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The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting extraordinary, unexpected and even contradictory responses by the health and criminal justice systems. On the one hand, some States are releasing thousands of prisoners in order to prevent the outbreak of infection. On the other, they are also expanding their repressive arsenal in the name of protecting public health.
In India, which has been under a lockdown since 24 March 2020, Police officers are arresting people for not wearing masks, for walking the streets in search of food or for trying to make their way back home from cities, where they’re facing destitution. These normal, rational human acts have suddenly become ‘wrongs’ to warrant a response from the criminal justice system.
In relation to drugs, Police action has also become absolutely baffling, as reported in a recent news article.
On 17 April 2020, a young man believed to have been living with drug dependence, died by suicide in his home in the North Indian city of Gurugram. The substance involved or the state of his health condition is not known. The reporter covering the story, however, noted:
‘According to the police complaint, the man was under stress for some time after three men did not give him anything despite taking his money after promising to supply him some narcotics. The police have booked the three men for abetment to suicide.’
A careful review of the facts shows that:
The young man was dependent on illicit drugs. The lockdown prevented him from procuring the substance from his regular supply-chain. Desperate and struggling with withdrawal syndrome, he reached out to some suppliers, who took money, but did not deliver the drug. Without recourse to help or treatment, the man ended his life. The Police filed a criminal case against unknown persons for abetting suicide by not supplying drugs.
The case raises important questions:
Responsibility for providing treatment
The young man in Gurugram and others like him, who live with dependence, are undergoing terrible suffering under the lockdown. According to the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India, the findings of which were released in February 2019, around 7.75million people in the country live with dependence to opioid substances and another 2.5 million need medical assistance for cannabis use.
Depending on the drug and the length of use, the lack of access can lead to the onset of painful and agonising withdrawal. If untreated, this stressor can trigger dangerous consequences, including death by suicide.
International human rights norms go to the extent of characterising the denial of medical care during withdrawal and the suffering inflicted on people who are drug dependent as acts of torture or ill-treatment.
While announcing the COVID-19 lockdown, the Government was under an obligation to make drug dependence treatment widely available and accessible. While health authorities issued an advisory on managing alcohol dependence, there was none for managing drug dependence.
The only guidance provided by the National AIDS Control Organisation was to allow take-home doses of Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) for a week for clients who are already enrolled in the HIV prevention programme. While accurate estimates are hard to come by, research suggests that OST coverage remains woeful in India.
The Government seems to have forgotten about the millions of people who are dependent on drugs but are not in treatment. Bereft of medical support, the restrictive measures of the lockdown can be a death sentence; like it seems to have been the case for the young man in Gurugram.
Culpability for not supplying drugs?
The other paradox in the case is that the Police have blamed alleged drug suppliers for not providing drugs! The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act) criminalises, among other things, unauthorised sale and purchase of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Surely, a person who does not supply illicit drugs is complying with the law and not violating it? Even if a supplier has taken money, an agreement to commit an unlawful act is unlawful and cannot be enforced.
The Police seems to have forgotten that the drug market has been made illegal by public authorities. In this state of affairs, buyers and sellers are under no obligation to keep their ‘promise’.
For someone to be charged for abetting suicide, the prosecution must show that they instigated the victim to commit suicide or intentionally aided the commission of suicide through an act or illegal omission. The facts do not disclose any such thing. On the contrary, if the narcotic substance had indeed been supplied, both the dealer and the young man would be in jail for offences under the NDPS Act. All this is lost on the Police, who have done a quick fix by registering a case against the drug suppliers.
Addiction-related suicides in times of corona cannot be wished away, nor can they be blamed on people who supply drugs.
The unfortunate death of the young man in Gurugram calls for a reorientation of our health and criminal justice policies. The Government must become serious about securing effective, evidence-based treatment for people who use drugs, which is its constitutional and legal responsibility.
Authorities must also reassess the legal status of the drug market, before it can hold suppliers accountable for not providing drugs.
With over 53 million people who use drugs in the country, policy shifts that prioritise health are long due.