A two-judge bench of the High Court on Thursday stayed for three weeks the Excise Department order that said alcohol addicts could be sold liquor if they could produce an 'alcohol withdrawal syndrome' certificate from a government doctor. One of the judges called the order “a recipe for disaster”.
The interim order was passed on petitions filed by Congress M P T N Prathapan, Indian Medical Association and Kerala Government Medical Officers' Association. Soon after the verdict, excise minister T P Ramakrishnan said the government would abide by the HC verdict.
The Excise Department order was issued after five suicides of alcohol addicts were reported from various parts of Kerala. By now, six deaths related to alcohol deprivation has been reported in Kerala.
Justice A K Jayasankaran Nambiar asked Kerala attorney K V Sohan how alcohol withdrawal syndrome could be treated with alcohol itself. “We are concerned that the State Government has taken a unilateral decision to administer more alcohol to persons suffering from alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This is disturbing,” Justice Nambiar said.
The Kerala attorney said alcohol in optimum doses was an accepted cure for alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Justice Nambiar said: “No document in medical literature supports such a prescription of alcohol to persons with alcohol withdrawal syndrome.”
The Excise order, called the 'Liquor Pass' order, was drawn up to give habitual drinkers controlled access to liquor during the lockdown period. But for this, they have to first take an outpatient ticket and meet any government doctor and subject himself for examination.
If the doctor is convinced that the person is suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms, he or she can either give an attested note or opinion saying so. The person can then submit this to the nearest excise range or circle, from where the information will be passed on to the Beverages Corporation. Arrangements will then be made to provide the person liquor.
An addict is entitled to just one pass but no limit was prescribed for the number of times the pass could be used.
The IMA and KGMOA had strongly objected to the 'liquor pass'. The KGMOA even observed April 1 as black day in protest against the 'liquor pass' decision. Apart from the unscientific nature of the order, the medical fraternity feared that there would be a huge rush of alcoholics to meet doctors in primary health centres, taluk hospitals and general hospitals. Their safety was under threat.
“If a doctor refuses to give the certificate, there is a chance of him getting thrashed. Will the government assure the safety of doctors,” a prominent member of KGMOA told Onmanorama.
It was also said that by bringing a crowd of drinkers to already overcrowded hospitals social distancing norms, so crucial during this lockdown period, would be dangerously compromised.
The medical fraternity's objection to the 'liquor pass' had stung Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “We have not forced them to give out any passes,” he said, a bit exasperated during his usual sunset media briefing. With the Chief Minister yielding to the anger of the doctors, the Excise order lost most of its authority. The HC, too, wanted to know what value the order had if doctors had sworn not to cooperate.
Sensing the writing no the wall, the Chief Minister himself had, even before the HC verdict, veered around to the view that addiction is better treated than indulged. “I think by now many who had alcohol addiction would have come to terms with the situation,” he said on March 31. “This would have even changed the atmosphere in homes. I would suggest that these people, with the support of their family members, should contact the nearest Vimukti Centre and get treatment. It would be advisable to kick the habit this way,” he said.