Himachal risks turning into synthetic opioids hub.. Image Source: IANS News

Shimla, June 13 : Organised crime groups are expanding and diversifying the production of synthetic drugs in Himachal Pradesh, known to be Asias largest bulk drug manufacturing hub, raising concerns that the state could emerge as a hub for opioids like Tramadol.

Police officials admit that the recent increase in 'seizures of illicit drugs' in the state, which is already notorious for illicit cannabis production, is a matter of concern.

The police say they are handing over financial investigation of opioid trafficking cases to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to tighten the noose on the criminals.

The trafficking of pharmaceutical opioids used for non-medical purposes has its links to transnational organised criminals based mainly in African countries, admit the officials.

As per the police, there are 139 factories having licence to produce pharma-opioids and psychotropic substances listed in the schedule of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in the state.

A few of them have been found misusing the licence and selling pharmaceutical products in the illegal market.

In the latest joint operation with their Punjab counterparts, the state police seized 30.16 lakh intoxicant tablets, including 12.45 lakh Tramadol capsules, 7.72 lakh Tramadol tablets, and 9.99 lakh Alprax (Alprazolam) tablets worth Rs 15 crore from the Unique Formulations in Paonta Sahib town in Sirmaur district.

As per the police investigations, Unique Formulations' New-Delhi-based marketing company, PB Pharmaceuticals, has been found to be fake and non-existent.

By printing the names of fake marketing companies on the labels, these pharma-opioids were being diverted to the illegal market.

The police also recovered 745 kg of Tramadol raw material worth Rs 3 crore. The main accused has been arrested.

Tramadol is a synthetic opioid pain medication of the benzenoid class, used to treat moderate to moderately severe pain.

Acting tough against the looming murky trade, Himachal Director General of Police, Sanjay Kundu, said: "We are sharing information with the ED to investigate money laundering under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) with the request to attach all properties acquired as a result of proceeds of this pharma-opioid trafficking racket." As per records, the state police seized 118,145 tablets, 46,370 capsules and 940 bottles of syrups in 2020, the highest seizure made between 2018 and 2020.

A total of 129 people were arrested and 105 cases were registered in this connection in 2020.

This year till April 30, a total of 10,185 tablets, 5,824 capsules and 53 bottles of syrups were seized and 39 people were arrested.

Kundu said large-scale operations to address opioid trafficking were carried out in the last two months.

Official sources told IANS that African nationals, mainly from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Niger, have been involved in opioid trafficking in Himachal Pradesh.

On May 31, another company, Orison Pharma International based in Kala Amb in Sirmaur district, was also found manufacturing tablets containing Tramadol, which it sold to a marketing company named PP Pharma located in Ahmadabad.

Police investigations reveal that Orison Pharma did not have any agreement with this firm as per the requirement under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act and their transactions were found to be suspicious.

During the inspection of the company, 30.10 lakh Tramadol tablets and 226 kg of Tramadol mixed raw materials worth Rs 3 crore were seized. The case is under investigation.

In another case, acting on a tip-off from the Interpol in Benin (a country in Africa), the state police have registered a case against Laborate Pharmaceuticals in Paonta Sahib for illegal export of 1.75 crore Tramadol tablets worth Rs 5 crore (approximately Rs 100 crore in illegal market) to Chad, an African nation.

The investigation in this case is also underway, officials said.

In 2019, the Apple Field Pharma Company, also based in Paonta Sahib, was shut down by the Narcotics Cell for unaccounted stock of 47,000 Tramadol tablets and 10,000 Codeine cough syrups.

During the investigation, the police learnt that the proprietors or shareholders of Unique Formulations and Apple Field Pharma are the same.

This year's UNs Office on Drugs and Crime report based on a research study conducted on the trafficking of Tramadol and other pharmaceutical opioids between September 2018 and July 2019 says that in recent years, the trafficking has reached an alarming state in West Africa.

The prominence of the issue is clearly demonstrated in countries where recent drug use data is available.

In Nigeria and areas of Lome (the capital of Togo), pharmaceutical opioids, especially Tramadol, were identified as the second most misused drugs after cannabis in 2017.

In Niger, where the non-medical use of Tramadol is widespread, a 2018 study on the general public's perception and knowledge of drugs found Tramadol to be the best-known narcotic in the country.

The profile of non-medical users of Tramadol and other pharmaceutical opioids is varied, said the research study.

Available data and reports from civil society organisations highlight the non-medical use of Tramadol among people of all ages, although it is most frequently used by young adults, and genders, both in urban and rural areas.

The causes of this expansion, which began in the 2000s, are multiple: The involvement of profit motivated business people in the supply chain; extensive availability at street markets, coupled with networks of pharmaceutical products retailers dispersed throughout the region, both in cities and rural areas.

It says some non-medical users consume Tramadol for its calming and analgesic effects, in order to improve intellectual, physical and work performance, or to lessen the need for sleep and decrease appetite.

In farming communities, there are reports of Tramadol being used by humans and fed to cattle to enable them to work under extreme conditions. Others use Tramadol as a recreational drug on account of its stimulant, pleasurable and euphoric effects, or to improve sexual stamina.

The recent seizures highlight the scale of Tramadol trafficking. The amount of Tramadol seized in Nigeria almost doubled between 2016 and 2017, from 53 tonnes to more than 92 tonnes.

In 2018, law enforcement agencies had reported the seizure of about 22 tonnes of Tramadol in the African country.

The report said that the available data show that most of the Tramadol seized in West Africa in and prior to 2018 originated in India, and, to a much lesser extent, China.

As a contribution to the fight against illicit trafficking, on April 26, 2018, India brought Tramadol under the control of the NDPS Act, requiring export of Tramadol to be regulated as a controlled drug.

(Vishal Gulati can be reached at vishal.g@ians.in)

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