“I told my mother I would kill her. And I really meant it,” says 21-year-old Raghav (name changed) when he was caught by his mother with a packet of Mephedrone in his pocket. When she tried to throw away the packet, he almost attacked her.
The incident occurred when Raghav was a 19-year-old first year commerce student at a renowned Mumbai college. His tryst with drugs began at the age of 16 with cocaine and crystal methamphetamine (crystal meth). Gradually, he became a diehard addict of the cheaper yet equally potent substitute of cocaine — Mephedrone (scientific name 4-methyl methcathinone) popularly known as M-cat or Meow Meow. It was also observed that the body of regular users stinks of cat urine.
A Mumbai-based senior official of Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) explains on condition of anonymity, “Mephedrone was invented as a replacement for MDMA or crystal meth as it is a costly drug, used only by the elite and rich. Mephedrone has gained market share in a very short span and is in high demand among youth as it is cheap and gives the same high as cocaine.”
Today, Raghav is clean. The addiction only stopped after he underwent a stint in a rehabilitation centre. But what will always remain with him is a harrowing tale of addiction to the most sought after recreational drug in the market. It is still silently destroying the lives of many in the country.
When Raghav used Meow-Meow for the first time, it was not by design — he went to his peddler to get cocaine but returned with M-cat as it gives the same ‘high’ but is extremely dangerous for the body and mind of the user. Narrating his experience to Tehelka, he says, “Ï just went mad with this drug. I used to score it from the peddlers in Colaba, Bandra and Worli. They are generally located in shady areas of the city but when a user needs his/her dose, he/she hardly cares about the dangers involved in going to such places alone. M-cat makes you think that you can do anything. Its high makes you feel that you have immense power and you can beat up 10 men at a time.”
Raghav says that once he was addicted to Meow-Meow, he could kick the habit only after undergoing a painful process. “It was really difficult to get off M-cat addiction. When I stopped using it, my behaviour became totally abnormal. I became very violent and used to abuse my friends and family. The craving for the drug when you don’t use it in time is so irresistible that it messes up your mental balance. For a long time, I used to get irritated without any reason. I weigh 64 kg now but when I was a user my weight was around 30 kg. I was a living skeleton,” said Raghav.
Raghav used to take M-cat almost on daily basis. He once took the drug continuously for three days and three nights. “I don’t even remember half the things I did when I was high. During my final exams of BCom first year, the drug craving overpowered me in the middle of an exam and I had to go to the washroom ‘to do a line’ (snort or inhale the drug via nose). That is when I realised I need help,” he recalls.
Raghav’s biggest regret is that his parents suffered the most because of his addiction. “I used to scream at them, verbally abuse them, and was even violent with them physically. They saw my worst side but still they didn’t give up on me and supported me till I came out of that hell.”
M-Cat is also called a zombie drug as sometimes after its use, nails and lips of the user get a bluish shade; snorting it many times makes the nose bleed, which gives the user the look of a dead man walking. This ‘look’ is glorified in night clubs, where young users are pretty excited about flaunting the zombie look.
An NCB official says India is a source country that produces M-cat. It is widely manufactured illegally in Maharashtra and Gujarat. “Pharmaceutical factories in these two states are producing ephedrine not only for medicines but also for the Mephedrone which is banned under NDPS Act. Twenty percent of the production is diverted by these medical companies to drug mafias; in fact, some of them are producing M-cat on their own and supplying it in the market through peddlers,” the official says.
“This drug is produced on large scale, from pharmaceutical companies to small labs. Although seizures have been made, it is getting produced massively and is a great menace,” he adds.
Even more difficult to trace are online sales. There are drug companies selling Mephedrone, Ecstasy, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) on the Internet. Silk Road Pharmacy is one such company which says it is a Pakistani firm. Its website claims it can supply illegal drugs all over the world. It openly boasts of being able to get the drug through airport customs by packing the drug parcels carefully with tungsten and carbon paper overlaid with gift packaging.
Thirty-one year old Shekhar (name changed), who got over his drug addiction and works with Muktangan Rehabilitation Centre in Pune, was an addict for six years. Hailing from Indore in Madhya Pradesh, he started smoking at the young age of 13, moving on to alcohol, brown sugar and finally to Mephedrone in a short period of time. His addiction got him involved in criminal activities — he became a pickpocket and professional chain-snatcher only to fund his drug habit. He became a chronic addict, ready to go to any extent to get his daily fix.
Shekhar said, “I belong to a middle class family where not a single person is into any kind of substance abuse. But I became a drug addict. I started drinking alcohol when I was in Class 8 due to peer pressure. I was caught by my parents so I stopped drinking alcohol and shifted to narcotics and psychotropic substances as their use is harder to detect. In the year 2006, I was first introduced to Mephedrone by a friend from Mumbai. In those days it was not a banned drug and very few people knew that something like Meow-Meow exists.”
Shekhar said that Mephedrone also gained popularity because of impurities in other form of drugs such as brown sugar or heroin as withdrawal from binges was fraught with danger. “When I had Meow-Meow for the first time in 2005-06, I think it was in its purest form, bluish in colour. But now it has become so popular that some people I know are making it at home and selling it. It has become a lab drug now. Even a BSc student with a little knowledge of chemicals can make it at home,” says Shekhar.
M-cat has a higher number of female users compared to other drugs such as cocaine or heroin. This may be because it is regarded as an aphrodisiac or as an aid to losing weight
Interestingly, the presence of Mephedrone in India as an abusive substance was officially recognized only five years ago. Initially, it was not banned under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. It was blacklisted only after Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Yusuf Merchant brought it to public notice. In December 2014, he filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to bring Mephedrone under the category of banned substances. Within 3-4 months, his plea was accepted.
Dr Merchant runs the Drug Abuse Information Rehabilitation and Research Centre in Mumbai and has been working in this field since 1983. “Some three-and-a-half years ago, patients in the age group of 13-14 years started coming to my rehabilitation centre. These young kids were some of the first Mephedrone addicts I came across. They had become very aggressive in nature because of continuous drug abuse. I came to know from them that they used to order the drug via Internet. It was sold by various websites in the guise of bath salt and plant fertiliser. But at that time there was not much information and awareness about the drug,” said Merchant.
“This was the time the police was also catching a lot of cocaine-like white powder which was actually M-cat. It was not illegal and was not even under NDPS, which was the reason behind its easy accessibility. This needed to be stopped and I filed the PIL to get it under NDPS Act as the substance is lethal,” added Dr Merchant.
According to him, the initial supplies of M-cat came from China; now, it gets produced in India as well. Three chemicals which are required for the production of M-cat are ephedrine, potassium permanganate and bromine. He said, “Whoever is producing ephedrine these days is intending to use it for the production of M-cat.”
Easy to hide
M-cat is abused via snorting, injecting and sometimes even in capsules. Dr Merchant says it gained popularity among youngsters not only because it is cheap but also because it is a short-action drug. He said, “Generally, youngsters do not want themselves to be caught by their parents in an inebriated state. This fear of being caught makes them avoid going home after drinking or taking cocaine or, for that matter, using any narcotics which are going to keep them high for a long time. But they can go home after taking M-cat as its high only stays for 45 minutes and it is hard to detect the effect after that. But when the high starts fading, users start getting paranoid and take more of it. This tendency is called ‘moreism’ and is the reason for the addiction.”
M-cat is more acidic in nature than cocaine and hence causes nose-bleed even after snorting just a few times. In case of cocaine, this happens only after regular and prolonged use of some 8-10 months.
According to drug experts, M-cat is the only drug which has a higher number of female users in comparison to other drugs such as cocaine or heroin. An expert based in Mumbai reveals on condition of anonymity, “It is an aphrodisiac. Many young boys give it to their girlfriends so that they can get a ‘chance’ with them. This is considered one of the reasons behind the large number of female users.”
However, a female user who doesn’t wish to be identified had a different opinion on M-cat’s popularity among girls. She said, “Girls do enjoy the high of Meow-Meow but many of them are using it to get slim as it reduces one’s weight tremendously in a short span of time.”
Prasad Oak, an anti-drug crusader based in Pune, informs that Mephedrone was first manufactured in 1929 in the US; it again came in to prominence when it was rediscovered in Israel in the year 2003.
He said, “This drug has cathinone compound which is found in a plant known as Khat in Africa. Although it has been banned in more than 50 countries across the world, its market is never down.”
A senior official of Mumbai Police’s Anti-Narcotics Cell says, “M-cat has become one of the most lethal drugs in the country and many youngsters are getting addicted to it. Almost all departments, right from Narcotics Control Bureau to local police stations are trying to curb the rising menace of Meow-Meow by taking strict action against people involved in the drug trade but still there is no dearth of suppliers in the market. It is getting produced in tonnes and there are lots of ephedrine-producing medical companies who are making wrong use of it by providing it for the production of Meow-Meow.”
The police seems to have been doing its job. Big seizures of ephedrine took place in Maharashtra in recent years. Its manufacture is not illegal as it is used for producing medicines but it is illegal to sell it or use it for drug abuse.
In April 2016, around 18.6 tonnes of ephedrine amounting to Rs 2,000 crore was seized by Thane police from a factory located at MIDC area (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation) of Solapur district. The factory was running illegally for more than a year and was producing ephedrine for drug abuse. In March 2015, the Director of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had seized 400 kg of Mephedrone worth about Rs 40 crore. Officials of DRI recovered around 50 kg of the drug from a vehicle stopped at a toll plaza on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. The rest, 350 kg, was recovered from a factory situated in the remote town of Sangli.
Four people were detained by DRI, including Ravindra Konduskar, owner of Konduskar Travels. It is significant that his brother Abhijeet Konduskar was also arrested by DRI in 2011, allegedly for the production of ketamine at his Sangli-based Kumud drug factory. The same month, Dharmraj Kalokhe, a police constable attached with Marine Drive police station, was arrested for hiding 114 kg of Mephedrone at his house in Satara. It’s been reported that the police constable was hand-in-glove with Shashikala Patankar alias Baby Patankar, known to be part of the drug mafia, who was later arrested by Mumbai police.
Incidentally, the Maharashtra government announced the cancellation of the permit of Konduskar Travels but a year later, the agency is still operational. Tehelka repeatedly tried to contact Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis regarding the status of Kond uskar Travels, but he was unavailable for comment.
According to the International Narcotics Control Bureau (INCB), Mephedrone is a designer drug. Such drugs are produced by making minor changes in the molecular structure of the banned drug, which results in a new drug with similar effects. Designer drugs are produced to outwit national and international control measures. Ironically, detailed instructions for the manufacture of designer drugs are posted online.
As per INCB, Mephedrone is used as a recreational drug in many countries across Europe, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the US. It has similar effects as cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamine and has resulted in hundreds of deaths, the first being reported in England in 2007.
According to INCB’s 2015 annual report, “India and China are perceived as major sources of various new psychoactive substances. One of those is Mephedrone, whose increasing abuse has been reported globally in recent years. India was one of the source countries for Mephedrone trafficked to various overseas destinations. After establishing its control over Mephedrone and regulating it as a controlled psychotropic substance, India effected various seizures (1,106 kg from January to June 2015).”
While the fight against drugs is a never-ending struggle, the only fervent advice ex-addicts want to give to non-users is to remain that way and never try it even once. Shekhar relapsed within a year of his first rehab experienced in 2004. Later in 2007, he was readmitted and has stayed clean ever since. Raghav was in a de-addiction centre for a year. Currently he has taken a break from studies and is travelling to places he hasn’t seen. “Life is beautiful. Drugs are not worth wasting your lives on,” advises Raghav, who considers his post-drugs phase as his second life.
World in a fix
According to the Narcotics Control Bureau of India, “Ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine are two such precursors that are widely used in the manufacture of medicines, especially cough syrup. They are also essential ingredients for the illicit manufacture of synthetic drugs like the Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS) such as Ecstasy group substances (MDMA) and Meth (Methamphetamine powder/pill).
India produces large quantities of these precursor chemicals for legitimate use and also exports these chemicals by following a system of Pre-Export Notifications (PEN) under which prior clearance is obtained from the importing country. Recently, there has been a steep rise in the seizure of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine up to 2011 and then a consecutive decline in the years 2012. The seizures have been on the lower side during the year 2015 in comparison to that in 2014. But trafficking of ephedrine/pseudo-ephedrine continues in 2016 as well for manufacturing drugs like M-cat, Ecstasy or meth.”
United Nations office on drugs and crimes in its 2011 report mentions India as a frequent source of seized illicit shipments of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine, which can be used to manufacture ATS and others psychotropic substances.