A portrait of the psychedelic drug trade in India as it gets decentralised, explaining why the police are finding it hard to crackdown on new-age peddlers.

Delve Crime Friday, October 26, 2018 - 11:21

Part 1

“This is not business bro, this is just for fun,” says Vicky (name changed), defensively. Standing outside an outlet of an international restaurant chain in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Chennai (also his preferred locations for an exchange), he was trying to convince me that he was not a drug peddler, but was ‘only spreading the joy of getting high’. I ask him what kind of customers he has, and he says he doesn’t have customers, only friends.

Vicky, however, has many traits of an average drug dealer. He has a street name, and not many know his real one. He diligently informs all his ‘friends’ when new products hit the market, regaling them with his sales pitch and images on WhatsApp. “This is good stuff from Peru, bro, just one line and you will be sorted for the night,” he would claim of a new batch of cocaine; or he would rave about the “mind-blowing” Ecstasy pills for which he had received great feedback from couples, “One each and you will have an amazing night together.” He understands the needs of his buyers and suggests what would work best for them. He discusses rates before delivery, sometimes takes an advance through PayTM. He only uses WhatsApp calls, because they cannot be tapped or recorded.

Vicky seems like any of the hundreds of street-level dealers of party drugs in Indian metros, but he is also part of a growing tribe of users-turned-dealers, who are taking over the trade of LSD, MDMA/Ecstasy and other synthetic drugs. He feeds the party drug circuit from within, participating in the consumption along with his customers.

Over the past several months, The News Minute has interviewed several drug enforcement officers, street-level dealers and users (mostly under conditions of anonymity), and there is general consensus over an emerging trend – young, educated, upper-class party-drug users who have no financial constraints, and initially took to these substances only to have a good time, have started peddling. They either do it for the thrill, or, as most law enforcement officers believe, for the money to sustain their habit. High on TV shows valourising drug dealing and lost in the world of psychedelic trance, they are criminals for fun. Enabled by bitcoins and the dark web, they are decentralising the trade of party drugs in Indian metros, and law enforcement officers are finding it increasingly difficult to track and nab them.

The Indian scene

Neither the annual World Drug Reports prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, nor the yearly International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports (INCSR) prepared by the US Department of State, focus too much on India. Compared to global patterns, India is not considered a major producer of illicit drugs. But the country’s geographical location makes it an active point of transit for drugs, either coming from or bound for Europe, Africa, South East Asia or North America, says INCSR 2018.

However, the Narcotics Control Bureau's 2017 annual report states, “One of the prime external factors happens to be India’s close proximity to the major opium producing regions of South West and South East Asia, known as the ‘Golden Crescent’ and the ‘Golden Triangle’, respectively. The geographical location of India as such makes it vulnerable to transit, trafficking and consumption of opium derivatives in various forms along the known trafficking routes."

Traditional global opium/heroin hotspots. India is between the Golden Crescent and Golden Triangle. Graphic: FirstPrinciples via Wiki commons. 

Within India, metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are major drug consumption spots, but other smaller cities can be major transit points. “If 100 kg of a drug comes to Chennai, about 1 kg will probably enter the city. The rest is headed elsewhere,” says an officer of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB).

Production of pharmaceutical drugs (like amphetamines, which are used in treatment of certain illnesses but can also be abused) and what are defined by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act as ‘precursor chemicals’ (like ephedrine, which can be used to make drugs like methamphetamine – commonly known as meth – but have other legal uses), is one of the fastest growing problems in India as she becomes a major pharma producer. NCB officers say that India is gaining stature in the global meth trade, and is becoming a source of the drug due to the easy availability of chemicals. Several meth labs operated by international rings have been busted in the country. Illegal trade of prescription drugs through internet pharmacies is also increasing, the NCB says. There is also evidence of opium and cannabis being grown in several parts of the country – it is an open secret – and according to seizure reports, the biggest challenge.

A meth-lab bust by NCB in Tamil Nadu, in 2013. Source: NCB. 

In the global landscape, the abuse of party drugs like cocaine, MDMA or LSD in India does not raise eyebrows. The NCB’s annual reports also make it clear that the agency’s foremost focus is on the opium trade. “We are also focussing more on abuse of prescription drugs as the pharma industry grows,” says an experienced intelligence officer from NCB, “but that doesn’t mean the NCB doesn’t think of party drugs as a major challenge. Even the normal weekend parties at five-star hotels and resorts are becoming rave parties now.”

LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) or just ‘acid’, is available mostly as ‘blotters’ – a small drop of the drug on a tiny blotting paper. It is also available rarely in liquid form, and rarer still as powder. Sugar cubes with a drop of acid have also been seized in India. A drop of acid on blotter paper – usually carrying between 150 to 250 micrograms of the drug – costs around Rs 1,500, but highly potent varieties could cost up to Rs 3,000. (All rates mentioned are average street rates collated from narcotics officers and street dealers, but they could significantly vary across the country depending on the quality and customers.)

Bengaluru is becoming a hotspot for LSD, and an NCB field officer estimates that on a regular weekend, hundreds of blotters are being consumed in south Indian metros. The users tend to be upper-class youngsters who listen to psychedelic trance music and attend rave parties.

MDMA (chemical name ‘3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine’) is available in either its pure form as a powder, or as Ecstasy pills, which have other ingredients in them. A gram of MDMA usually costs around Rs 6,000, while Ecstasy pills are available for Rs 1,500, under fancy names like ‘Sprite’, ‘Nike’ and ‘Facebook’. LSD and MDMA/Ecstasy are the preferred drugs in psychedelic parties, even as newer cocktail drugs – like LSA, DMT etc. – continue to enter the market.

A gram of cocaine would cost at least Rs 8,000 in India. A cocaine habit can be extremely expensive, so its customers tend to be rich businessmen and their families. The cocaine trade – from trans-border smuggling to street-corner retail – is almost entirely controlled by Africans, according to NCB officers and peddlers. Vicky says, “Don’t trust the powder you get from Indian dealers, it will be celebrity coke.” Celebrity coke is the street name of highly adulterated cocaine for which celebrities pay a lot of money, because they don’t know the difference.

An intelligence officer (IO) with the NCB in a southern metro agrees with Vicky. “Forensic department guys tell us that they find impurities of up to 7 gm for every 1 gm of pure cocaine in the street products.” He adds, “If you ever come across a major Indian cocaine dealer, please let me know. They are very rare now,” he says, adding that there might be some small-time Indian peddlers. Africans are also known to fiercely guard their control over the trade, which often leads to violence. Incidents in Goa in 2013 are a case in point.

The trade patterns of LSD, MDMA and other psychedelic drugs are considerably different, point out narcotics officers. “The dealers might not do it just for the money, but it is a costly habit so the money doesn’t hurt. They earn the money to feed the addiction. They get into it as users, see the money, and then start dealing. Users are slowly moving into dealing,” the officer says.

“I have not seen even one uneducated LSD dealer so far,” another IO chimes in, “not one. Most of them are urban youngsters from the upper-class.”

Another NCB officer says, “One major difference I have seen is that most Africans in the cocaine trade are not users. Some of them are devout Christians, we have often found Bibles and prayer counters during our raids. But with drugs like LSD or MDMA, and now DMT etc, we can clearly see that it is users who are getting into the trade.”

Trading on the high

As the Zonal Director of NCB Bengaluru, with additional charge of the West zone, Sunil Kumar Sinha is considered an expert on LSD seizures by his colleagues. In his five-year ongoing stint at the NCB, he has been involved in interviewing several traffickers. “With LSD, every trafficker is a user. Every trafficker,” he says. Vicky is an example. 

“At the beginning, I was just curious,” Vicky narrates, as we settle into a car for the interview. He is comfortable with his native tongue over English, and talks with ease and confidence. “It was a decade ago and I was on my first job, and I had no idea about these things,” he narrates. A colleague was looking up the dates for a rave party in Goa, and Vicky understood what 'raving' meant. When his friend returned from Goa, they had a small party in Chennai. He had his first taste of LSD that night. “We went online to figure out how to do it and made sure we were careful. It was amazing, I had never had such an experience before that,” he says, holding his head and shaking it vigorously, and beaming a smile.

“Then I felt that I should not depend on anyone for this. So, I went to Goa myself,” he says.

Although the availability of party drugs has increased tremendously in other cities, Goa continues to serve drugs with ease to those who come to its shores. In the absence of credible data on drug availability, only seizures by government agencies can indicate the extent of drug abuse. According to publicly available Drug Seizure Reports (DSR) data from the NCB, between 2014 and 2016, of the 48 seizures of LSD, MDMA or both (sometimes along with other drugs like meth) in India, 30 were from Goa. Most of the seizures in the state were from the Bardez region, which is home to the Anjuna beach, a world-famous rave destination. Only in the last couple of years have the seizures in Goa comparatively reduced, as cities like Bengaluru and Kolkata see a rise in consumption. Frequent crackdowns, the most recent one following the death of two youngsters due to a drug overdose in Anjuna, have also contributed to the stunted flow of drugs by the beaches of Goa.

An open-air psytrance event in Goa in 2005. Image: Andy Weisner, via Wiki Commons. 

Interestingly, most psychedelic drug dealers have a Goa story. “Getting drugs in Goa was a cakewalk in those years. We just had to ask around, and we got whatever we wanted,” Vicky explains. A few months after his first trip to Goa, Vicky and his friends decided to get LSD and MDMA back home and host underground parties in Chennai. Now, organising and attending underground parties is a lifestyle for Vicky.

Over the years, Vicky’s network has grown. He knows dealers – his ‘friends’ – in Goa, Chennai and Bengaluru. He attends underground raves in holiday spots near major metros in south India. He explains that he only goes to small parties with close friends, “A bunch of us get together and split all the costs – the DJ, venue etc. No invitation for others.” He does not supply to more than 10 people at a time. “Anyone else asks, it is a strict no,” he says. But he refuses to accept he is a dealer. “This is not about money, I give it to people at whatever cost I get it for,” he claims, although his customers say that his rates are as high as the prevalent street rates. But he agrees he gets a thrill out of it.

Sinha’s experience in tracking LSD dealers is in line with Vicky’s own story. Back at the NCB’s Bengaluru zonal office, he pulls out a sheet of plain A4 paper and starts drawing out how LSD chains operate. “There is a pattern. LSD trafficking happens in closed groups, the drug does not come directly to one user. One user will introduce it to another, who will be a user until he realises there is money in it. He will then introduce it to another person who will form his own network to make money. And then someone from that network will take it ahead, the networks spread like that. But the network grows in groups, and each group will be a closed group,” Sinha explains. Another senior IPS officer who has dealt with several cases of LSD in Hyderabad agrees, and says that there is a “groupism” in LSD dealing, and that in catching one person, they usually end up arresting more offenders.

Video of a recent private rave party at an undisclosed location in south India. 

Such closed groups are also driven by emotional dynamics, and stories of love, friendship and betrayal are aplenty. With a sympathetic smile, Sinha talks of a case where a trafficker – son of a rich businessman – got a girl and her boyfriend hooked to LSD out of vengeance, because he was spurned by the girl.

I ask Vicky if he is ever scared he will get caught. “Why should I get scared?” he shoots back defensively, “I am not doing anything wrong. I am having fun, I am sharing the fun. Nobody is going to come after me.”

“There is a strong belief, a myth, among LSD dealers, that they will never be caught,” Sinha says, “They are wrong.” The officer from Hyderabad adds, “They keep telling themselves that they won’t get caught, that is their rationalisation.” This belief is a running theme among small-time dealers, until they get caught.

Tracking addicts, tracing dealers

“There are three types of LSD dealers we usually see, apart from those who do it just for the money,” Sinha explains, “The first type are those who peddle to fund their habit and party life. Second, they are doing it just for the thrill. We once had a case of a son from a rich family who got introduced to drugs in Goa and started peddling. He could not even explain why he was into it. It was just fun for him.” TNM’s interviews with several users and dealers have also reflected this observation. “And the third type are those who have surrendered to the drug – they are addicts. It is the drug which is controlling their minds.”

Any fresh operation to track dealers would start with the addicts. “First, we get the addicts to speak up and work up the chain. However careful a dealer is, he will make a mistake. Some communication will leak. We will wait patiently till then. Especially in big catches, a lot of patience is required,” says another senior NCB officer.

In early 2015, officers of the NCB received information that a student of SRM University in the outskirts of Chennai, staying in a private apartment near the campus, was supplying LSD to students. Their target was then 23-year-old Rohit Balasubramaniam. Investigators started watching his movements with the usual surveillance methods. On February 10, they knocked on his door and during the search, they found 2 gm of cocaine and 78 blots of LSD, along with Rs 40,000 in cash.

In the eyes of the NCB, even those who abuse LSD sparingly are ‘addicts’ – the term is used loosely, without any differentiation between a rare user, a dependent and an addict. But for Rohit, they had the sympathy reserved for addicts. “We only pitied him when he walked in,” a legal staffer at the NCB says, “he was nice and gentle, had dark circles around his eyes and a dead expression. How do you think addicts look? He looked like that. We felt bad for him.” The son of a rich doctor-couple who lived abroad, he was living alone in Chennai. “His parents were shell-shocked when they came to our office,” the staffer says. Investigators say that he got about Rs 30,000 as pocket money every month, but even that wasn’t enough to pay for his drug habit.

It did not take much persuasion on the part of the interrogators to get him to reveal his source. He divulged the name – Roshan Nair, aka Rahul Garg. In his confession (which he recanted in court), Rohit stated that he got in touch with Roshan in June 2014 through an internet forum. Roshan charged him Rs 1,000-1,200 per blot of LSD. Later, after negotiations, Roshan charged him Rs 600-800 per blot, and Rohit started selling it to other students for Rs 1,000-1,200 per blot, drawing a neat profit out of it.

So, on the same day, the NCB raided Roshan’s home at Taramani in Chennai. They were stunned at the seizure – 2520 blots of acid on three perforated sheets of paper, altogether weighing 30 grams and worth at least Rs 25 lakh in street value. He also had Rs 35,000 in cash, a HDFC Platinum Edge credit card, a HDFC Diners Club credit card and a HDFC Titanium debit card. It remains one of the biggest ever seizures of LSD by the NCB in the region. On May 31, 2018, a narcotics court in Chennai found Rohit and Roshan guilty for the possession and sale of narcotic substances, and sentenced them to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.

“Rohit is a typical example of who today’s dealers of LSD and MDMA are,” explains an officer who worked on the case. “He was young, well-educated and rich, but he got into it to feed his habit.” And yet, Roshan wasn’t an addict, perhaps not even a regular user, say officers, “He was a young IT professional who had the knowledge and access to source drugs from the dark net. He saw the money in it and went for it.”

Narcotics officers are sometimes stunned at how user-turned-peddlers think they won’t be caught. In August 2018, the Telangana Prohibition and Excise department got a tip-off on a techie in Hyderabad openly selling MDMA and cocaine. His marketplace? Facebook. Several of Koustav Biswas’s posts soliciting customers were found by the police. He also posted images of himself consuming LSD or weed.

Facebook posts put up by Koustav Biswas, seen in image below, also posted on his timeline. The account has since been made private. 

An excise officer tells TNM that Biswas was the son of a central government employee and from a financially stable family. “He did it for the thrill and saw nothing wrong in it, but I feel he could not survive without consuming these drugs,” an officer says, adding that he was only a consumer till 2017.

However, these successful cases are only a fraction of the hundreds of other dealers who operate freely and go untraced.

Read Part 2 here: Why India’s narco cops are finding it hard to crackdown on the new-age drug dealer

With inputs from Nitin B

Edited by Ragamalika Karthikeyan