Delhi’s lone government-run opium shop is likely to be closed from March next year as the shop is left with only nine authorised octogenarian buyers and the Central Excise Department is finding it unviable to continue with the shop.

The one-room small shop (sarkari afeem ki dukan) located on Central Delhi’s Desh Bandhu Gupta Road, adjacent to Naiwalan, has been operational since 1954 under the medicines and toiletries preparations wing of the Excise Department. Earlier located in the Walled City, the opium shop shifted to its current location in 2011.

Buyers of opium were regularly given licences during the British rule. But after Independence, the government would not give licences to new buyers. So when the shop came to existence in 1954, licences to buy opium were issued to around 250 people, while the last few were issued in 1975. The Central government has been providing permits to the existing buyers for over six decades, but the number of buyers has come down to nine as most of the authorised buyers died.

Rajendra Yadav, an Excise Department constable who is authorised to run the shop, told The Sunday Guardian: “Many people raise questions about the logic of the government running a shop and selling narcotic substances to these individuals. Even after working for several years with the department, I was not aware of any such shop. Even today, I have no knowledge about the procedure under which the sale of opium to these consumers is allowed.”

“I just visit the shop once a week to sell opium to these licence holders. Now only nine such customers are left and only a few of them pay regular visits. As per rule, I give opium only to individuals owning permit and even their close relatives are not allowed to receive the substance on their behalf,” Yadav said.

“The shop opens only for a few hours every Tuesday and periodically, these licence holders come to the shop to purchase their opium quota, which is up to 20 gram. The dose of opium is based on the individual medical prescription, not exceeding more than 50 gram a month,” Yadav said.

Opium is sold in the shop at Rs 20 a gram to permit holders. The dark brown, semi-solid paste is consumed either with water, or smoked through cigarettes. Earlier, the price was Rs 4 a gram, but recently, the excise department hiked its price to Rs 20 a gram.

Hemchand, a permit holder in his 80s, said: “I have been visiting the opium shop for over 40 years, but now it is getting hard for me to travel to Naiwalan from Shahdara. For the past few years, I usually visit the shop once a month. Also, my grandchildren are against my opium addiction at this age.”

A senior Excise official told The Sunday Guardian: “In the absence of any de-addiction method, it was perceived that these individuals would die without consuming opium; thus, the government continued the sale of opium to several old customers and now only a few are allowed; therefore, the department has decided to close the shop.”

India is one of the few countries that legally grows opium poppy and the only country which legally produces opium gum. Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) plant is the source of opium gum, which contains several indispensable alkaloids such as morphine and codeine. Morphine is the best analgesic in the world. In case of extreme and excruciating pain such as that in terminally ill cancer patients, nothing alleviates suffering except morphine. Codeine is commonly used in manufacturing cough syrups.

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 empowers the Central government to permit and regulate cultivation of opium poppy for medical and scientific purposes. Government of India notifies the tracts where opium cultivation can be licenced, as well as the general conditions for issuance of licence every year.

According to senior Excise official, opium is legally cultivated in eastern Uttar Pradesh and licence holding farmers further send their produce to the government-run Opium and Alkaloids Factory located in Ghazipur.

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