INTOXICATION EXPRESS 03
Christina Albertin south Asia representative for UN office on drugs and crime
What is the UNODC doing about India’s drug scene?
We have a lot of policy dialogue with the government about the implementation of the three international drug control conventions, in force for more than 40 years — the first one came in 1961. These conventions say governments should pursue a balanced approach to dealing with drugs: addressing drug production, trafficking and use. In addition, in countries where it is applicable, we also support the government with technical assistance for their projects — upon their request.
How does the UNODC work on enforcement, awareness and treatment?
In the enforcement sector, we work with the Narcotics Control Bureau and the revenue department. We work on strengthening drug law enforcement structures across the region, not just with respect to the Indian government, because we work on transnational crime. Basically, it’s about strengthening capacities. For instance, we hold a computer-based training programme for law enforcement officials in India and the Maldives. This is an interactive programme designed to teach law enforcement concepts, based on global best practices. In advocacy, we are campaigning to raise awareness, with a focus on the Northeast. In prevention and treatment, we have been working with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. We are working with NACO on HIV prevention and care for injecting drug users.
Do you see India as a centre of manufacture or consumption? How has this changed over the past five years?
I wouldn’t like to qualify a country in that way. Globally, everybody looks at Afghanistan as a drug-producing country, forgetting that there are also a lot of drug users — because when there are so many drugs available there is a spillover effect. We discuss a lot with health and law enforcement authorities to help them understand that the problem has to be addressed comprehensively and in a balanced way.
What are the pros and cons of dealing with the Indian government? Has it moved on from earlier policies?
There is little comprehensive evidence on what has happened with drug use in India. There has been no drug use survey since 10 years ago. Experts say drug patterns and trends have changed vastly over time, but the policy response has not really been catching up with these trends. The drug legislations made in the 1980s still apply. There have been amendments in 2006 but otherwise it is the same Act.
What sort of legislative changes would you recommend?
Traditionally, when people talk about drugs they talk about opioids. But there are many synthetic drugs coming into India that people do not have as much awareness about. What we see in South Asia is also the use of prescription drugs. Here we see a big gap in the response in policy — not just in India, but worldwide. We don’t see it getting the response it should be given.
What about enforcement?
In general I think enforcement works quite well. But if you compare the seizures of heroin in India with that in Pakistan and Iran, they are relatively small. We estimate that seizures account for 10 percent of the drugs in the market. So I think the enforcement agencies work relatively well in India. Laws and processes are in place.
You estimated that authorities here seize only 10 percent of the drugs in the market. Is this the percentage estimate for seizures around the world?
The general assumption by Customs authorities is that the seizure is 10 percent of trafficked drugs. But in Latin America the authorities have been strengthened so much — by technology and training — that the seizures are assumed to be 20 percent of the drugs traded. So the authorities can improve their efficiency with respect to enforcement — especially since criminal drug networks also evolve at a rapid rate.
You focus on AfPak heroin. What about the stuff made and supplied in India?
That’s a very good question. According to our studies we know 95 percent heroin supplied to the world market comes from Afghanistan and Pakistan and the remaining comes from Southeast Asia, mainly Myanmar. We know that India has a legal opium industry, and other poppy cultivations have also been detected. We have spoken to the government about doing an in-depth study on these illicit poppy cultivations. But there is a gap in the knowledge of where the opium and heroin consumed in India is coming from. We are beginning this research now.
What were the key points on India in the UNODC 2010 World Drug Report?
There has been a surge of amphetamines and synthetic drugs, and also in the use of Internet pharmacies in India for the smuggling of synthetic drugs. These were the two major things.
Have you spoken to the government about having another national drug user survey after 2001?
Yes we have. They have asked us for advice. And they want to share with us the results of a pilot they have done for such a survey — to see if they can replicate this pilot across the country. So they have started the process. Then we can give them some assistance with the sampling when they go for the nationwide survey. But it will take some time, because India is a vast country with diverse populations. I fear it might take about three years.
TEHELKA’s cover story (Hurricane Heroin, 29 January) detected a huge shift — from diversion of licit opium to cultivating illicit poppy. What change in approach should the agencies make?
We have also heard that poppy cultivation is spreading quite a bit. There’s also a tradition of opium consumption in India. Worldwide, we have been helping governments to gather the information and the dimensions of the problem. We do surveys on poppy cultivation. We identify heroin routes. The end of the production chain is often a small farmer — who has to be provided alternative livelihood. In India, until recently, the question of illicit poppy cultivation hasn’t really come up. Now since you have reported this, it might come up with the Indian government and we are ready to assist so that they can learn more about how to do a satellite survey — and to look into alternative crop options for the farmers growing the poppy.
‘There is a surge in the use of amphetamines and synthetic drugs, and also in the use of Internet pharmacies in India’
Today heroin made in India is of low purity. Is it possible for Indian traffickers to make heroin that matches the purity of AfPak heroin?
Hopefully this will not happen because stocks in Afghanistan are high enough to cater to the world market. I have not heard of evidence that AfPak-like heroin is being produced in India.
Is a syndicate controlling heroin hubs in India?
That is a major concern. More than local drug production we look at transnational networks. We look at forces that drive the trade as well as forces that use the money for other purposes like terrorist activities. Often we have small drug peddlers being caught — whereas most member states do not yet have the capacity to deal with transnational organised crime networks.
Have you detected the presence of such networks in India?
We have detected the presence of transnational networks in the trafficking of heroin and amphetamines. Cannabis is grown all over the place so you don’t need big organised crime routes. But for heroin there are routes which go to Sri Lanka, and even to the Maldives, from where it might well also go in the future to places in Africa.