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DEA India drug intelligence briefing – November 2002

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  • India drug intelligence briefing
    Published by U.S. Department of Justice – Tuesday 19 November, 2002

    Copyright: Drug Enforcement Administration

    Drug Intelligence Brief


    India is the world’s largest producer of licit opium; however, a portion of the licit opium poppy crop is diverted to the illicit market. Opium, obtained both through diversion and from illicit poppy cultivation, is processed into heroin in India. Heroin is most often found in the form of a crudely refined heroin base called “brown sugar,” although white heroin hydrochloride (HCl) is also produced.

    India’s large chemical industry produces a wide variety of precursor and essential chemicals, including acetic anhydride (AA), potassium permanganate (PP), ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and other chemicals used to produce amphetamine-type stimulants.

    India serves as a minor source country for heroin, and also serves as a transit country for Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin from Afghanistan that often enters India from Pakistan. The transit of Southeast Asian (SEA) heroin from Burma is not believed to be significant at this time. Heroin from Burma is found primarily within the addict population of northeastern India.

    India’s large population includes a significant number of drug abusers, although precise estimates are not available. Heroin, hashish, and pharmaceutical drugs are readily available and widely abused. Brown sugar heroin is primarily produced for domestic heroin users, since there is little market for this type of heroin outside of India.



    India is the largest producer of opium for the world’s pharmaceutical industry. In 2001, India produced 726 metric tons of opium from 19,393 hectares planted with opium poppy. This amount fell short of the targeted 900 metric tons, reportedly due to severe drought conditions. In 2000, India produced 1,302 metric tons of opium gum, which was an increase from the 970 metric tons produced in 1999. India is the only country that permits the legal extraction of opium gum rather than using the concentrate obtained from the poppy straw (CPS) processing method. 1 The traditional method of collecting opium gum allows for the extraction of thebaine, an alkaloid used to produce the pain reliever oxycodone. Since thebaine is not present in CPS, other morphine-producing countries were effectively excluded from the thebaine market. However, the synthetic production of thebaine has become commercially viable in recent years.

    In 1981, the United States applied the “80-20 rule” to guarantee that India and Turkey (also a traditional opium producer) have a combined 80-percent share of the U.S. pharmaceutical market’s annual purchases of morphine. The 80-20 rule reflected the realities of the morphine market, as in 1981 when Australia, France, and other licit opium producers were considered new or nontraditional producers and provided less than 20 percent of global production. While India and Turkey still share 80 percent of the U.S. market, they now share closer to half of the global market. The 80-20 rule will remain in effect until January 2006, at which time it may be extended, modified, or discontinued.

    Licit opium poppy cultivation is a labor-intensive and geographically dispersed industry in India, with opium poppy cultivation permitted under government control in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN), which is part of the Department of Revenue, is responsible for all facets of the opium industry. In addition to monitoring the industry to prevent diversion, the CBN each year determines the number of licensed growers and areas of cultivation, collects opium gum from farmers, and operates two processing centers, one in Madhya Pradesh and the other in Uttar Pradesh, where the opium is purified, dried, weighed, and packaged. Farmers, if found to have diverted opium to the illicit market, lose their licenses to cultivate opium and are subject to fines and imprisonment.

    The exact amount of opium diverted to the illicit market is unknown; however, the most frequently reported estimates are that from 10 to 30 percent of the licit crop may be diverted. Using these estimates, diversion from the 2000 crop may have ranged from 130 to 390 metric tons, which means more illicit opium was available in India than in other heroin-producing countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, or Laos. The United States and India are collaborating on a study that will enable the Government of India (GOI) to better estimate the amount of diversion. A joint licit opium poppy survey is expected to provide a scientific basis for determining a minimum-qualifying yield, which is the figure that farmers must meet when turning in opium gum to the GOI. Should the minimum qualifying yield not be met, the GOI will have a basis for investigating the discrepancy. However, the large size and geographic scope of opium cultivation hampers enforcement efforts.

    Illicit opium cultivation also occurs in India. The GOI began eradication efforts in northeast India in 1996 due to concern about increased illicit cultivation. Reportedly, illicit cultivation occurs in the States of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachel Pradesh, as well as Arunachal Pradesh and other parts of northeastern India. Indian officials continue to pursue detection and destruction of illicit opium crops and the prosecution of illicit cultivators. Indian officials reported that 378 hectares of illicit opium poppy plants were destroyed in 2000.


    Cannabis cultivation is illegal, yet widespread, in India. No estimates as to the size of this illicit cultivation are available. Both marijuana and hashish are processed in India. The Kullu Valley in Himachel Pradesh is known to produce marijuana with a high THC content, which makes it attractive to foreign hash ish buyers. However, the majority of Indian-produced marijuana/hashish is likely for domestic use, although a percentage is destined for the international market.

    Illicit Drug Production

    Opium is processed into heroin in illicit laboratories located in India. These laboratories generally produce a low-quality brown heroin base (referred to as brown sugar). Based on seizures and intelligence reports heroin HCl, including export-quality white heroin, is also produced in India. According to recent reporting of multikilogram seizures of white heroin, it appears that Indian drug traffickers may be producing a greater amount of white heroin than in the past.

    Chemicals and Pharmaceutical Drugs

    Chemicals such as AA, N-acetylanthranilic acid (N-AAA), ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, ergonavine, PP, methylendioxyphenyl-2-propanone (MD2P2), phenyl acetone (P2P), and other chemicals are legally manufactured in India. Indian officials fully control access to a number of chemicals (such as AA, N-AAA, ephedrine, and pseudoephedrine), but do not control all 22 chemicals listed in the annex of the 1988 U.N. Convention. The GOI will consider controls on additional chemicals when evidence is presented that locally produced chemicals are being diverted. India is an active participant in DEA’s Operation TOPAZ and Operation PURPLE, which are international initiatives designed to prevent the diversion of AA and PP.

    Both ephedrine and pseudoephedrine produced in India are legally exported to many countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, and Mexico. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine can also be used for the illicit production of methamphetamine. In 1999, Indian law was amended to include controls on ephedrine. In most cases, ephedrine is diverted for illicit use from pharmaceutical companies, as opposed to licensed producers or wholesalers in India.

    There are at least 12 legal producers of AA in India. AA is used to produce licit pharmaceutical drugs and is also used in the textile industry. It is the most commonly used chemical to convert morphine into heroin, and can be used to synthesize the methaqualone precursor N-AAA and the methamphetamine and amphetamine precursor, 1-phenyl-2-propanone. Despite GOI controls, Indian-produced AA continues to be seized both en route to Afghanistan’s heroin laboratories and to Burma’s methamphetamine and heroin laboratories.

    India is the world’s largest producer of illicit methaqualone. Methaqualone is one of three categories of depressants, and is usually marketed under the brand name Mandrax. Large seizures of Mandrax are not uncommon. For example, in September 2000, over 2 metric tons of Mandrax powder was seized near Hyderabad. In February 2001, 1.4 metric tons of Mandrax tablets were seized in Bombay. A serious Mandrax abuse problem exists in South Africa and, although methaqualone laboratories and tableting operations have been seized in South Africa, India remains the source for a substantial amount of the Mandrax abused in South Africa.

    A wide range of pharmaceutical drugs are legally produced in India, including phensidyl (a cough medicine containing codeine), buprenorphine (a narcotic), and diazepam (a sedative), all of which are widely abused throughout India.


    The United States remains a very minor market for heroin from India, whether it has been produced or has transited through India. Heroin produced in India is trafficked to international locations, although the total amount is negligible compared to the quantities of heroin produced in Burma, Afghanistan, or Colombia. The most common type of heroin produced in India, brown sugar, has only a limited market outside of the region. However, seizures of shipments en route to and within Sri Lanka suggest that there is a market for heroin produced in India.

    India is both a transit country and a destination for heroin and hashish originating in neighboring Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Although the border is closely monitored, and tensions remain high between India and Pakistan, opiates continue to enter India overland from Pakistan. Sea and air routes are also used to bring heroin from southern Pakistan. An unknown percentage of this heroin remains in India, but some also transits India en route to international destinations, especially from New Delhi or Bombay by couriers traveling on commercial airliners. Little information is available on heroin and hashish smuggling by sea, although this is believed to occur.

    Hashish, produced in India, is also smuggled to North America, although the destination is generally reported as Canada and not the United States. In August 2000, 2 metric tons of hashish from Nepal were seized in India; this hashish was reportedly destined for the United States.


    Trafficking groups operating in India include nationals from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal. Even though India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are no longer combined into one country (as they were prior to 1947), family connections remain strong in the region, and provide a network of contacts that facilitate cross-border trafficking.

    Nigerian traffickers are present in India, particularly in Delhi. In some instances, Nigerian-controlled couriers transit through India enroute to international destinations. This is apparently an effort to avoid law enforcement authorities at the destination airport, as passengers arriving from major drug-producing or transit countries are subject to greater scrutiny. Pakistani officials continue to arrest couriers, who are ticketed to India, at airports in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. In other cases, West African traffickers reside in India and primarily sell heroin and hashish in-country to other Africans and Indians.

    There are only two authorized border crossings on India’s northeastern border with Burma, but the border is fairly porous. This region is connected to the rest of India by only a 32-kilometer strip of land, while bordered by Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Burma. This region is home to a number of insurgent groups and reporting suggests that, while these groups are not involved in drug production or drug trafficking, they may profit from some aspects of the drug trade. For example, several groups in Nagaland, including the Isaac-Muivah and Khaplang factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, reportedly tax and extort money from traffickers in return for protection or the right to conduct traffic in drugs. These groups in Nagaland are of Tibeto-Burmese ethnic origin, with Nagas 2 living in remote parts of northwest Sagaing District in Burma, and in the State of Nagaland in India. The People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, a leftist group headquartered in Manipur, and the All Tripura Tribal/Tiger Force in Triura are other groups that reportedly profit from extortion and may facilitate cross-border drug trafficking.

    Ethnic Tamils in the southern India State of Tamil Nadu are involved in trafficking between India and Sri Lanka, an independent island off the southern coast of India. Heroin destined for Sri Lanka is regularly seized in India and in the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka. Some reports suggest that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan separatist group, receives funding from drug trafficking, although no direct nexus between the LTTE and drug trafficking has been confirmed.

    Organized Indian crime syndicates, such as the organization headed by the well-known Indian criminal Dawood Ibrahim, are also reportedly involved in drug trafficking and money laundering activities.


    India is not considered an international or regional financial center, but money laundering does occur in the country. The banking system is likely used to some extent, especially as anti-money laundering legislation has not moved beyond draft form. However, the primary means used to transfer and launder drug proceeds is the informal banking system known as hawala. The hawala system is an underground banking network composed of businesses that engage in international commerce. Through these companies, large sums of money can be transferred internationally with little paperwork and no physical movement of funds.


    The exact number of drug abusers in the country is not known. India is the second most populous country in the world with an estimated population of over 986 million people (1999 National Geographic estimate). Drug abuse is widespread throughout the country. The GOI and the U.N. Drug Control Program are conducting a nationwide study on narcotics addiction and initial results are soon to be released.

    Cannabis, heroin, and Indian-produced pharmaceutical drugs are the most frequently abused drugs in India. Cannabis products, often called charras, bhang, or ganja, are abused throughout the country. In fact, crushed marijuana (bhang) is used to season foods and spice drinks during religious ceremonies and on festival days in some parts of India. Cocaine, LSD, and MDMA are available, but not widely used due, in part, to their high cost.

    Heroin is readily available in India. Most users smoke a locally processed heroin called brown sugar by breathing in the smoke (known as, “chasing the dragon”.) In the northeast, high-purity, low-cost heroin from Burma dominates. Intravenous drug use is highest in northeastern India. In addition to heroin abuse, the intravenous injection of proxyvon is also a problem in the States of Manipur and Mizoram. Proxyvon is a legally produced analgesic and opium derivative. Users inject a suspension of proxyvon powder and water, which leads to a very short yet intense high. Other pharmaceutical drugs are also abused. Morphine derivatives, such as buprenorphine, diazepam, and codeine can be obtained relatively easily from pharmacies, even though prescriptions are technically required. Phensidyl is heavily abused in the Indian State of West Bengal.

    Burmese-produced methamphetamine tablets appear to be a relatively minor problem in India; however, seizures do occur. For example, in September 2000, 1,985 tablets were seized from two Indian males as they were crossing the border from Burma into India. In another incident, in September 2000, 75 amphetamine tablets were seized from a Burmese male who crossed the border at Moreh, India.


    The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), established in 1986, is the primary drug law enforcement agency and is responsible for coordinating antidrug activities of all of India’s law enforcement agencies. The NCB is currently under the Ministry of Finance, but the NCB will be transferred to the Home Ministry in April 2002. The CBN, staffed with approximately 1,600 personnel, is responsible for all aspects of the opium industry and is responsible for preventing illicit trafficking in precursor chemicals. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence is also part of the Ministry of Finance and responsible for information relating to smuggling of goods—including drugs—into or out of India. The Customs Commission has a wide variety of drug law enforcement tasks and falls under the Ministry of Finance’s Central Board of Excise and Customs. The Border Security Force, under the Home Ministry, is a paramilitary force that controls India’s land borders and frequently interdicts drug shipments.

    In October 2001, the GOI amended the Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Drug Act of 1985. The most significant amendments include changing the law to allow for sentencing to be based on the size of the drug seizure and to formally authorize controlled deliveries inside and outside of India. Prior to this change, individuals found with small amounts of illicit drugs were subject to the same penalties as large-scale drug traffickers.

    Drug Seizures
    1998 1999 2000 2001
    Heroin (kilograms) 655 861 1,236 813
    Morphine (kilograms) 19 36 37 23
    Opium (kilograms) 2,031 1,635 2,540 2,321
    Hashish (kilograms) 10,106 3,391 4,936 5,164
    Marijuana (kilograms) 68,221 40,113 96,6827 75,943
    Sources: 1998-1999: Department of State’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR)
    2000-2001: DEA’s New Dehli Country Office


    India has bilateral agreements on drug trafficking with 13 countries, including Pakistan and Burma. Prior to 1999, extradition between India and the United States occurred under the auspices of a 1931 treaty signed by the United States and the United Kingdom, which was made applicable to India in 1942. However, a new extradition treaty between India and the United States entered into force in July 1999. A Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty was signed by India and the United States in October 2001. India also is signatory to the following treaties and conventions:

    1961 U.N. Convention on Narcotic Drugs

    1971 U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances

    1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

    2000 Transnational Crime Convention
    India is a member of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).


    Indian authorities must continue to control diversion of the licit opium crop. This situation is dependent, to some extent, on events in Afghanistan, previously the world’s largest producer of illicit opium. If opium poppy cultivation remains low in Afghanistan, it would be more lucrative for Indian traffickers to process opium diverted from their licit or illicit markets. Additionally, enhanced border controls may reduce the amount of Afghan heroin available in India. However, due to geographic proximity, India will definitely continue to be a transit country for SWA heroin originating in Afghanistan.

    Indian heroin production may increase if tensions between India and Pakistan lead to even closer control of the traffic of people and commodities on the border between the two countries, which would reduce the amount of SWA heroin smuggled through Pakistan into India.

    India will continue to be a major supplier of chemicals diverted to the illicit market. India actively seeks to control diversion and cooperates effectively with other countries. However, chemical traffickers are expected to find ways to evade law enforcement authorities, which may require enhanced monitoring of the large chemical industry.

    India’s large population is at risk for increased drug abuse due to easy availability and low cost of both domestically produced drugs and drugs smuggled into the country from Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

    1 In the CPS process, poppy pods are dried on the stalk in the fields, and then crushed in order to remove the seeds. The seeds are used for a food product and the crushed pods are processed in a factory in order to extract the alkaloids. In India, however, farmers lance poppy pods in the fields in order to remove opium. Farmers then turn in the collected opium gum to the government.

    2 The term Naga is used for the many tribes living in this region, who speak different and mutually unintelligible dialects.

    This report was prepared by the DEA Intelligence Division, Office of International Intelligence, Europe, Asia, Africa Strategic Unit. This report reflects information received prior to May 2002. Comments and requests for copies are welcome and may be directed to the Intelligence Production Unit, Intelligence Division, DEA Headquarters.






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Forums Drugs Drugs Research, Drugs Studies & Media Requests DEA India drug intelligence briefing – November 2002