A noted psychiatrist with National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, Dr Atul Ambekar said it is high time the drug users were seen as patients, not criminals.

“Unfortunately, our laws and policies are not adequately geared up to treat the drug users as victims,” Dr Ambekar said in an interview with The Statesman here.

“Many youngsters get attracted to drug consumption for various reasons. Rather than putting them in jails, we should focus on giving them medical and psychosocial aid,” he added.

Dr Ambekar, Principal Investigator of the team which conducted the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India earlier in 2018 – 19, was in Shimla recently for a meeting organised by the Himachal government for a strategy to deal with drug abuse with stakeholders and presentation on the finding of the national survey.

Commissioned by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the survey was first of its kind in the country wherein data was collected from all the states and UTs in the country. The survey has led many states to get going on the strategy to deal comprehensively with drugs. And not only the poor and uneducated or the rich and urban population but all the sections of society, including women are getting affected with drug menace.

He said it’s not the drug trafficking alone but the demand for drugs is also a major problem in India.

Dr Ambekar, who has a long experience of dealing with the patients of drug addiction, said seeking pleasure is a human trait and certain chemicals which give a feeling of high or pleasure have always been used by some people everywhere.

“Over the last some decades, the traditional substances have given way to more refined and potent substances which are powerful to give the feeling of high and pleasure. The way our social structure has changed the avenues to find solace have shrunk and there is a search for new methods to obtain pleasure,” he said.

Dr Ambekar said the drug problem cannot be checked only by supply control or law enforcement. “For this, an integrated approach is required and we have to work with the people.  Those affected should get adequate help, support and treatment and not be treated as criminals,” he said.

The noted psychiatrist said even the United Nations lately has been telling all the countries to amend laws so that using drugs is not seen as a criminal act. He cited the example of Portugal which, some years ago, totally decriminalised drug use and it resulted in a decrease in drug use.

“However, we are trying to find more criminals among our own children who are already overburdened with high expectations,” he said. Dr Ambekar said a large amount of drug vulnerability is biological also, wherein some people take the risk to find a drug for solace, comfort and develop an addiction. “They are biologically differently wired,” he said.

He said that there is a need to create an environment where people don’t get attracted to drugs, whether it is stress, peer pressure or any other factor. Dr Ambekar said many drug addicts want to quit but treatment facilities are hardly available on the ground.

“There are no alternatives available to them. One way to control petty crimes by people dependent on drugs is to provide them with effective alternatives.  Apart from treatment, availability of less harmful and less addictive substances should be there. We need to effectively control the more addictive and harmful substances,” he said.

He said the policies or response to control different drugs in the country should be as per their propensity to harm. “So far we are treating every drug the same way. We should have a graded and calibrated policy on drugs to save the people from addiction,” he said.

Salient points of the survey:

*Nationally, 14.6 per cent population (between 10 and 75 yrs of age) uses alcohol, 5.2 per cent are problem users and 2.7 per cent dependent users

*2.8 per cent of the population in India reports having used any cannabis product in the previous year

*2.1 per cent of India’s population uses opioids which include opium, heroin (or its impure forms smack or brown sugar) and a variety of pharmaceutical opioids

*Inhalants (overall prevalence 0.7 per cent) are the only category of substances for which the current use among children and adolescents is higher (1.17 per cent) than adults (0.58 per cent)