General Elections 2019

In poll season, Punjab debates legalising poppy seed and opium farming

Proponents feel the two crops will help farmers, save Punjab’s groundwater and wean its youth from synthetic drugs

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Thursday 11 April 2019

Amid the rampant drug menace and continuing farm crisis in Punjab, there have been small noises asking for legalising poppy cultivation in the state. These voices have been aired by both, people in rural areas, where the drug and farm crises are at their worst, as well as a small a small set of politicians, who have emerged from working at the grassroots.

The issue saw a new dimension when several small farmer organisations held a demonstration in Sangrur airing the demand. Since the demonstration came at a time when politicking is picking up in the state ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, they made it clear that they are willing to support any leader who promises to take the issue further.

The farmers have a different take on the issue than the issue of drugs alone. They classify opium and poppy husk as recreational drugs. The farmers seeking legalisation of poppy cultivation ask that if this could be allowed in a controlled manner in other states, why could it not be allowed to the agrarian community in Punjab.

They claim that poppy cultivation could go a long way in addressing the farm crisis. Kulwinder Singh of Unnat Kisan Welfare Society says, “It is a well-known fact that opium is in great demand in the pharmaceutical industry and fetches a very high price. It is used to manufacture several pain-killing drugs including morphine injections. The per acre output of poppy is very high. With the farmers in Punjab reeling under massive debt, a good return from poppy cultivation will definitely help them break the debt trap.”

“If the government agrees to allow poppy cultivation, it will lead to crop diversification that has always been talked about but never achieved. And most important is the issue of our depleting ground water. While paddy has been established as a water guzzler that has taken the ground water in Punjab to new lows every season, poppy cultivation hardly requires any water,” Singh added.

It is a pretty common phenomenon in Punjab that people ailing from diabetes, painful ailments, sleep disorders and even heart ailments are advised to take small dosages of opium once in a while. The advice not only comes from family elders but also some of the medical practitioners on the ground.

But farm economists like Gian Singh are opposed to the idea and believe that Punjab would experience something like the Opium Wars in China when the country was under British rule. “If we are looking at traditional crops that do not consume much water then the answer lies in maize and cotton. But the issues related to certain returns and ensuring that the procurement is done at a Minimum Support Price (MSP) need to be ensured,” he said.

While paddy is procured under the MSP regime, maize and cotton are not. This has often left farmers in distress.

Gian Singh further claimed, “The pharmaceutical units only require a limited quantity of opium. If poppy cultivation could ensure farmer prosperity, things would have been very different in Afghanistan where poppy is grown in abundance openly.”

But leaders like sitting suspended Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Patiala MP Dharam Vira Gandhi, who is seeking re-election as a Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) candidate support the farmers. He told Down to Earth, “It is a humanitarian crisis in Punjab that needs to be addressed. I have taken up this matter before too and am raising it among the people this time as well.” He had raised the issue through a Private Members’ bill in Parliament.

The other dimension to the demand for legalised poppy cultivation is related to the rampant menace of chemical and pharmaceutical drugs. There are many people including academics and social activists-turned-politicians who say that opium and poppy husk, along with marijuana, are not as harmful and fatal as compared to their chemical and pharmaceutical counterparts.

Gandhi said, “I have been urging the government to allow plantation of marijuana and poppy husk in kitchen gardens on a trial basis on the lines of the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Brazil.”

In rural Punjab, there is a common perception that till the time recreational drugs like opium and poppy husk were legal, the menace of synthetic drugs was unheard of. People believe that it is easy to wean away people from poppy husk and opium but not drugs like heroin, smack, brown sugar and chitta (Ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamines).

Even the Swaraj Party, comprising mostly of leaders who had bid adieu to AAP in Punjab, that was formed on the eve of the 2017 Punjab Assembly polls, had talked about decriminalising organic drugs in its vision document. The party had talked of decriminalisation of drugs such as poppy husk, opium and cannabis by bringing out a suitable amendment in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985.

Their contention was that when organic drugs were brought under the purview of the act, their rates increased enormously in the black market. This pushed people towards synthetic drugs that were comparatively much cheaper.

They had also pointed towards Gujarat, which is a dry state, and said that the ban on liquor sales had led to growth of mafia while liquor availability continued unabated. The revenue that should have gone to the state exchequer goes to the mafia.

Those advocating legal poppy and marijuana cultivation, have claimed in the past that controlled drug sale policies introduced by countries like Portugal, Brazil and some states in the United States have led to a decline in drug addiction there. They claim the NDPS Act has allowed monopoly of some illegal drug cartels which has led to prices of traditional drugs spiralling in the illegal market. This has pushed the youth towards medical and eventually synthetic drugs.

But Gian Singh counters this by narrating a personal experience. “There is a village named Bhagwanpura on the border of Punjab and Rajasthan that has come to be known as Bhukkhianwali (village of hunger) because of rampant opium addiction there. Several years ago, I went to see a senior functionary to discuss the malady and try to find a solution. But to my utter shock, this functionary also turned out to be an addict. This thing cannot be allowed in Punjab,” he said.

The issue had created ripples last October too when ex-cricketer and television personality Navjot Singh Sidhu, a minister in Captain Amarinder Singh’s cabinet, had also reportedly spoken on the lines of Gandhi and had said that his uncle used to consume opium and had lived a long life. Amarinder had come out seeking a national drug policy.

It is a well-known fact that both, opium and poppy husk continue to be consumed in Punjab and they find their way through leakages in other states, where they are cultivated. Sources say that poppy cultivation was banned in Punjab in the late 1950s but there were vendors selling both poppy husk and opium till much later. Opium is still referred to as the ‘royal’ intoxicant in the state.

The issue has slowly started gathering steam. Sooner or later, the political class will have to come up with interventions in response to the farmers as well as others seeking legalisation of poppy cultivation.

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