I am sitting with a senior police officer in his office to discuss drug abuse, and he pulls out his smartphone to show me a video. The video shows a teenager sitting in front of a desktop at a government office. He is seen waiting for the person behind the smartphone to give him a cue, and when he gets it, he starts logging into an onion router. He explains every step as he proceeds to order illegal drugs from an online bazaar on the dark web. His audience? Senior police officers in Hyderabad who were attempting to crack down on drug abuse. The video was recorded for an investigation, and was shown to this reporter on conditions of anonymity. The boy in the video was the son of a known acquaintance who agreed to hold a demonstration for senior police officers. “He ordered some drugs, and it arrived at the address a few days later. It was a part of our investigation, and we traced the parcel back to Europe. But we were surprised at the ease with which someone can order drugs off the internet. We cannot track this online,” a senior officer in Hyderabad says.
“The dark web has become a major source of all illicit drugs now, especially cocaine, LSD and MDMA, which are not produced in India. Producing psychedelics needs a high level of expertise and experience, so it arrives from Europe, Russia and Israel,” an NCB officer says. An event manager in Bengaluru says that his ‘friends’ had recently sourced MDMA “straight from the Netherlands” through the dark web. Another officer points out, “That’s why many of the dealers are educated, because they need to know how to operate the dark web.”
‘Dark web’ is that part of the internet which cannot be accessed without specific software and authorisations. The part of the internet that we access every day, like news websites or social networks, are the easily accessible ‘surface web’. Then there is the content on ‘deep web’, which do not need specific authorisations to be accessed, but are not indexed on search engines, so it takes some digging to find them. Dark web has encrypted networks like TOR, and the content on them can be accessed only if you have the keys to it.
The reason why the dark web is the preferred medium for all illegal activities, from child pornography and sex trade to arms smuggling, is that no user on the dark web can be traced. You can get the keys, but no one else can access them.
Narcotics officers are noticing that in nearly every seizure of synthetic drugs in Indian metros, the source of the drug was the dark web. Users buy bitcoins with real money (bitcoin transactions are also untraceable), and use the bitcoins to order drugs online. The vendors could be sitting anywhere in the world, and they send the drugs through courier services.
Davidson Devasirvatham, Commissioner of Police, Madurai City, who was the Zonal Director (DIG) of NCB Chennai earlier, says, “A few years ago, the dealers of LSD and MDMA were international travellers, like rave party DJs, event managers, and hippie tourists. They were the ones bringing it into the country. But now, things have changed drastically.”
The change in trend is definite and can be seen across cases. In most recent cases booked by the Telangana Excise Department (which has been leading the crackdown in Hyderabad since they got powers under the NDPS Act in 2016), the dark web has been the source of the drugs. Roshan Nair, who was convicted recently for distributing LSD in Chennai, also confessed to buying drugs online through dark websites like Silkroad 2.0, and vendors like T5 and Testalled. For the financial transactions, he bought bitcoins from localbitcoins.com, and was also a member of forums like webhigh.org. Street-level dealers are also reportedly sourcing drugs from the dark web now.
Cybersecurity expert Nitish Chandan of the Cyberpeace Foundation has provided TNM with screenshots of drugs being sold on the dark web.
A 4-part paper by Reliance GCS titled ‘The rise of dark web drugs market in India’ clearly lays out the nature of the challenge in India. The paper says that the markets are becoming increasingly specialised and interconnected. “The majority of buyers seem to be recreational drug users, who have used drugs previously. They are attracted to the dark web markets to purchase drugs because of a perceived increase in safety, improved quality and variety, and ease and speed of delivery,” the paper says. Vendors and regular users provide the new user with elaborate rules and tips to avoid being traced or caught.
The paper found 10 Indian drug vendors active in the dark web. These vendors supply different varieties of hashish and also source other synthetic drugs from different parts of the world to serve customers here. This trade is untraceable online, and the strategies to tackle them include undercover police operations, tracking the real world transfer of drugs through monitored or controlled deliveries, following financial transactions, and highly sophisticated online takedowns of these markets – none of which are easy for Indian narcotics officers.
“The saving grace is that LSD and MDMA are not being made in India just yet,” says a former NCB officer. But even that could be changing.
Make in India, untraced
On November 30, 2015, Bengaluru NCB raided a posh apartment in the city’s RT Nagar neighbourhood. The man arrested during the raid, Nishan, is a native of Mangaluru. NCB officers alleged that he, along with his partners Hanif and Prateek, ran a ‘well-oiled’ drug distribution racket in Bengaluru, Mangaluru and Goa, and their customers included students and young professionals. 110 grams of cocaine, a blot of LSD, 19 grams of hashish and 1.2 grams of MDMA were found at his house.
While Nishan was arrested at the RT Nagar house, his partner Hanif and another person were arrested in Bengaluru while receiving drugs arriving from Mangaluru. Another partner of Nishan, Prateek, was arrested in Goa this year. This case would have remained unnoticed by the media if it wasn’t for the fifth arrest in the case – a model named Darshitmita Gowda. A former Ms Queen Karnataka and a regular at fashion events, her name featured in the apartment’s agreement. The police investigated her role into the drug trade and found that financial transactions for the drug exchanges were made through her account. Under the NDPS act, this was also an offence and she was booked.
While the case grabbed headlines due to her involvement, there was something even more interesting which caught the eye of the investigators. Perhaps for the first time ever, they seized during a raid at a residence, equipment and chemicals used to make MDMA. At Hanif’s Mangaluru residence, they found a pill/tablet-making machine, precursor chemicals, CDs with formulas and other lab equipment. The forensic lab found traces of MDMA in the tablet making machine.
Equipment found at Hanif's house in Mangaluru
“The machine was bought on Alibaba.com and some chemicals needed to make MDMA were also found. These chemicals are also used in other industries, so they are available in India. We believe they were making MDMA from scratch,” says Sunil Kumar Sinha, Zonal Director, NCB Bengaluru.
The understanding till the seizure was that MDMA was only being imported or, rarely, prepared in chemical factories in India in large quantities for export, but this case opened the eyes of the NCB to the possibility that educated individuals were finding the resources in India to produce it themselves.
This poses a major challenge for law enforcement. One of the strategies to trace drugs ordered on the dark web is to monitor international packages at courier companies. Staff at several companies have been trained to spot suspicious packages and it has borne results. It is easy to spot these packages coming in from far away destinations in Europe, since they are few in number, points out an officer. “What happens when the production is happening within the country and it’s being ordered off the dark web? It will be even more difficult for us, the traffic is too high,” the officer laments.
This will only compound the already existing problems faced by the NCB.
Data collated from the Drug Seizure Reports (DSR) of the NCB shows that over the past five years, the number and quantity of seizures of LSD and MDMA have been reducing. The DSR data includes seizures from not just NCB, but all agencies empowered under the NDPS Act to book drug cases. The data is corroborated by field officers, who say that they are seeing a major dip in the number of cases they are booking every year. “An explosion is going to happen soon. Now is the lean period. Cases have come down but trafficking has increased, I can say that with certainty,” an IO says.
Data according to DSRs published on NCB website.
For law enforcement officers, older methods are failing or not yielding results which are worthwhile.
Busting rave parties has almost entirely stopped now. “If we get specific inputs we would still go for a bust, but the problem with these parties is that the quantities we seize will be very small. We will only find users, not dealers. It takes a lot of time to plan and go, we need several officers because of the huge crowd. And for each user we have to take a blood sample, file documentation – it needs a lot of manpower, which we don’t have,” an IPS officer says.
Human intelligence is bearing few results. “The credibility is less, we only find other dealers planting information to do away with rivals, or simply wrong information,” one officer says. A former NCB officer says, “80% is wrong or motivated information, so I never chased human sources. In the ganja trade, there are a lot of human sources, but other drugs we have to use surveillance.”
And on the demand reduction side, awareness can be counterproductive, an officer points out, “We are worried that we would end up introducing the drug to those who don’t even know about it. It isn’t easy to run targeted awareness campaigns.”
“The scenario has changed, we are not able to shift focus from traditional methods to modern methods. Traffickers are not easily detectable now, and there is a generation gap between the traffickers and us, we don’t understand their culture,” another officer admits.
Pulling the weed, saving the crop - with an iron hand
Indian laws against abuse of narcotics and psychotropic substances are among the strongest in the world. Every narcotics officer believes that such tough laws are absolutely necessary, and any attempt to dilute them to benefit first-time users have been met with tough opposition. The ‘purity vs quantity’ debate is a case in point.
The NDPS Act categorises cases based on the amount of drug seized, and punishment varies from a maximum of six months for ‘small quantity’ to 20 years imprisonment for a first offence involving ‘commercial quantity’. For MDMA/ecstasy, ‘small quantity’ is 0.5 grams (‘small quantity’ of LSD is 0.002 grams, you can look up the entire chart here). So if one has a gram of MDMA on them, they will be booked for carrying 'intermediate quantity'. ‘Commercial quantity’ is 10 grams for MDMA/Ecstasy.
But here is where things get tricky. Even if there are adulterants in the substance one is carrying, it doesn’t matter. The whole seizure, with the adulterants in it, would be considered as the quantity of producted being trafficked. So, even if one was caught with 10 grams of adulterated MDMA, which has say only 20% pure MDMA so it is only actually 2 grams of MDMA, they will be booked for ‘commercial quantity’, which means significantly longer jail time.
In 2003 came E Micheal Raj vs Intelligence Officer, Narcotic Control Bureau, in which the Supreme Court (SC) held that, “in the mixture of a narcotic drug or a psychotropic substance with one or more neutral substance/s, the quantity of the neutral substance/s is not to be taken into consideration while determining the small quantity or commercial quantity of a narcotic drug or psychotropic substance. It is only the actual content by weight of the narcotic drug which is relevant for the purposes of determining whether it would constitute small quantity or commercial quantity.” This meant that the police had to test the strength of the seizure, not the quantity.
This gave an opening to several convicts to appeal against their verdict, stating that they were wrongly booked under ‘commercial quantity’. This was welcomed by activists who believed that small-time users would now get off easy and the focus can be on their rehabilitation, but the NCB was incensed. So, in 2009, the Central government brought in a notification which reversed the SC order. A challenge to this notification is still pending at the SC.
NCB officers defend the reversing of the SC order and believe that the laws must be very tough on users and dealers. But, at least three senior IPS officers told TNM that they exercise extreme caution in applying the harsh laws against first-time users. “We have to pull the weed out, but we also have to save the crop,” one of them said with a smile. “We feel bad you know, youngsters from good households. Once after a cocaine bust, I called all them and their parents for a counselling session,” another officer states.
There are two common ‘E’s in cases of youngsters abusing psychedelic drugs – Electronic Dance Music (EDM), and emotional trauma. In a report prepared for his superiors, a senior IPS officer has detailed the case of a young teenager and her tryst with drug abuse. She was from a rich family, but was facing emotional turmoil at home. She was unhappy with life. She took refuge in EDM parties and was introduced to LSD through a friend, and became dependent on them to escape her family trauma. “She was just a kid,” the officer recounts. “This is also true of the Calvin Mascarenhas case,” an officer points out. “He was not a bad kid. But he was facing issues with personal relationships and his family,” he adds sympathetically.
The stories of many of these users and dealers evoke sympathy. For 31-year-old Aravind (name changed), who is now out on bail having been arrested for possession and sale of LSD, the past year has been a daze. He agreed to share his story with TNM under the condition of anonymity. With a mellow demeanour and a receding hairline, he has now turned to music and god to get his life back on track.
His journey from being a lost kid to becoming a user and then a dealer, is typical. He is from an upper-class family and has loving parents, but could not concentrate on academics at school. He dropped out of college. His priorities changed and he concentrated more on his music, which is when he got into smoking pot. Like in most cases, ganja was his gateway drug. “Around ten years ago, I planned a trip to Anjuna in Goa to try LSD,” he recounts. As he moved around with small jobs in the media, he continued to abuse drugs and attend EDM parties. “I tried shrooms and LSA as well,” he says, adding that by then he also understood that drugs could go wrong. But he continued with his habit, and took to the dark web to order drugs online for himself. “I wasn’t really a tech geek, but it was easy for me to learn and get the stuff online,” he says.
“I was teaching music, so I did not make a lot of money,” he recounts. And that’s when he noticed how easy the money he was. He was getting high-quality LSD for Rs 300 online, and he could push it for Rs 800-1,000 easily on the street. “I was not planning to make money from it initially, but when I saw the cash lying around, I changed my mind.” He started ordering hundreds of blotters of LSD, and MDMA, since there was demand for that too.
A few months later, one of Aravind’s buyers – who was also dealing – gave Aravind up to the police. “He pushed me to sell LSD stamps to him in the middle of the night, which was unusual. I walked down my street to hand it over to him. And as I neared him, I saw one other man with him. Next thing I know, I was arrested by the police. I gave up, I didn’t fight it,” Aravind says. The police found more than 60 blotters of LSD with the duo.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong. I just sold it to the wrong people, and I was punished by god for it,” he says, “What’s so wrong in doing LSD?”
An NCB officer responds to that, “But he wasn’t just using, he was dealing. And he was putting others in harm’s way!”
The response reminded me of a conversation with one of Vicky’s customers. Struggling with a mental illness and a severe drug-dependence, he had recounted how at the peak of his dependence, he had snorted ‘several’ grams of MDMA and smoked through hundreds of grams of ganja over a couple of days. He was out of a job, fighting his family and wanting to escape life. The drugs just made it worse, pushing him further into a downward spiral. “I cleaned up later, and I deleted all dealers’ numbers from my phone,” he had said, and I wondered if Vicky thought of this as ‘spreading the joy of getting high’.
As I leave Sinha’s office at NCB Bengaluru, I ask him what he thinks about those who pass drugs around just for fun. “They destroy families. They will say they are doing it for fun, but they will never know how much families suffer because of the abuse. They will never feel the pain.”
With inputs from Nitin B
Edited by Ragamalika Karthikeyan