Molly Charles





The criminalisation of drug use and trade as a step towards restricting and eradicating drug consumption and drug trade has only further complicated the local reality without reaching the set out objective. It has led to a shift to harder forms of drug consumption and riskier modes of drug intake making the issue of drug demand control difficult to address, especially with a punitive approach to drug control.


To get a real understanding of the present day drug trade situation in India one has to look at the following issues.


a)     Historical factors that shape today’s drug scene. 


Local culture had a definite role to play in the manner in which the mode of trade and accepted norms for use evolved through the decades. When the country was under British rule and opium was an official item for trade and certain communities benefited from their close interaction with the British by being part of the machinery organising the collection trading of opium.


The cultivator who bore the direct burnt of enforced cultivation did not make particular gain from the trade. Even when surplus opium was produced in these areas many farmers died of famine, as in case they wanted to cultivate food crops it had to be hidden between the poppy plants. The benefits of being able to interact directly with the British was restricted to a community because their culture did not hinder interacting with people who ate meat and drank liquor, something prohibited by culture for the elite upper class in India.


A detailed historical analysis by Farooqui,1998, provided in depth information on the various business groups that gained through opium trade.


After independence and even prior to it, India was producing opium to satisfy the medicinal requirement of the world. As India was not the only country producing opium, the international communities which participated in conventions prior to creating the base for drug policy, the Single Convention 1961, must have been aware about the problematic complications that would arise when countries set up large scale poppy cultivation through poppy straw method as did Australia in the Island of Tasmania, when there already existed surplus production of opium.


On becoming a signatory to the Single Convention, India had limited time period of 25 years to change its culture and historical factors that affected drug use and drug trade. This was an impractical idea arising from the limited imagination of select countries, the Indian government did nothing about it. Later in 1985, to appease international pressure, the Indian Government passed the legislation, Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. The only section of the society that supported the step were  a select few from the elite who wanted to set up programs in line with Western intervention efforts. While the majority of the population remained unaware or unconcerned about the step.


One of the efforts taken under the attempt to implement NDPS Act, 1985 was to systematically reduce the area under opium cultivation in India. The country with its labour intensive method of cultivation had limited chance to be a viable option at the international marked, the only saving grace were Codeine and Thebaine alkaloids that are found in Indian opium and are used for medicinal purposes, whereby certain countries continue to purchase Indian raw opium.


There have been reports, recently, that a successful alternative has been identified for these alkaloids. Hence, whether India wants it or not, it may have to look for methods to drastically reduce poppy cultivation. Even if India decides to shift to poppy straw method of cultivation it may face certain hurdles:


·         It would be a political gamble for any political party to seriously address the issue. The small areas of dispersed cultivation covering three different States has the support of local people and ensuring its existence is essential to safeguard an assured vote bank for any political party.



·         A large section of the country’s population depends on traditional systems of medicine and home remedies. Present day western medicines are way beyond the reach of common man despite the fact that many western medicines are produced locally, far cheaper than in other countries. Besides, the traditional systems of medicine focus on a strengthening resistance to disease in the individual quite unlike western medicines focus on a generalised destruction for curative purposes or preventive goals. Opium is also used by local veterinary doctors to deal with their daily curative requirements.


Even under pressure from the international community India has been unable to take a stand on the issue, the present drug abuse management is neither based on National Interest or, totally, on international requirement. The unanswered issue here is why is it that a developing country, once used by it’s coloniser for Opium Wars, cannot take it its own stand on rational drug control strategies without being coerced by others to implement self destructive policy toward drug control.



b)     Criminalisation of Drug Use and Trade


Both cannabis and opium have been traditionally consumed for culturally relevant purposes in many parts of the country. The religious use of cannabis continues to exist especially among followers of Lord Shiva. Bhang (a drink made with tender leaves of cannabis) is used by lay people to celebrate Shivaratri and Holi (the festival of colours), the saivite sadhus  (religious priests who live ascetic, celibate lives, often in isolation) also consume hashish and or marihuana on a daily basis. This is to facilitate them concentrate and meditate under especially harsh climatic conditions. A large section of these sadhus live the life of a mendicant and often staying at one place only for a few days - other than when at places of pilgrimage. Sadhus consume cannabis products daily in a significant quantity, for them offering a pipe of cannabis to smoke is similar to offering a cup of tea or coffee in other cultures.



The daily consumption of a sadhu is quite large and considering the significant number of sadhus in the country there is a need to consider how this population can get a legitimate supply of charas/hash if the government is to seriously consider drug use management. Otherwise it can only be met through illicit channels, further complicating the drug trade and use situation.  Though such religious use has existed for centuries there has been no provisions made other than to state that use of bhang is legal and yet, cannabis leaves the source for making bhang is illegal as there are no measures for legally cultivating cannabis and collecting tender leaves.


It is such complex realities that have ensured that those involved in drug trade as a criminal undertaking along with other illegal activities are offered a conducive cover. The strategies for undertaking this venture are often loose and informal at the initial levels of cultivation, processing and distribution, though it appears far more organised at higher levels for otherwise it becomes difficult explain the smooth shifts in routes and modes of trade.


The use of Opium for cultural reasons existed and continues to do so in certain parts of India. In the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat the use of opium drink was a part of culture, guests were greeted with a few drops of this drink. With criminalisation, a resultant unavailability and rising prices the practice has come down drastically in Gujarat. Opium users who consumed opium in a controlled manner, by now in their late fifties or more, have been forced by circumstance to shift to illicit liquor. This is the case in Gujarat where prohibition has existed since Independence of India. Opium users state that they find it difficult to deal with the health problems created by consuming illicit liquor. In Rajasthan opium use is being replaced by derivatives of opium, heroin or its adulterated form brown sugar.


Another product of opium used is a drink made from boiling the poppy straw after opium has been harvested This use exists in different parts of northern India, in the State of Punjab, Sikhism the religion of the majority does not permit smoking. Here, opium is taken either eaten or prepared into a drink like tea. With criminalisation and subsequent difficulty in procuring the substance individuals, from even the rural areas have begun to use synthetic opiates such as spasmoproximon, a synthetic opiate.


Cannabis and opium has been used by people to deal with extreme heat in desert regions as in other places. Opium has been used by people travelling through deserts and also given to camels accompanying them.  The drink made from cannabis leaves called bhang, is made by mixing the paste of cannabis leaves with milk and dry fruits. The cannabis stem has been used to make rope, shoes and clothes in cold regions close to Himalayas to deal with the local climate. These are today being replaced by environmentally unfriendly products of plastic and the only place where jackets made from cannabis leaves are now available are boutiques where finished products come from Germany with raw material from developing countries. .


c)     Limitation in the implementation of  NDPS Act, 1985,


Prior to the recent amendment of the NDPS Act in 2002, one could be place under arrest for trading in drugs if one held in possession 250mg or quarter of a gram. According to data available the minimum daily requirement for a heroin user would vary between one to two grams. Initially, during the implementation of the law far more drug users, convenient scapegoats, landed behind bars than those who traded in narcotics. As the judiciary process is slow, they languished in prisons for years before the case was heard and disposed off. The limited numbers of those arrested for trading in drugs had access to the best legal assistance and escaped imprisonment and rarely waited long for the trail since they could either afford the best legal services or it was provided them by their protectors.


With the recent amendment there has been a distinction made between small quantity and large quantity. In case of heroin a small quantity is, presently, defined as any quantity below and equal to 5gm and commercial quantity over 250gms. For cannabis the minimum quantity was earlier 5gm and now it is 1Kgm. There is now a resultant shift in the profile of persons arrested and there are more couriers ending up behind bars and the conviction rate for them is increasing.


Corruption within the various agencies also ensures that those in important positions in trade are not arrested. This is seen at different levels of the trade whether cultivation, processing, distribution or retail sale. With regard to local cultivation there is diversion from licit cultivation and illicit cultivation in different parts of India. The limitation of the law itself in having had an impact is evident from the continued trade and emergence of new trade routes and modes of transportation. Another clear indication of limitations of the law is the relatively stable price of heroin/brown sugar at the street level. Unlike other consumer items, the price of brown sugar remains at Rs.30 per pudi as against Rs.10 in 1990. The brighter side of it that the stability in prices and impurity in quality has ensured that the mode of consumption remains largely chasing and not injecting.


d) Drug Trade and Organised Crime in India


Organised crime has taken on the form of a loose network at the local, national and international level. Based on the political support received and ability to address certain social needs individual groups have flourished or networked with smaller groups to sustain their activities. These include settling civil issues, gold/silver smuggling, hawala (money transactions outside the banking channels) money laundering through film industry, construction works and under invoicing or over invoicing, and creation of shell companies. During the seventies and later on dealing in ‘imported’ consumer goods and electronic items was lucrative and now with liberalisation the trade in drugs is one item that has remained lucrative.


Gangs became involved in drug trade, earlier, with the export of hashish, and then added on other substances such as heroin, acetic anhydride and methaqualone. As strict silence and a loose network of disposable actors are easily available in the drug trade, enforcement agencies have had limited success in making a significant dent. Corruption in turn, different personnel from different agencies has ensured that important individuals of the trade are never identified or prosecuted.


The dismal extent of present day commitment towards common interest or the common man has ensured that a segment of population is rendered vulnerable and seeks remunerative employment in the drug trade or other criminal activities. The arrests of individuals from certain states where social and economic exclusion is largely present is an indication of this aspect. In the case of the drug trade given the stringent sentence of imprisonment for ten years or more, the layering of individuals has significantly increased especially at the retail level. With the high profit that exists at the street level given the pattern of reducing the purity of the substance from 30% to 3%, it would be difficult for loose networks of individuals to undertake trade without the support or supervision of organised crime groups.


e) Changes in Drug Use and Trade


Efforts towards drug abuse and trade management have not had the desired affect for it has expanded the canvas for drug use and drug trade. Implementation of drug abuse management programmes for last eighteen years has created a platform for use of synthetic and derivative drugs in many parts of the country including in rural areas. Trade has spread across the country with alternatives being set up for export and import, whereby routes can be taken as per the immediate risks involved. Dealing is contraband is lucrative option for many and this has ensured that there are participants to ensures its smooth functioning at different levels within and outside the systems.




Criminalisation of drug use including traditional drugs has ensured that it is entrenched within the society and through criminalisation of cultural mechanism of drug use control there is a shift towards harder and potent forms of psychoactive substances. With regard to trade the mechanisms for marketing, transportation, export and import have diversified, expanded and penetrated different parts of the country. It is presence of links between organised crime and drug trade, along with corruption and the fact that drug trade is an attractive option or only option for change to some have laid foundation to strengthen drug trade.






Charles, M, Nair, K,S, Britto, Gabriel, 1999, Drug Culture in India, Rawat Publication, New Delhi.


Charles, M, Nair.K.S., Das, A., Gabriel Britto, 2002, Bombay Underworld: A descriptive account and It’s Role in Drug Trade, in Globalisation and Drug’s Criminalisation Volume 2, Drug Trafficking, Criminal Organisation and Money Laundering, UNESCO MOST and UNDP. Paris


Charles, M, 2001 (b), Drug Trade in Himachal Pradesh – the role of Socio Economic Change,      



Chopra, R.N and Chopra, I .C, 1990, Drug Addiction with Special Reference to India,  Council of  Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi.


Farooqui, A, 1998, Smuggling as subversion, New Age International, New Delhi.



Masihi, E, J, & Desai, D,B, 1994. Culture and Drug Use in Saurashtra. (Sponsored by IFCU, Paris), NARC, Mumbai.


Machado, Tanya, 1994, Culture and Drug Abuse in Asian Settings Research for Action,  IFCU and St. John’s Medical College, Bangalore.


Narcotics Control Bureau, 2002, Annual Report for 2001 -2002, Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, Government of India, New Delhi.


Siddiqui, H Y, 2002,  Drug Abuse Monitoring Systems (DAMS) A profile of Treatment Seekers, Ministry of Welfare and Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Regional Office for South Asia.


Suresh at al Madrasl, 2002, Rapid Situation Assessment on Injecting Drug use in Chennai (Madras), South India, UNESCO, DAPPA and Sharan , Madras.


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