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Friday, January 21, 2022

Narcotics nexus

India has become a significant hub on the international narcotics supply map, given the ease of procuring chemicals, manufacturing drugs and transporting it to foreign locales. MOHAMED THAVER looks at the factors behind the growth of this network and how govt agencies are cracking down on it.

Written by Mohamed Thaver | Mumbai |
Updated: January 3, 2022 8:18:40 am
(Clockwise from top left) At a farmhouse in Kolhapur in November 2021, where meth was being cooked using chemicals from a nearby factory that had been sealed; amphetamine hidden in a helmet to be sent to Australia. (Express)

In mid-December, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) registered six cases in Mumbai pertaining to narcotics like amphetamine, opium and prescription drugs like Zolpidem tablets being sent to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Maldives, USA, Dubai and Switzerland through courier. The contraband was hidden in various articles like stethoscope packets, cycling helmets and bangle consignments.

Officials said that amphetamines – that are used to make methamphetamine — that are produced in Northeastern states like Manipur are also much in demand in Myanmar.

The NCB had then said that for countries like Australia, New Zealand and USA, where there is strict monitoring of chemical procurement and pharmaceuticals, India makes for a convenient supplier of drugs due to its comparative lack of strict regulation and cheap labour.

India being the largest manufacturer of generic drugs in the world also increases the chances of diversion of the drugs for recreational purposes.

These coupled with an easy route – courier services and international post – enable local fly-by-night operators, even chemistry graduates, to become international suppliers and earn at least Rs 10-15 lakh per month.

Several of the ingredients used to make synthetic drugs like meth and mephedrone are controlled substances — meaning that a licence is required from agencies ranging from the NCB, Food and Drug Administration, health department to procure them. Nearly 90 per cent of the chemicals needed to make meth are controlled substances. However, since these are all “dual use” chemicals, they cannot be banned.

For example, some of the chemicals needed to make ephedrine – which can be eventually used to make meth – are also used to make cold medication. “You cannot ban it, but only restrict its use. People find a way to procure it by claiming to require it for any number of reasons,” the official said.

Once the chemicals are procured, the drugs can be produced in an 8X10 foot room with the necessary equipment, called “kitchen labs”. Most drug networks conduct fly-by-night operations using staff including a “chemist” from outside the state and renting a dilapidated or unused factory from among the several hundred in industrial complexes like Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) and Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC).

“Work is done at night, using labour from southern states, who have no clue about the location of the factory. After two weeks of cooking drugs, they disperse,” a senior official said. There are no permanent industries and no local people are used, who can tip off others.

Officials believe that it is this lack of regulation coupled with cheap labour that is making India a go-to place for several drug networks across the world to purchase chemicals or synthetic drugs. “Owing to smaller populations and relatively fewer factories abroad, enforcement is much more stringent there. Checks and regulations are stringent. There are few factories that are not tracked. With the chaotic situation in India, it becomes much easier to manufacture these drugs,” the official added.

Australia and New Zealand, where amphetamine is in high demand, rely on India. “The demand is so high that in a country like Australia, if you can land 1 kg of amphetamine, it is worth Rs 5 crore,” an official said.

The official said that from India, either amphetamine is sent abroad — like in the NCB case last month — or ephedrine — which is a precursor (an ingredient used in drugs) for making methamphetamine — is sent. While ephedrine does not come under narcotics, it is a “controlled substance” for which one needs a licence.

In 2016, the Thane police busted a factory, Avon Lifesciences in Solapur, where they claimed to have seized ephedrine worth Rs 2000 crore. This ephedrine was being sent to African countries like Kenya to make meth. It was part of the major Akasha network, which then sold it in the US.

In December 2018, the ANC seized 100 kg of a precursor of Fentanyl, a potent pain killer abused as a recreational drug, worth Rs 1,000 crore that was meant for Mexico from Mumbai. It was to be processed into Fentanyl tablets and smuggled into the US. The DRI, too, had in 2018 busted a factory in Indore where they arrested three persons including a Mexican national with 10 kg of Fentanyl that was to be shipped to Mexico and subsequently to the US.

An official said, “Till a few years ago, China was the hub of these chemical supplies to places like Mexico. However, due to a crackdown there, India, where the conditions are apt for production, diversion and supply of chemicals globally, is making it to the top.”

Apart from the chemicals used to manufacture expensive synthetic drugs, another major headache for law enforcement agencies is the diversion of medicines for misuse for recreational purposes among lower income groups.

Of the seizures made by the NCB earlier in December, 10,000 Zolpidem tablets – meant for treatment of insomnia but abused for recreation purposes — hidden in eatables and grocery were headed to the US. An official said, “Codeine, alprazolam, diazepam tablets are abused on a major scale. Codeine is a major issue in slum areas, with one bottle as cheap as Rs 125 for a hit,” the official said.

He added that a major chunk of these medicines is diverted illegally while on way from Baddi, an industrial town home for major pharmaceutical companies in Himachal Pradesh, where there are several such factories. From there it is smuggled to Vapi and Mumbai.

“Unfortunately, even courts do not take the issues of codeine abuse as seriously as other drugs,” the official added.

Apart from the relative ease of procuring chemicals and manufacturing drugs, another factor that completes the network of supplying drugs abroad is the ease of transporting it to foreign locales. Several officials from drug enforcement agencies told The Indian Express that using couriers and international post to send narcotics abroad has made their job difficult, especially since most narcotics ordered through the dark web also come in couriers.

“Unless we have a tip-off that a particular person is carrying narcotics to the airport, it is difficult to track narcotics sent via cargo, given how well they are hidden,” an official said. The same issue of identifying narcotics plagues courier companies and international post that are being used regularly to supply drugs.

DCP (ANC) Datta Nalawade said he has asked his units to coordinate with courier companies under their jurisdiction. “We have told them to sensitise courier companies and inform them about what to look for in suspicious packages,” Nalawade said.

One of the biggest reasons for using post to supply drugs is that it is difficult to identify which parcels have drugs in them. “Metal detectors will not be able to identify narcotics, nor would scanners. They are concealed very well in other articles. In some cases, hydroponic weed was marked as ’emergency food’ or green tea. LSD looks no different from a cardboard sheet,” an official said. The NCB has asked these couriers to put CCTV cameras, scanners and ensure all KYC documents are sought before taking delivery.

Sources, however, said that courier companies are not as helpless in all cases and in some situations there is active negligence on their part. In a case busted by NCB recently, they found that instead of the address of the sender, a Dongri-based courier company branch had used the KYC of one of its employees and posed as receivers themselves. “They may do this to ensure they don’t have to lose business, but we have warned them that they could land in trouble if narcotics are found in the parcel,” the official said.

An official from the postal department told The Indian Express that in cases where they receive specific tip-offs from DRI or NCB to detain an article, they do so. “However, apart from that our role is that of a carrier and what goes in the parcels is not a priority.

Also, we are not equipped to scan it as only a few of our 1.5 lakh post offices across the country have scanners. In cases where large parcels are sent abroad, we ask the person to declare the goods,” the official said requesting anonymity.

An employee of a courier company from Andheri told The Indian Express, “Whenever I find a parcel suspicious, I ask the person to open it up. We have the authority to do so. If the person is unwilling, we do not take their order. Apart from this, all our parcels gather at Sakinaka where they are scanned.”

He added, “If a box full of drugs is sent, I could be at fault for not checking. But in several cases it is hidden in layers of clothing or other things and is difficult to spot.”

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