Chennai Customs witnessing a spike in seizure of narcotic drugs, here’s why

With a sudden spike in demand for Ecstasy and MDMA in Chennai, officials at Customs and the Foreign Post office have their hands full.
Chennai Customs witnessing a spike in seizure of narcotic drugs, here’s why

The Twitter account managed by Chennai Customs has been a lot more colourful than usual for the past couple of months. Before March 2020, watchers of Customs’ social feeds were treated to a flurry of golden images, thanks to their regular seizures of gold bars and paste being smuggled in by people and in packages. But of late, shades of vibrant blue and pink dominate the Twitter feed. With watering holes of the city shut down and people locked up in their homes, demand for party drugs like Ecstasy pills, MDMA crystals and LSD has spiked. But due to comparatively low consignment traffic and increased monitoring, Customs officials are now able to easily spot suspicious packages from European destinations and crack down on those smuggling these drugs in.

Since March 13 this year, Customs in Chennai seized 2,700 pills of Ecstasy, 33 grams of MDMA, 25 LSD stamps and 1.7 kgs of high-quality Cannabis – all banned under the NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act, 1985. So far, three persons have been arrested in connection with these seizures. The most expensive bust so far was on March 13, when more than 1,000 “Blue Punisher” Ecstasy pills were seized.

The scale of these seizures is unprecedented for Chennai Customs, as far as Ecstasy and MDMA are concerned. In the year 2019-20, there were only two seizures of Ecstasy pills and MDMA crystals, valued at Rs 37.5 lakh. But until just July 19 in FY 2020-21, Chennai Air Customs has registered eight cases of MDMA or Ecstasy smuggling, worth Rs 48.5 lakh. This is already an increase of 400% in the number of cases over the previous year

Drug prices soar due to strict monitoring 

Altogether, there have been 11 major seizures by Chennai Customs, amounting to nearly Rs 1 crore worth of drugs in street value — and that would be the pre-COVID-19 value. Prices on the streets have since shot up considerably, given the high demand and dwindling supply. A gram of MDMA could now cost more than Rs. 10,000, valued a few months ago at not more than Rs. 6000. Ecstasy pills, considered an easy and cheap fix for young users as it usually costs between Rs 1500-2000, can now cost more than Rs 5000 a piece, according to officers of the Narcotics Control Bureau and street dealers.

The latest seizure was on July 17, when Chennai Air Customs officials confiscated two postal parcels suspecting that they contained narcotic substances. The parcels had arrived from the Netherlands and the first one, when opened, had just a DVD cover. But upon inspection, officials found three ziplocked packs containing a host of drugs. Concealed in the cover were 25 LSD stamps, 31 pink colour Ecstasy pills and six grams of white crystals of MDMA. The second parcel similarly contained 100 pills and eight grams of white crystal.

This seizure was very typical of the many others which Chennai Customs has made in the past few weeks, and fits into a clear pattern. 

Most of the synthetic drugs arrive from Europe, and are likely to have been ordered on the dark-web using Bitcoins. Of the 11 seizures, 10 were from Europe (of which five were from the Netherlands) and one from the US. The Supreme Court’s recent order allowing Bitcoin transactions had enabled cryptocurrency exchanges to deal in INR again, and this is likely to have had an impact on the postal drug trade as well, say experts. This explains the role of cryptocurrency in the online drug trade.  

"Since March this year, an increase has been noticed in the import of foreign postal parcels containing narcotics because of the lockdown. The seized drugs were addressed to different parts of South India like in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana," says Rajan Chaudhary, Commissioner of Customs, Chennai, International Airport. "These parcels arrived from the Netherlands, Germany, the USA and the UK by post," he adds.

"These pills are popular among the youth and are known as party drugs. During the lockdown period, people have to stay at home and these longer stays at home are creating anxiety. It was observed that the availability of these drugs decreased locally and the addicted people were trying to procure these drugs directly from abroad," explains the Commissioner.

A street dealer in Chennai says that while the supply of most drugs has been impacted, those which are not manufactured in India have been hit the most. Marijuana, hashish and their oil variants are still available, but the supply lines of synthetic drugs which are manufactured abroad have dried out in the city. For these drugs, there are two major routes into Chennai – Goa, and postal parcels from Europe. The latter is now under close monitoring, and inter-state smuggling has become next to impossible due to the travel lockdown. Sources say that some dealers are now bootlegging liquor from nearby districts for their customers in Chennai to make ends meet.

Officials at the foreign post office and the Rummaging and Intelligence (R&I) Wing of Chennai Customs say that they have had a really busy few weeks. “It is a lot of work, and our monitoring has become even more strict now. Earlier we used to monitor parcels only from Europe, but now we are monitoring all foreign packages – the US too,” an official says under conditions of anonymity.

All parcels arriving from abroad are scanned by officials India Post and R&I Wing of Customs – it is standard procedure. Suspicious parcels are segregated, and with due warrants, they are opened with extreme care. “Usually, the contraband is hidden under several layers of different kinds of packaging materials, and we peel them open one by one and keep it as proof for the courts,” an official says. The exact nature of how the contraband is packaged is being withheld from this report as it might jeopardise future seizures and investigations.

Officials say that they expect seizures to drop soon. “Once smugglers realise that they are losing almost all their consignments, they stop. We know that these things happen in cycles, as they have in the past. So, our strategy is eternal vigilance,” an official says.

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