A sudden spurt in seizure of large quantities of cough syrup in the city for the past one month has led the Mumbai Police to believe that it is becoming the addictive substance of choice in the face of an acute shortage of mephedrone and charas.
It has also been aided by the fact that the cost of mephedrone has shot up by 10 times from the time it began to be used commonly in the city in 2013.
In one month, the Anti-Narcotics Cell (ANC) of Mumbai Police Crime Branch has made four seizures in south and central Mumbai and the eastern suburbs and confiscated nearly Rs 5 lakh worth of cough medicine. Codeine phosphate, the main component of cough syrups, is known to cause euphoria, apart from dizziness, when taken in large quantities, leading to dependence. The spurt in seizures began around November 10 when the Ghatkopar unit of the ANC arrested two men travelling in a taxi at Vikhroli, allegedly transporting 1,430 bottles of cough syrup worth Rs 2.86 lakh.
Later, on November 28, the Azad Maidan unit caught three women in Masjid Bunder while they were allegedly transporting 144 bottles of the medicine, worth Rs 14,256. The next day, the police caught two men who were inside a hired taxi in Kalbadevi with 1,800 bottles of cough syrup valued at Rs 1.8 lakh. In the most recent case, the Worli unit of ANC has seized 440 bottles of the medicine, worth Rs 88,000 from one person in Antop Hill.
In contrast, there was not a single seizure of cough syrup in south Mumbai in all of last year. The Azad Maidan unit, however, started 2018 by arresting two women peddling 1,500 bottles of the medicine valued at Rs 3 lakh. “The profile of those arrested is varied. Some are taxi drivers, a few work with catering companies, while the others are simply peddlers who only deal in cough syrup,” said a senior police officer.
According to the police, there are only five groups operating the supply chain of cough syrup in Mumbai. “The gangs always carry the contraband in hired taxis and prefer to use woman peddlers for transportation,” said the officer.
While the three major brands of cough syrup seized by the police are available over-the-counter at medical stores with a prescription, for not more than Rs 30 for a 200 ml bottle, the cost of a single unit in the black market has ballooned this year, ANC officials said. “The gangs operating in the black market procure cough syrup due to leaks at godowns where pharmaceutical companies store their stock. A single bottle of cough syrup now sells for at least Rs 200,” said the official.
The crime branch has attributed the spike in seizures to the previously easily available drugs, mephedrone and charas now becoming hard to source. As a result of a number of high-profile busts, involving peddling of mephedrone over the past two years, the distribution of the synthetic drug within the city limits is currently at a near-standstill, the police said.
“We are seeing peddlers in Mumbai being called to Mumbra and also to the state border with Gujarat to pick up consignments of mephedrone. No one wants to take the risk of carrying large quantities of mephedrone in Mumbai anymore. When we catch peddlers, we find that they carry very small quantities,” an official said. Supply of charas, mostly sourced from Jammu and Kashmir, has also dried up after the police went after peddlers hailing from the state over the past one year.
“Whatever little mephedrone is available now sells for more than Rs 2,000 per gram. When the drug was first found to be used in Mumbai, in 2013, it was sold at every street corner for about Rs 200 a gram,” the official added.
Shivdeep Lande, Deputy Commissioner of Police (ANC), said: “The increasing number of seizures of cough syrup points to high demand. It is possible that as other affordable drugs are not easily available now, habitual drugs users are turning to cough syrup.”
Following the seizures, the police have started talking to pharmaceutical companies asking them to keep an eye on local firms who they put on contract to supply the medication to medical stores and hospitals. “We have to plug the leak at the godowns in order to stop the easy flow of cough medicine to the black market,” said another ANC official.