Following the changes to India's drug law, millions of Indians suffering from chronic pain will now have access to better pain medications.
The Rajya Sabha approved amendments to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (the Drug Act) that the Lok Sabha had approved two days back.
The amendments eliminate archaic rules that obligated hospitals and pharmacies to obtain four or five licenses, each from a different government agency, every time they wanted to purchase strong pain medicines.
As Human Rights Watch documented in a 2009 report, "Unbearable Pain: India's Obligation to Ensure Palliative Care," this resulted in the virtual disappearance of morphine, an essential medicine for strong pain, from Indian hospitals, including from most specialized cancer centers.
"The revised Drug Act is very good news for people with pain in India," said Diederik Lohman, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"These changes will help spare millions of people the indignity of suffering needlessly from severe pain," he said.
"India had made significant progress in improving the availability of palliative care in recent years," Lohman said. "But the new revisions to the Drug Act remove one of the biggest remaining barriers to dignified end-of-life care in India," he added.
Patients who experience severe pain without access to adequate treatment face enormous suffering. Like victims of torture, these patients have often told Human Rights Watch that the pain was intolerable and that they would do anything to make it stop. Many said that they saw death as the only way out and some said they had become suicidal.
The amendments to the Drug Act give the central government authority to regulate so-called "narcotic drugs," require a single license to procure morphine and other strong opioid medications, and charge one government agency, the state drug controller, with enforcement. The government introduced the amendments to the Drug Act in 2012.
The government could not force them to carry out the recommendation. Only 17 of India's 35 states and territories had introduced the simplified procedure.
The World Health Organization and the Indian government consider morphine an essential medicine for the treatment of strong pain from cancer and other illnesses.
In January, the World Health Organization's board adopted a groundbreaking resolution calling on countries to integrate palliative care, a health service that seeks to improve the quality of life in people with life-limiting illnesses, into their health systems.
It recommended, among other steps, that countries review their drug regulations and amend them if they were found to impede access to pain medicines.