Around 15.8 million children aged between 10 and 17 years are addicted to substances in India, the Indian government informed the Supreme Court on December 14.
In the first comprehensive survey on the extent and patterns of substance abuse in India, the National Drug Dependence Treatment Center found a sizable population affected by substance abuse disorders.
The survey was carried out between 2017 and 2018, released to the public in 2019, and presented to the Supreme Court only this month.
The survey was conducted in all 36 states and union territories of the country in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment,10 medical institutes and 15 NGOs. Over 1,500 personnel were involved in data collection.
What did the study find?
Alcohol is the most commonly used psychoactive substance by people in India, followed by cannabis and opioids, according to the national survey. States with the highest prevalence of cannabis use include Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim and Chhattisgarh.
"Over 30 million individuals use cannabis products and about 2.5 million suffer from cannabis dependence," the report said, adding that "22.6 million people use opioids and approximately 7.7 million individuals require help for opioid use problems."
It also found opioid users comprise 2.06% of the country's population, and that 1.7% of children and adolescents and 0.58% of adults are users of inhalants. The report noted that among people suffering from dependence on illicit drugs, three in four don't receive treatment.
Health experts warn that the figures for substance abuse in India are actually much higher.
"Reach of the national programs for treatment of substance use disorders is grossly inadequate," the report noted.
Other categories of drugs — namely cocaine, amphetamine type stimulants and hallucinogens — are used by a small proportion of the country's population.
Weak policies behind drug abuse rise
The findings indicate that despite the existence of strict drug control laws and a multitude of agencies working toward drug supply control throughout India, a wide variety of controlled drugs are still being used.
"Results also indicate a shift in demand for psychoactive substances from traditional, low-potency, plant-based products like opium to more potent and processed products like heroin," a Health Ministry official, who requested anonymity, told DW.
Many states lack policies to prevent substance abuse. Government-run schools typically don't organize sensitization and awareness programs about drug abuse.
H. S. Phoolka is a lawyer for Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an India-based children's rights movement which has filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court over concerns of drug abuse among children. He said the issue is far more serious than what the findings of the national survey revealed.
"There are huge numbers of children who are affected and not counted in this survey…they are addicts. Drug availability in schools and its vicinity is a problem and finally they become peddlers," Phoolka told DW.
Opioid misuse poses major public health challenge
The northern state of Punjab is seeing particularly alarming levels of drug abuse. In the past six months, the number of patients in Punjab's Outpatient Opioid Assisted Treatment clinics increased from around 400,000 to about 800,000.
"It is an alarming situation. Addiction is increasing and that is also because of the easy availability of drugs and the consequence of this falls directly on society, neighborhoods and families," Harpreet Singh, a counselor from Chandigarh, told DW.
Singh warns that opioid misuse could become a major public health challenge in many states.
According to a separate study carried out in Punjab, over 75% of the state's youth are struggling with drug abuse. It also estimated that at least 30% of jail inmates have been arrested for illegal possession of drugs under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.
Given the latest findings, the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, along with several other government departments, has prepared a national action plan for drug demand reduction.
"Planning for a national level treatment program will take into account both the high prevalence as well as the magnitude of the problem for prioritization among the states," a senior official in the ministry who requested anonymity told DW.
Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum
December 27, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the year the survey was carried out.