespread attention. There has been a voyeuristic celebrity-driven interest, which also witnessed journalism plummet to new lows. There have been facile attacks on the depraved lifestyles of the rich and privileged. And also evident was an inexcusable trace of religious bigotry in the social media outburst over Khan’s arrest. Last week, a metropolitan magistrate denied bail to Khan and sent him and seven others arrested in the case, to a 14-day judicial remand, after their Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) custody ended.
In this hothouse of unthinking opinion, it is worth pointing out a couple of things. First, that the NCB would do far better if it focussed its efforts on cracking down on the real villains of the drug trade – the immoral traffickers, the smugglers, the growers, the dealers and all those who make a living from the trade. Far too often, the temptation has been to go for the easy targets – the consumers, who are really only the end-users and, in many cases, the victims of a powerful drug mafia. This is a country in which the drug menace has destroyed thousands of lives, including those of poor people, in the north-east and in large parts of rural Punjab, among other places. Arresting some privileged youngsters who consume drugs recreationally may give the NCB a moment in the media spotlight, but it does little more than that.
There is another important distinction that needs to be made in this milieu. And that is to distinguish marijuana from other forms of much more dangerous and addictive drugs. India cannot be blind to the fact that marijuana – which is now championed for many medical uses – is no longer illegal in many parts of the world. In the United States, for instance, it is available in some States over the counter, on proof of identity and age. In Amsterdam, as well as in some States of the European Union, it is available off the menu in many roadside bars, pre-rolled and labelled.
The main reason for this change of heart is because it is now medically proven that marijuana is not addictive in the way that other drugs such as opium are. Interestingly, there is a private member’s bill before the Lok Sabha to legalise marijuana that argues for revoking the ban on its use for similar reasons. The problem with the law in India is that, apart from making no distinction between the type of narcotic substance used, the mere possession of a certain among of drugs is enough to invoke the draconian The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. Bail is not easy to come by when booked under the Act and the punishments are steep. The sooner we understand the difference between soft drugs and hard drugs and the quicker we recognise that it is drug dealers, and not users, who need to face the full might of the law, the better.