Saturday, February 24, 2024

On Sober Drunkenness

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s suggestion to decriminalise possession of small quantities of drugs for personal consumption is a humane approach to what is truly a disease.

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By Justice Kamaljit Singh Garewal

It may gladden the hearts of many if possession of small amounts of charas and afeem for personal consumption is decriminalised. De-addiction is a desirable way to reform addicts, instead of sending them to jail. But this happiness could be short-lived if the addicts suffer relapse and slip back into their drug-induced paranoia. The origin of these substances and their transport into India must be well understood by the general public and civil society before any drastic steps are taken to decriminalise drug abuse.

Peter Levi in “The Frontiers of Paradise” cites what he found inscribed in a well-shaft of a monastic cloister “O sobria ebrietas, O ebria sobrietas (O sober drunkenness, O drunken sobriety)”. Perhaps true drunkenness does not come from drinking but from deep meditation. Hindu ascetics know the mind expanding properties of ganja when they smoke it. A familiar sight at religious fairs. Nihang Singhs drink sukha, which they call sukh-nidhan (or comfort-giver), made of sweetened water and spices with a bit of bhang. At Holi gatherings, bhang is served in pakoras or shardai, a spiced almond milk-shake. All of the above are cannabis-based concoctions.

Justice Kamaljit Singh Garewal

Very few cultures, if at all, are free from the use of some form or other of mind and body relaxing drinks. The sole exceptions which immediately come to mind are the traditional Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. In the West, people grow hops to brew beer, grapes to make wine or brandy and ferment barley for malt whiskey. And drink these libations for personal enjoyment, entertaining friends and celebrations, while governments collect duties to enrich their exchequers. A bottle of champagne is smashed on the hull of ships when they are launched, we in India do it with a coconut.

We developed a drinking culture after it was introduced by the British. Earlier only the royalty and feudals were the drinking types, the peasantry was largely abstemious. Travelling through Punjab’s country-side one finds “wine shops” which don’t stock wine but sell what is called IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor). One may well ask, how foreign liquor is made in India?

If imbibers suddenly decide to reform and stop drinking altogether to dry out, the exchequer too shall become dry. Excessive and regular drinking does lead to alcohol dependence and addiction. Those who smoke tobacco also derive pleasure from the tobacco plant but may sometimes develop lung cancer. It seems prohibition has worked nowhere. Smoking has reduced considerably but is not completely banned.

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Coming to drugs like charas (marijuana) from cannabis and afeem (opium) produced by the poppy flower, both are from pleasure-giving plants. Charas grows openly in the country-side, no need for any fancy cultivation techniques. It’s a weed, no wonder it’s called one in the US. Afeem grows under licence in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It should not surprise anyone if afeem or its derivatives find their way to Punjab through the drug mafia, and into the hands of drug pedlars who supply them to addicts in the streets of villages and towns, thus completing the chain. Punjab is also the transit point for smuggled heroin (an opium derivative) which comes from Afghanistan through Pakistan. Opium is a major crop in Afghanistan, and almost all of it is exported. The drug menace is very disturbing for policymakers but there is a lot of money to be made, so everyone looks the other way while young people are ruined, their families shattered.

Till 1985, possession, transport, import or export and sale of afeem in any form was an offence under the Opium Act, 1878, and punishable with sentence for three years. The prosecution had to establish the case by producing independent witnesses, who would often get won over. Usually, the police would not show the full recovery even though it was a heavy amount of 8-10 kg. Small-time pedlars would be framed and sent up for possession of a few 100 gms and receive one or two years sentence. The police ended up with a lot of money, selling the remaining stuff in the open market.

The provisions became very stringent with the passage of the NDPS Act. It is still a mystery why police officers were not properly trained to investigate cases under the new law. Thousands of cases ended in acquittals in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was because the punishment of 10 years and fine of Rs 1 lakh was considered very harsh. Therefore, the investigation was required to be in certain well-defined stages. As the investigation was never correctly done, the conviction rate remained in single figures and still remains abysmally low. During this time, the drug mafia took a firm hold of the youth. For the drug trade to flourish, a large market of consumers had to be created and this was done rather successfully, starting with school boys. Most of the cartels were already in the smuggling racket, dealing in different kinds of illicit commodities like adulterated liquor, unaccounted cash, smuggled goods, etc. They merely added drugs to the merchandise on offer underground.

Generally our urban and rural folk are abstemious, but under the influence of pseudo-modernity, drinking in moderation is no longer frowned upon. The giant of the composite culture of India, Mirza Ghalib, would drink while composing his ghazals centred around wine and the cup bearer. Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, the Keats of India, was also a heavy drinker and left the world at 37 years, leaving behind a large body of romantic pathos-filled poetry. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had also admitted that he had a weakness for alcohol, but gave up drinking when it began to affect his singing. Sardar Khushwant Singh drank two pegs of scotch every evening between seven and eight.

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He lived to the ripe old age of 99 and what a phenomenal body of work he left behind. Churchill was famously known to have laudanum, a tincture of opium, for breakfast and couple of shots of brandy at supper. Stalin always drank vodka in private, but at the Yalta conference, he drank water from a vodka bottle to mislead everyone. Charles de Gaulle would tease the English at their failure to produce a good wine and only one type of cheese, whereas the French, being truly civilised, had hundreds of wines and cheeses. Roosevelt was an ardent scotch lover. Together, these world leaders defeated Adolf Hitler, a non-smoker and teetotaller.

Of the literary giants, Samuel Coleridge and Charles Dickens were known for their addiction to opium, while Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway were alcoholics. Musicians Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis were heroin addicts. The Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s led by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg did most of their writing under the influence of alcohol or morphine. In the late 1960s, LSD or acid took over and spawned the hippies or the flower children looking for new experiences. They flocked to India looking for salvation at the feet of gurus in the Himalayas.

The sad thing is that many young people who drink beer or wine at university, graduate to what are euphemistically called “recreation” drugs. One step into the drug-induced euphoria leads to another, and can take idle youth seeking recreation deeper and deeper into an abyss. This is where the policy makers must be careful.

The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has sought decriminalising possession of small quantities of drugs for personal consumption. It has suggested amendments to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act to treat those who use drugs or are dependent on them as victims, to be referred for de-addiction and rehabilitation, and not sentenced to jail. This is no doubt a humane approach, showing compassion and kindness to the victims of an addiction which is truly a disease.

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The only way to cure the patient is by making him realise that he has a problem which can be taken care of though a de-addiction programme under expert guidance.

But before any modernising notions of decriminalising possession of small amounts of marijuana or opium are introduced, there must be a strong clamp down on drug smuggling. The recent drug haul of three quintals from Mundra port in Gujarat was one of the largest in the world, with a total value of Rs 21,000 crore. There is deafening silence in the media about who planned this operation, who executed it and who were their collaborators at the port of landing. Obviously, it was a perfectly well-planned operation with full support of the police and customs authorities at Mundra. This is where the problem is and this is where our police is weak. Ultimately, they will find some minor fall guy. The utmost brazenness of the planners is astounding. They may back off for a while to return to the market again and again. So let’s catch the big fish before kids, lured into the world of recreation, are sent for rehabilitation.

—The writer is former judge, Punjab & Haryana High Court, Chandigarh and former judge, United Nations Appeals Tribunal, New York

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