Parliament finally clears easier access to pain-killer morphine

In a decision that would ease the suffering for lakhs if not crores of terminal patients in India, parliament on the last day of its winter session on Friday passed an amendment to the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985.

Doctors, who have faced problems accessing the pain-killer for patients suffering from terminal illnesses such as cancer, HIV and thalassemia, hailed the move.

Morphine is one of the cheapest and the best known pain-relieving drugs. Unfortunately it is also liable to abuse, hence its strict control by a mindless Indian government.

With the amendment, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Friday – though cleared earlier by the Lok Sabha over two years ago - there will be single window clearance to medical institutions seeking to stock morphine.

"Earlier an institute required four to five licenses from different authorities to store morphine. Now only the drug controller will be the sole licensing authority and hence more institute would start storing the drug," said Dr M R Rajagopal, founder and chairman of Pallium India, told the Hindustan Times, adding that excluding Kerala less than 50 centres in the country store morphine. Kerala has about 146 centres which stock morphine.

Though the amendment will increase accessibility of morphine, it also calls for training of doctors and nurses in prescribing the drug. "There are generations of doctors who have not dealt with morphine during their training period. Close to one million adults suffering from cancer require morphine in India, but only 0.22 per cent of them have access to it," said Dr Nandini Vallath, consultant at the Trivandrum Institute of Palliative Sciences. Other senior doctors echoed these views.

Moving the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Amendment) Bill 2011 for consideration and passage in Rajya Sabha, minister of state for finance J D Salem said though India produced 90 per cent of morphine-based drugs in the world, these were not easily available in leading city hospitals.

"We need to get the crop, but at the same time, we will have to be cautious against trafficking. We need to make the drug available," he said, adding with the passaging of the new legislation, availability of morphines would go up by 40 per cent.

Morphine is a derivative of opium. The availability of the drug was under strict regulation under the existing Act of 1985 which forced patients to go through much paperwork before they could avail of it.