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Substance abuse among youth
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Especially in Matters of Substance Abuse by Minors, the Right of the Accused to be Heard Cannot be Ignored

The misfortune of the youth of Manipur is the proximity of the state to the Golden Triangle and the state’s porous poorly guarded border. This has made them vulnerable to exposure to illicit drugs. The substance abuse among the juvenile or the children of the state is ever on the rise. I was asked to speak on the rights of the children who are victims of substance abuse and drugs. It gave me the chance to see from a point of view quite different and much more holistic than the one the prosecution is expected to adopt. As a legal practitioner, I am inclined to first think of the purpose of penalty and different theories of punishment on legal terms only.

The difficult decision always is whether retribution should outweigh reformation? I am convinced now, in matters dealing with the youth and children, reformation should have priority. For reformation to be successful there has to be emphasis on understanding of the multitude of factors which contributed to the commission of any particular offence. It would not be right to blame the individual alone for his predicament. Hate the sin not the sinner is an age old adage, and the truth in it is self evident. As a welfare state, it is our duty to bring back the social deviants to the society and help them lead a life of dignity. How much do we lose as a state or society when a potential contributing citizen falls into the trap of substance abuse? This is the question we need to think about each time we fail to reform. I write this piece in an attempt to highlight the drug menace in in the country’s border states, especially Manipur. Here, an entire generation was lost to drugs, the 1990s and early 2000s. Young boys were sent away from home to boarding schools in other states to save their future from the lure of drugs, as if the already existing armed conflict was not enough for a parent to handle.

Substance and drugs Abuse: Status of the Youth of Manipur

As per a UNODC report on Drug Use in Northeastern States of India, drug trafficking has the following dimension:

  1. The illicit cultivation of opium and cannabis.
  2. The smuggling of heroin and amphetamines into Northeast India from Myanmar in small quantities.
  • The trafficking of pharmaceuticals from other parts of the country into Northeast India and their smuggling to neighbouring countries.
  1. The trafficking of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine-precursors for the manufacturing of amphetamines- from India to Myanmar.

The widespread national and international attention towards Northeast India for substance abuse was followed the outbreak of HIV epidemic among local heroin injectors in 1989. According to studies, more than 70% of the 6000 who visited Drug Treatment Centres in Manipur (2005 to 2013) have been found to be children below 18years of age. As per a report by Drug Abuse Monitoring System, DAMS, on drug abuse among treatment seekers, heroin was the most commonly used followed by alcohol and inhalants. In the early 2000s, due to stringent laws against heroin trafficking and peddling, local youth shifted towards dextropropoxyphene or Spasmo Proxyvon. Spasmo Proxyvon or Proxivon, WY (World is Yours), Phensedyl (a codeine based cough syrup), amphetamines, opium and cannabis are among the popularly consumed.

It would be necessary to define what are narcotics and psychotropic substances here although I have used substance abuse and drug abuse interchangeably.  Sec 2(xiv) of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, henceforth NDPS Act, defines “narcotic drug”. It means coca leaf, cannabis (hemp), opium, poppy straw and includes all other manufactured drugs.  Sec 2(xxiii) of NDPS Act defines “psychotropic substance” as meaning to be any substance, natural or synthetic, or any natural material or salt or preparation of such substance or material included in the list of psychotropic substances specified in the Schedule. Amphetamine, Methamphetamine and Daizepam are some of the few listed psychotropic substances. Overall in India, as has been stated in the 2007-2012 report by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD), more than 13% of those involved in drug and substance abuse are individuals below 20yrs.

War on Drugs/Nasha Mukt Bharat

On 26th of June 2021, International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking was observed and an annual Anti-Drug Action Plan for 2020-21 for 272 districts was launched by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The significance of this action plan would be the focus on community outreach besides institutions. National level campaigns would be held across schools, higher secondary schools and universities. De-addiction facilities would be set up in the said “most affected” 272 districts of the States in India as identified by the Narcotics Control Bureau with emphasis on reaching the youth and high risk population. Most of the districts belong to Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and the Northeast. Integrated Rehabilitation Centre for Addicts (ICRAs), peer led community based outreach programmes for high risk populations and drop in centres would be set up. Community based outreach campaign “Nasha Mukt Bharat” or Drug-Free India Campaign was launched as well.

The Triad: The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987

Article 47 of the Constitution of India provides that “the State shall regard the raising the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of the public health as among its primary duties, and in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” This provision shows where the laws stands with relation to curbing of social ills like substance abuse.

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985  (NDPS Act) is “an act to consolidate and amend the law relating to narcotic drugs, to make stringent provisions for the control and regulation of operations relating to narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, to provide for the forfeiture of property derived from, or used in, illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, to implement the provisions of the International Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and for matters connected therewith.”

India is signatory to three UN conventions namely, Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971 and Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988. As per Sec 70 of the NDPS Act, “the Government may establish, recognise or approve as many centres as it thinks fit for identification, treatment, management, education, after-care, rehabilitation, social re-integration of addicts and for supply, subject to such conditions and in such manner as may be prescribed, by the concerned Government of any narcotic and psychotropic substances to addicts registered with the Government and to others where such supply is a medical necessity.”

Definition of the terms “narcotic drugs” and “psychotropic substances” have been mentioned in the beginning. An “addict” means a person who has dependence on any narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances {Sec 2(i)}. Consumption of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substances might lead to rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to twenty thousand rupees or with both (Sec 27).

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 (JJ Act) has the required empathy towards young substance abusers. Before I delve into the JJB Act understanding free and fair trial for all is to be understood. In my few years of practice and in general parlance, I hear people say, “Why should that murderer be represented by a lawyer?” or “It is evident he is wrong why defend him?” The morality of the counsel represented is questioned in return. There is a duty for the court to make sure that the accused or the person in conflict with law is well represented and be heard equally along with the prosecution. Sec 304 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 states that the legal aid to the accused in a trial before the Court of Session could be assigned a pleader for his defence at the expense of the State. The principles of natural justice which are: right to be heard, reasoned judgment and no bias. The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 comes to existence to serve this purpose. As guaranteed in Article 39A of the Constitution of India, the State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (LSAA) is to constitute legal services to provide free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society realising the mentioned provision of the Constitution. As per Section 12 of the Act, a woman or a child is entitled to the legal services for free.

The JJ Act read along with LSA Act lays down the provisions for dealing with young offenders. A juvenile or a child is anyone below the age of 18years. A child alleged or found to have committed an offence and below the age of 18yrs would be a “child in conflict with law”. A child who is found vulnerable and who is likely to be into drug abuse and trafficking would be a “child in need of care and protection”. Nowhere is the word “accused” or “convict” or “addict” mentioned. Social reintegration, protection by catering to the needs of the child, development, rehabilitation and treatment by adopting child friendly approach in the adjudication and disposal of the matters in the best interest of the child have been clearly stated in the beginning of the act itself. The rigorous treatment of the offender has been avoided in case of a child in conflict with law or a child in need of care and protection. Sadly, in our society physically abusing or shaming them is used to correct the child. Parading them before media or disclosing their details through social media damage the child’s future with no chance of ever reforming. Presumption of innocence of the child, right to privacy and confidentiality, repatriation, maintaining of dignity and worth and so on has been mentioned as the guiding general principles in administering the JJ Act.  The State Government shall set up Juvenile Justice Board in every district and shall discharge its functions relating to children in conflict with law. The Board shall make sure that the child in conflict with law has not been mistreated in any way by the police or any one.

When a child is alleged to be in conflict with law, there shall be no First Information Report registered except in heinous offences neither could the child be locked up but transfer the child to Child Welfare Police Officer as soon as possible. It is also stated in the Act that the Child Welfare Police Officer should not be in uniform while handling the child. It is the prerogative of the Board to make sure the child gets the required counselling, attend school or vocational training centre or therapeutic centre or prohibit the child from frequenting the problem causing zones or undergo a de-addiction programme. No child in conflict with law shall be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. The penalty for giving intoxicating liquor or narcotic drug or psychotropic substance to a child or using a child for vending, peddling, carrying, supplying or smuggling any intoxicating substance like liquor, narcotic drug or psychotropic substance is rigorous imprisonment for 7 years and liable to a fine upto 1 lakh.

Conclusion

In Bachpan Bachao Andolan vs Union of India and Others (2016), the petitioner brought the attention of the Supreme Court upon the alarming use of drugs and alcohol among children in India. The fundamental rights of the children suffering from and involved in substance use and abuse are addressed. A national action plan for the children on issue of drugs, alcohol and substance abuse were sought by the petitioners in the said petition.

To leave the doors open for the child to assimilate with the society again should be an option for the alleged child in conflict with law. And it has been so curated in our laws. The socio-economic and geo-political conditions contribute to this social malady. High urban poverty coupled with easy access to various drugs from neighbouring country has made the youth of the State more vulnerable than others. To humanize our outlook towards the drugs issue and focusing on reformation is my suggestion. There is still struggle for basic amenities in the interiors of the State. With better outreach programmes for securing the welfare and sensitisation of the people, there is hope for the youth. The communities residing in this corner of the country has not even attained three generations of access to proper education. People are still struggling to meet the basic requirements. The new Anti-Drug Action Plan 2020-2021 for a Nasha Mukt Bharat is a promising move on the part of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. With collective community effort, the drug menace could be tackled to a great extent and see the issue beyond “therapeutic nihilism”.

(The writer is an advocate based in Manipur)

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