The drug scene in India


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TRADITIONALLY, Indian cultural diversity successfully handled the varied associations with mind-altering substances among its people without excessive use becoming a cause of major concern. With the entry of tourists from western countries in the 1960s, the association with cannabis became glamorous and the demand from wealthy tourists increased the profit margins of petty peddlers. In the eighties, derivative drugs began to replace natural drugs in the cities. During this period, a set of new legislative measures against drugs, based on the Single Convention of 1961 came to be enforced.

Human behaviour cannot be isolated from the social, cultural and environmental reality surrounding it. While objective reality is related to the processes of production, subjectivity is the experience of individuals that shapes their worldview and lifestyle. Both these realities form the basis for social action.

Earlier, society was self-regulating and did not need precise rules for effective drug control. Drug consumption was carried out openly, legitimised by cultural norms and restricted by traditional demand. It was also free of underground dealings. With the intervention of the U.S., however, indigenous controls have been displaced by a single model, developed for the West. In the Indian context, instead of reducing drug supply, the imposition of this model has resulted in the replacement of culturally sanctioned use by secular use and of traditional suppliers by criminal networks.

The natural psycho-active plants commonly found in India include cannabis, poppy, khat and datura. Cannabis and opium are part of the cultural and religious elements in India, used and kept under control for thousands of years. The international community, however, views these two drugs as particularly troublesome. Cannabis is processed into three main products before it is consumed: bhang, ganja (marijuana) and charas (Chopra, 1990). Opium use flourished despite invasions from Alexander to the Mughals; it was finally monopolised by the British. It takes many forms from being blown through a hubble bubble pipe (hukka) as madak to being brewed with tea as bonda chai.



Drugs in India have medicinal, social, functional and regional uses. These are embedded within its complex cultural fabric. Despite several races, religions and sub-sects, 18 languages and 1,652 mother tongues, Indian culture has formed an identity over the years, which remains dynamic, symbolising cultural continuity and a unified principle of consciousness. This inner structure of tradition contributed towards the growth of a unified worldview, projecting an image of unity in value structures, ritual styles and systems of beliefs.

The early stage of influence of the cultural structure was characterised by Sanskritisation of the little traditions, creating a cultural renaissance of the great tradition. The period under the British brought in legislation and systemic change, but only at a superficial level.

The present phase of modernisation is the most challenging period for Indian tradition, with multiple structural inconsistencies such as democratisation without spread of civic culture (education), bureaucratisation without commitment to universal norms, rise in media participation (communication) and rising expectations without a proportionate increase in resources and distributive justice, verbalisation of welfare ideology without its diffusion in the social structure and its implementation as social policy, over-urbanisation without industrialisation, and finally, modernisation without meaningful changes in the stratification system of castes. It is within this context of emerging changes and tensions that drug abuse and trafficking must be considered.

British policy with regard to poppy cultivation in India was linked to its trade relations with China, whose staple export commodity was tea. Since the British had developed a taste for tea, by 1785 the East India Company was buying and selling 15 million pounds of China tea per year. The problem in trade arose because Britain had no commodity to sell in return to China. This situation led to aggressive sales of opium to China.

The new business strategy changed the earlier association with poppy and cannabis. Unlike poppy, cannabis can be grown anywhere in India; in some regions it grows wild, which has made it difficult to effectively control cultivation. The British went about opium trading, systematically controlling cultivation, consumption, production and sale within the country and its export. Production, however, did not exceed demand, ensuring that profit margins were kept high.

When the locals saw the huge revenue generated by the British from poppy cultivation, their perception changed. A profitable cash crop now, opium became a viable commodity for sale. This facilitated illicit cultivation as well as smuggling of opium across native states and from provinces to the native states.



A widely felt change since Independence has been secular drug use (devoid of cultural or religious significance). Traditional forms of control have dwindled. The reasons can be traced to the onslaught of western tourists in the 1960s and ’70s, the implementation of new drug laws in the 1980s, and liberalisation in the 1990s – structural adjustment – which has led to the marginalisation of large sectors of the population and pushed some of them to adopt drug use and sale as a coping mechanism.

Meanwhile, the new legislation criminalised drug use, pushing users and suppliers underground. The simultaneous influence of secular drug use and commercial drug suppliers in a context of widespread poverty and desperation, and in some areas of political conflict, has paved the way for the spread of heroin, mostly in cities.

The case of alcohol after Independence provides an interesting illustration of the links between changes in the drug scene and legislation. While cannabis and opium products were made illegal throughout India, alcohol has remained legal in many states. Further, the government has taken measures to make it more easily available and to promote its sale, though under the influence of Gandhian philosophy, some states outlawed alcohol.



In a new move towards drug control, the Government of India shut down outlets supplying opium for oral consumption in 1959. At the same time, with the ever-increasing need for revenue, state governments promoted the sale of alcohol to raise tax revenue. In 1979, in order to increase the demand for alcohol, the Government of Maharashtra (GoM) took measures to make alcohol more easily accessible. A large number of licences, allowing tea stalls and eating-houses to sell liquor from 6 pm to 11 pm, were issued. Since the ’80s, industrial night shift workers and college students became the new target group and several bars remain open till 4 am. In the year 2000, the GoM raked in Rs 1900 crore as taxes from alcohol.

Western tourists tipped up the scales for cannabis. Their demand modified the traditional association with drugs that existed in India, roping in several Indian youngsters. It became a sought after substance in certain strata of society. With higher profit margins, and the demand coming from comparatively richer consumers, cannabis laid the dragnet for many traders.



The present drug control strategy of India can be traced back to the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs of 1961. This was enforced in December 1964 and amended in 1972. The developing countries became puppets in the hands of U.S., via the UN. Increasingly we witnessed the incursion of international drug legislation into the national scene as aid became conditional on countries accepting the U.S. inspired drug laws. This threat was posed (among others) to Nepal when it refused to implement national drug laws modelled on international requirements.

Finally, in 1981, the member states formulated the International Drug Control Strategy that was supposed to cover all aspects of the drug issue: abuse, trafficking, treatment, rehabilitation and crop substitution. In 1984, though the member states pledged to include economic, social and culturally relevant alternative programmes, they had no strategy on how to deal with problems arising from the criminalisation of centuries-old cultural habits in India.

Nevertheless, the Indian government enacted the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, (NDPS Act), which did not take into account the Indian situation and its plural cultures. The NDPS Act was designed to conform to the Single Convention of 1961, which the Indian government had signed in 1964. India subscribed to the international goal of eradicating all cultural uses of cannabis within a 25-year period. Since the decision was taken without any planning, little or no attention was given to the methods used to achieve the stated goals and implications. There was no real public debate on the new legislation, and it was adopted without much research.

The government’s mismanagement has led to the leakage of opium produced from licit to illicit channels. After the enactment of the NDPS Act in 1985, there has been an attempt to reduce the area of cultivation. However, high yielding varieties of poppy had been introduced, producing over 42 kg of opium per hectare, whereas the official computation of productivity remained for long at 28 kg per hectare. Further, there was a decrease in the floor purchase price of opium from Rs 280 to Rs 270 per kilo, inducing the farmers to divert sales to drug traffickers instead. Finally, the commission payable to the lambardars (agents who buy opium from the farmers and sell to the government) was reduced from 3.5% to 0.75%. This also gave the agents an incentive to sell opium to the traffickers.



Fresh legislation changed the face of drug trade. With criminalisation, the sale of cannabis/opium became as risky as that of modern drugs such as heroin, if not more. While some traders left for safer pastures, others took to selling hard drugs. A few traders continued to sell cannabis and opium on a small scale and refused to deal with heroin.

However, with an increase in profit margins, new traders appeared among the marginalised sections of society who started dealing in brown sugar heroin (a crude form of the opiate). Addiction to brown sugar set off a chain reaction and helped increase its price. Marketing strategies were established to popularise the drug. This paved the way for a shift from traditional drugs to heroin and other non-traditional substances such as pharmaceutical opiates.



In no country can the modern drug scene be studied in isolation from national developmental dynamics. Drug production, trafficking and use are often linked to the process of marginalisation. Prior to the ’80s, India’s economy was highly regulated. After the initial phase of liberalisation in the ’80s, the country recorded a GNP growth of over 5% a year. However, while the economy was growing, the government gave low priority to improving income distribution.

Out of the present labour force, only 8.5% belong to the organised sector, which means that they have job security and are protected by unions. By and large, unorganised sector workers are self-employed or work as casual labourers in agriculture, construction work and other industrial occupations.

The New Economic Policy (1991), made the labour force and the poorer sections of society even more vulnerable. It weakened the bargaining power of labour and expanded the unorganised sector, thus creating a buyer’s labour market. The spill over from the organised to the unorganised sector has increased in all industries including primary manufacturing, construction, trade and commerce, transport, storage and communication. Job cuts are characteristic of this move. The voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) is another farce. The large number of workers retrenched through VRS have little to look forward to for their chances of finding a new job are negligible.

The introduction of structural adjustment in India as per the dictates of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund has led to many poor urban dwellers becoming marginalised, resorting to drug abuse and petty crime, and to alternative lifestyles as a coping mechanism. In addition, some unemployed youth have joined the ranks of organised crime as enforcers, debt collectors and hired killers. The press has published accounts of hired killers in Mumbai, below the age of 24, with no prior record of criminal activity.

Another consequence of the liberalisation of trade was to push the networks that specialised in smuggling legal goods subjected to stiff import restrictions into switching to new products, mainly drugs and arms. These generate high profit margins because of their illegal status for those who trade in them. The switch allowed organised crime to both maintain its revenue base and to adapt to the new economic environment.



Internal strife within a country is often linked to the spread of drug use. India is no exception. India’s geographical location between the two leading producers of illegal opiates in the world, the Golden Crescent (especially Afghanistan) to the West and the Golden Triangle (especially Burma) to the East, both of which have been entangled in armed conflicts for years, has also facilitated the emergence of drug trafficking.

In 1979, India came into the newly-drawn heroin map as a consequence of the Islamic revolution, the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and the restoration of military rule in Pakistan that disturbed and diverted heroin smuggling networks. Another change in the geopolitical situation was the turmoil in Sri Lanka and the involvement of several militant groups with drug trafficking in India.

Political unrest within India, around the northeastern states and the Jammu-Kashmir border, also account for drug problems. The national policy of repression using the army and other enforcement agencies in these areas for nearly four decades has contributed to both transforming the nature of conflict and the proliferation of small arms in the region. Incidentally, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur are the main states notified for illicit cultivation.

In 1999, when Indian authorities constructed an electrified fence along the India-Pakistan border in Punjab and parts of Rajasthan, traffickers in heroin, hashish and acetic anhydride turned to unprotected Jammu and Kashmir. Now, with a view to preventing arms-cum-drugs trafficking, the Indian government is building another fence along the Jammu and Kashmir border. Little do we realise that as long as the conflicts persist, this area will continue to be affected by drug trafficking.

Political disturbances do not occur in a vacuum. When a region craves for independence, vested interests or negligence from the centre sometimes leads to deprivation. This was clearly the case in the North East – a region whose underdevelopment is exacerbated by violent conflict, closing down of educational institutions and so on. In this situation of heightened insecurity, even school children have turned to drugs. The rate of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection has only added to the problems since, like other facilities, health care is insufficient to meet the needs of the people.



One can only hypothesise that drug trafficking is linked to sub-nationalist movements in India (cf. publications of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi). It may also be applicable to some of the mass movements from the second half of the 1980s. It is conceded that in order to finance their political movement against the state, insurgent groups need a commodity that can be bartered, and drugs are especially suited to that purpose.

All in all, these conflicts have facilitated the smuggling of heroin from multiple sources, thereby multi-plying potential sources of supply within India. Although a hard-to-quantify proportion of the heroin smuggled into India is re-exported abroad, it seems reasonable to assume that some of it becomes available for Indian consumers. As more heroin becomes available, more incentives are generated to become involved in selling it in the domestic consumer market. Therefore, a ‘pressure of supply’ is generated on the domestic consumer market, first in the areas of conflict and then in the country at large. The pressure of supply is coupled with a strong pressure of demand resulting from the poor and stressful living conditions of the population of the areas of conflict, especially the young.



A peculiar system of supply and demand that characterises the Indian drug market is that the users and traders are often the same. To fund their drug consumption many users commit petty crimes, such as theft. Many have resorted to selling drugs in order to bankroll their own habit. The outcome is to multiply sources of supply at the retail level, thereby increasing the chances that more people will become addicted, and resort to crime and peddling to fund their habit.

The drug scene in Mumbai provides a good illustration of the situation prevailing in most Indian cities. In the late sixties, heroin use in Mumbai was restricted to the circles of the rich since it was expensive to buy. However, around 1979, No 3 heroin (brown sugar) began to be marketed. The shift to the sale of brown sugar was mainly because of the criminalisation of cannabis and opium. Selling brown sugar is less risky than selling opium or cannabis since it is less bulky and easier to hide, and the profit margins accruing from its trade are much higher than for traditional drugs.



Marginalised users are the main victims of drug use. When their daily heroin intake becomes impossible to afford, users get involved in rag picking, begging or manual labour. Another widespread means of earning a living is by stealing. Petty drug peddling has become an all-important source of income for some users. Some become regular assistants to peddlers, often receiving drugs, food and a place to sleep in return. They may eventually discontinue the habit as a result of friction between the police and the petty peddlers under whom they work.

It is the purchaser or the intermediary who arranges for the sale of stolen goods. They can make better deals since they are aware of the desperate need of users for the drug. One user explained that it was difficult for them to pretend to be ordinary vendors because they sell their goods only when they are in urgent need of money for drugs, and seldom wait for a good bargain. Besides, they are afraid of being noticed by the police as they carry telltale signs of their habit: black marks on their fingers (resulting from burns from the match sticks used to heat up the heroin).

The sale of stolen goods, though on a small scale, is on a continuous basis, and can be a financially viable proposition for the buyer. While poor users do face problems when they become marginalised, the process of marginalisation can be extremely painful to persons from the richer strata of society, who find it extremely difficult to adjust to the realities of street life in India.

Drug users make up a substantial proportion of the petty thieves ‘working’ in the city, but they are seldom arrested nowadays. As a result of past ‘bad experiences’ in the lockup with users undergoing withdrawal symptoms (some users broke light bulbs and swallowed the pieces, others ate lizards etc.) the police tend to avoid arresting them for fear of having to rush them to hospital.

In addition, some users have died in custody. Others have developed a strategy to avoid arrest altogether: they slash themselves with a razor blade, usually on the chest or hands. They use a new blade each time for this purpose since they say ‘it is safer’. Police officers are put off by such seemingly ‘crazy’ behaviour and would rather avoid having to deal with it. Another strategy that users have developed in order to avoid the police is to apply human excreta or filth from the gutters onto their bodies.



While many policy-makers advocate tougher law enforcement, few have bothered to understand the extent to which lives are wrecked through the criminalisation of drug use. Previously, the users avoided creating trouble to society. When new legal sanctions came up, antisocial activities became rampant, depending on the extent of their craving. The move towards a drug free existence is a long term process depending upon the user and cannot be attained merely through enforcement.

By criminalising culturally sanctioned drug use and supply, the new legislation has left users free to establish their own individual norms regarding use, and paved the way for an exclusively for-profit motive on the part of the suppliers. Under a prohibition regime, profits become substantial because drug delivery happens despite the law. The special abilities required to do this on a continuous basis usually belong to organised crime.



Organised crime in India was not born out of the drug trade but out of the national tariff barriers, foreign exchange and import restrictions that existed before the introduction of the new economic policies of liberalisation. Thus, Indian import policy left loopholes for illegal trade. In the case of gold, India did not have commercial links with its largest supplier – South Africa. It was then channelled through third countries on its way here. Illegal channels got strengthened with the Gold Control Act. This created its own infrastructure and related services, such as transporters, landing specialists, couriers and money holders, which in turn facilitated the development of other forms of smuggling. With the demand for other foreign consumer goods, with the ‘imported quality’ prestige that the Indian middle class attached to Taiwan, Japan and Singapore-made, the underworld geared itself to cater to these needs.

But with liberalisation of trade and the lowering of barriers previous profit margins plummeted and the players disappeared, but the infrastructure remained intact. So when brown sugar emerged in a early eighties, the freeway was already available.

For nearly five decades centralised planning following the model of the USSR was the rule in India, allowing strong bonding between business, bureaucratic and political interests. Initially, politicians accused the bureaucracy of corruption; then it was the other way round. Now it is commonly accepted that there is collusion and a shared interest between the two parties. However, all agree that government control of the issuing of licences and permits for entrepreneurial activity bred corruption and eroded numerous institutions of governance.

Though there are no records to prove this, there is a widespread feeling that criminals have entered the electoral fray. Some well known organised crime figures have sought status and respectability by getting involved in politics, and in some cases have won elections. The net result has been the entrenchment, within the bureaucracy and the political system, of a set of interests linked to organised crime, and therefore, probably, to the drug trade.



The current drug scene is characterised by the continuing presence of traditional substances which can be used for either cultural or secular purposes, and the spread of new products, all of which are used in a secular way. The use of opiates is evident in parts of the country such as the cities, tourists spots, some border areas and areas located near poppy crops or manufactures of opiates. In India, the commonly used derivatives of opium for non-medical purposes are morphine, brown sugar, pure heroin and codeine.

In three states of North East India, No 4 heroin, smuggled from Burma where it is manufactured on a large scale, is taken through intravenous injection. This region of India has the highest incidence of HIV infection among drug users, mostly youngsters. Their life reels under strict military control, imposition of a curfew after 6 pm. The situation is so bad that some start using heroin at age nine.

Brown sugar had not appeared till 1978; earlier studies do not even include brown sugar in the interview schedule. In the early eighties brown sugar emerged in Kashmir, Bhubaneshwar, Madras, Coimbatore, Pune, Hyderabad, Goa and Bombay. By 1990, it was available in all state capitals. From a phenomenon that began in the metropolitan cities and tourist spots, the use of crude heroin soon spread to newly industrialised district capitals and towns along major train/bus routes. Border villages lying on trafficking routes were also affected. For instance, there are patients coming to Chennai for treatment from the fishing communities of coastal Tamilnadu located on major international heroin trafficking routes.



Besides heroin, abuse of pharmaceutical drugs has become common in certain parts of the country. The lack of proper procedures in the treatment of drug abuse has created a situation where addicts buy prescription drugs over the counter for self-medication and self-detoxification without proper guidance. This leads to a different kind of addiction. The abuse of pharmaceutical drugs among women is more common than the use of substances such as heroin and cannabis products chiefly because pharmaceutical drugs are purchased from legitimate sources and can be consumed under the guise of treatment for an illness. Pharmaceutical companies can market a product for a short span of time (two to three years), and subsequently withdraw it when the adverse effects generate criticism. However, in the process they retain the ability to market a ‘drug’ and yet be clean in the eye of the law.

At present in the rural parts of India, cultural norms are still the order of the day; the question is how long this constructive form can last out against the attack of commercial trafficking networks. It is feared that the criminalisation in the cities and the North East will be replicated in these parts. And with many users vulnerable to HIV, the chances are that this reality will remain hidden.