Sound Familiar? Punjab Leader Campaigns Against “Drug Menace,” Blames Pakistan for Trafficking

    On October 6 the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, accused neighbor Pakistan of strategically trafficking heroin across India’s northern border to “destroy the youth.” 

    Sound familiar?  

    Singh speculated that Pakistan is facilitating drug consumption in Punjab in an effort to reduce youth enrollment in the Indian army, which, according to Singh, sources most of its soldiers from the country’s northern belt.  

    Singh identified the health of heroin-using youth as a key problem in his administration’s campaign against the “drug menace,” referring to the region’s trade in and use of opioids. But at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, where he criticized Pakistan, Singh emphasized, albeit with little supporting evidence, that Pakistani-trafficked heroin threatens state and national security—all the while glossing over the quality of life for Punjabis using opioids.

    Revealingly, Singh’s campaign against the “drug menace” is organized by his police-run Special Task Force (STF), a program formed a few days after Singh’s March 2017 election to the Punjab state assembly. STF aims to halt the flow of heroin from Pakistan and reduce Punjab’s high rates of addiction through prevention, treatment and, of course, law enforcement.

    The results have been predictable, with the arrest of more than 18,000 “drug peddlers.” The STF also founded the Drug Abuse Prevention Officers (DAPO) program in February 2018, which registers and trains volunteers to raise awareness about “the threat of drugs,” as described by the program’s registration app. It’s also meant to facilitate the entry of people dependent on opioids into “de-addiction” programs. Official estimates show that 200,000 people addicted to opioids were treated between mid-2017 and the summer of 2018; the number may look impressive, but important questions surrounding effectiveness and consent apply.

    The DAPO program is one of many efforts to mobilize peer networks in Punjab’s war on drugs. STF advanced its prohibition rhetoric by launching the TuMera Buddy program in August. The program seeks to discourage youth drug use by building lateral “bond[s] to strengthen the youth ecosystem of Punjab, for them to choose the future they believe in—one which has no place for drugs!”

    This pursuit of a “drug-free world,” despite manifest evidence that such a world is unattainable, will also resonate with US audiences. 

    Singh simultaneously launched a widespread propaganda poster campaign that invites civilians to discourage others’ drug use, and also report it to the police and STF.

    The chief minister’s personal War on Drugs hit another low in July, when members of his cabinet suggested that convicted drug dealers should receive the death penalty. Next, six Punjab districts implemented, and then revoked, a ban on the sale of syringes without a prescription. Additionally, Singh ordered all state employees to undergo drug testing after the state saw 23 reported overdose deaths in June.

    Like so many administrations, Singh and his cabinet are addressing the issue of problematic heroin use through a combination of prevention/treatment and punishment initiatives. The execution of the former is highly questionable, while the latter is heavily prioritized.

    Image: Special Task Force Punjab