Sidhu’s call to legalise opium sparks fresh row

Opposition cries foul as a Punjab minister supports AAP MP from Patiala, Dharamvira Gandhi, for legalising cultivation, sale and consumption of opium and its by-product poppy husk in the state.

Opium is better than heroin”! This suggestion came from Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu who has once again courted controversy and landed in a soup for his remarks on drugs cultivation in Punjab.

Punjab Minister, Navjot Singh Sidhu has suggested that “opium is better than heroin” and that it should be legalised. “Opium should be grown in Punjab,” Sidhu said in presence of the Director General of Police Suresh Arora.

Immediately, the Haryana minister Anil Vij demanded to lodge a criminal case against Sidhu for “promoting” drug use. Vij demanded that Punjab Chief Minister, Capt Amarinder Singh should either order lodge an FIR against his Cabinet colleague or quit as chief minister because he had led the Congress to win the Punjab assembly polls last year by making drug malady an election issue.

“Amarinder Singh now should get an FIR registered against Sidhu for publicising drug use or tender a resignation,” Vij said. Akali Dal spokesperson Daljeet Cheema said, “Sidhu’s statement is enough to prove that the state government has failed to curb the menace of drugs. The chief minister had promised to get rid of the drugs within a month (of getting elected), now his cabinet colleague is demanding legalisation of poppy cultivation. The chief minister should explain how poppy cultivation and its easy availability would end the addiction.”

On a high

Already a survey on “Pattern and Prevalence of Opium use in rural Punjab” has found that many people were addicted to opium. A household survey of opium use was carried out in three districts of Punjab. Of the 1,400 randomly selected households, 1,276 were covered by the study. All members above the age of 15 years were individually interviewed. The survey included 2,064 men and 1,536 women. The percentage prevalence rate of opium use was 5.76, much higher among men than women.

Traditionally, drugs in Punjab come from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, cultivated under the patronage of the Taliban for whom it is a big source of easy money. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the total area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 328,000 hectares in 2017, a 63 per cent increase over the previous year.

Potential opium production was estimated at 9,000 tons in 2017, an increase of 87 per cent from 2016. Afghanistan, however, is not the only source of drugs in Punjab. Spurious and cheap drugs are also manufactured locally many times in the garb of pharmaceutical factories. The Pakistan border has been the main entry point of drugs into Punjab.

About the peddlers, it has been observed that the most efficient peddlers of drugs are drug addicts themselves. A drug addict is the last man in the distribution network. Even the policemen could be part of the distribution network. More than 100 Punjab Police personnel have been arrested for smuggling drugs or abetting the trade since 2014. Of these nearly 30 have been arrested in the 15 months of the Congress government that came to power last year in March.

Not only rogue police personnel but also influential politicians could patronise the distribution networks. Time and again, many politicians have been accused of patronising the drug trade.

The controversial statement has come when Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has made the fight against drugs in Punjab a top priority of his government. Naturally, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh reacted to Sidhu’s statements and said that Punjab will not allow them legalisation to happen at any cost, as the state had been engaged in a fight against the drug menace.

CM ups ante

The Chief Minister said, “It’s time to have a national drug policy to check drug menace, as I have always maintained.” Singh added that he was happy that the issue of opium cultivation has taken center stage again. He also said, “One state growing drugs like opium to sell in another is not acceptable as it’s ruining younger generations. It’s important to resolve this matter once and for all.”

He added, “India has to have a drug policy. You need to have a strict drug policy and ban these drugs. Whatever is required for the pharma industry, the government can have a policy for that. But letting it be grown by states, we know how it leaks out of states and into markets which is Punjab.”

Earlier, on July 18, 2018, Singh had written a letter to Home Minister Rajnath Singh and asked the government to formulate an effective national anti-drug policy with a coordinated strategy in place to curb the smuggling of narcotics into Punjab. He had also appealed to neighbouring states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan for help in Punjab’s war against drugs.

He even appealed to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to ensure that no safe havens are allowed to drug peddlers and smugglers in the state. Punjab CM even ordered a dope test for all the government employees and police personnel. The Punjab CM also ordered a number of steps to be taken for expanding the government’s efforts to guarantee stringent enforcement of the drug laws.

What surprised everyone in corridors of power is that Sidhu spoke in support of AAP MP Dharamvir Gandhi who had also demanded the legalisation of the sale and cultivation of opium in Punjab.

Sidhu had said, “My uncle used to get opium as medicine from the hospital. It is way better than ‘chitta’ (heroin), due to which parents have to see bodies of their children.” He also supported  legalising cultivation, sale and consumption of opium and its by-product poppy husk in the state.

“I appreciate Gandhi for raising the demand of legalising the cultivation of opium,” said Sidhu, on the sidelines of a function organised by the Noble Foundation, an NGO recently. In a rally at Muktsar grain market, the suspended AAP MP had advocate legalising poppy cultivation. In July this year, Gandhi had even submitted a memorandum to Union home minister Rajnath Singh in this regard.

Not only Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh has come out against Sidhu for his outburst in support of legalising opium, the Punjab Congress President, Sunil Jhakhar has said in a statement: “I am pained to see that even a demand like this is being raised in Punjab. I can understand a drug addict rooting for opium distribution centers to be opened in the state but here wise, experienced men are also offering such a regressive recourse to tackle the drug problem in the state. For Punjab, legalising opium would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.” It is a tough battle to wipe out addiction from the state. We have inherited a huge problem but the solution does not lie in succumbing to it but fighting it out.

The suggestion by Punjab Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu only shows that politicians have nothing positive to offer to the youth. Instead of moving towards a future where the youth are encouraged to lead healthy productive lives, they are being offered sedatives. Do we want to make Punjab a State of addicts?