At one point of time in 2017, about half of the 363 inmates in the central jail in Chamgang, Thimphu, were people convicted for drug related offences. 

Of that, 23 were female and four juvenile delinquents aged between 16-24 years with sentencing ranging from one to nine years. This number excluded the 45 convicts in the Thimphu dzongkhag prison. 

Records available indicate that 61 percent of the total people convicted for drugs were arrested from Thimphu. 

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) saw an increase of more than 76 percent in the number of cases related to drugs in 2018 compared to the previous year. Police had referred 474 drug-related cases last year, excluding tobacco, and 363 cases in 2016.

Looking at the statistics of drugs offences referred for prosecution over the years, the OAG officials stated that the strict laws were not effective to curtail the issue.

The Narcotic Drugs Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act (NDPSSAA) 2005 underwent a major amendment in 2015 following the incident in 2013 where a Bhutanese woman was caught smuggling Ketamine at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Categorised under schedule IV of the NDPSSA 2015, Ketamine was listed as a psychotropic substance with medicinal value. Along with it, 18 new controlled narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and precursor chemicals have been added to the amended NDPSSA. The list of 255 drugs also includes Spasmoproxyvon and Relipen, the most abused in Bhutan.

The new act quantified the amount of drugs, which resulted in redefining trafficking as opposed to the conventional understanding of what trafficking would constitute. 

OAG attributed the drastic increase in drug cases between 2016 and 2017 to stringent provisions in the law mainly the NDPSSAA 2015.

Prosecutors said that the stringent provisions of the law seemed to have less or no deterrence effect on curtailing the abuse of drugs or the number of drug peddlers as cases are on the continuous rise.

The OAG stated that there was a need for a detailed understanding of how a long-term solution to tackle the social menace could be agreed upon. “A reformative approach is certainly an option that is gaining popularity and support elsewhere.”

There was no case related to illegal possession of cannabis and its derivatives in 2016, but in 2017, OAG prosecuted 100 cases related to it.

The Act listed all narcotic and psychotropic substances, authorising only Parliament to add or delete substances in the schedule or the whole schedule or quantification of any of the substances deemed to be abused or trafficked.

This resulted in a new challenge in 2017 when a new drug Spasmoproxyvon Plus (SP+), containing the substance Tramadol, hit the black market replacing Spasmoproxyvon (SP). The objectives of the NDPSSAA 2015 were put to test with increasing number of cases in the courts.

The Supreme Court, through a judgment on a case directed the Bhutan Narcotic Control Authority to amend the list in the schedules and the Parliament also subsequently amended the Act last year giving the power to amend the lists to BNCA.     

However, the number of drug related cases, including illicit trafficking of cannabis and solvents, fell to 279 last year from 474 in 2017. 

OAG recorded 201 cases of illicit trafficking and possession of narcotic drug and psychotic substance, which was a drop by 83 cases. Similarly, cases of illicit trafficking and possession of Cannabis and its derivatives was recorded at 71 which was less than half of what was recorded in 2017. These two offences still make up most of the cases filed in the courts. 

The illicit trafficking of narcotic drug and psychotropic substance carries sentences ranging from three years to life imprisonment depending on the amount of the substances. 

A person convicted of illicit possession of narcotic drug and psychotropic substance or illegal possession of cannabis and its derivatives could be imprisoned up to one year. 

The offence of illicit trafficking of cannabis and its derivatives is a felony of third degree if the quantity is more than two times of the permissible quantity and a felony of fourth degree if quantity is more than the permissible quantity but equal to or less than two times the quantity determined.

The offence carries a prison term ranging between three and nine years. The OAG attributes such drop in the number of cases to efficient implementation and rigorous enforcement of drug laws. 

Tshering Palden