Monday, February 6, 2023

Bath salt for that high

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India has become the hub for making legal drugs, which are used as hallucinogens, both domestically and abroad. these are the new “designer” drugs

By Ajith Pillai



It is known internationally as “legal highs” or designer drugs. Synthetic substances which are manufactured as medications but which are substitutes for traditional hallucinogens, uppers and downers. And India and China are the manufacturing hubs for these drugs, which are being introduced in the international market at a pace that is outwitting drug enforcement agencies in UK, Europe and the Far East.

In fact, earlier this year England’s home office minister, Norman Baker, sounded the alarm bell after it was established that 58 deaths in the UK last year were linked to the abuse of new synthetic drugs that were being sold on the streets and in the party circuit. Baker was quoted in the media as saying: “We’re in a race against the chemists of new substances being produced almost on a weekly basis in places like China and India. They come in here and are inaccurately and unhelpfully called legal highs—they are actually illegal and unsafe.”

One of these popular drugs (banned in Britain) is sold in innocuous packaging as bath salts but it actually contains Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) a psychoactive stimulant containing mephedrone, a narcotic which acts like amphetamines. There are several street names for it—Meow-Meow, MCAT, Drone, Bubbles, Cloud 9 etc. Then there is Methylone, the alternative to MDMA or ecstasy, and Ketamine, an anaesthetic used largely in veterinary and to a lesser extent in human medicines. All these drugs are bulk manufactured in India.

There are hundreds of Indian manufacturers who are listed on, one of India’s “largest B2B market place,” as bulk manufacturers of mephedrone. These companies are spread across the country in Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar. One Mumbai-based supplier’s hard sell is rather telling: “Psychological manifestations vary in severity between pleasant dream-like state, vivid imaginary hallucinations and emergence delirium.” Another company based in Port Blair is more conventional: “What can be better than taking a wonderful bath filled with this magical salt after a stressful day at work? As a result you get a miraculous relaxation!” Meow-Meow is snorted, injected or is heated and its fumes inhaled.

If India has bulk manufacturers of mephedrone then some amount of the drug is bound to find its way into the local market. Dr Yusuf Merchant, president of the Mumbai-based Drug Abuse Information Rehabilitation and Research Center, who has been treating drug addicts for the last thirty years, says that things had changed drastically in the last decade. “Earlier we had heroin, its cheaper crude form, brown sugar, and cannabis. Cocaine was also around but has always been priced prohibitively high for the average party animal. But we now have these relatively cheap legal highs which come in several forms and which are very dangerous because these formulations work on the mind. Physical addiction like heroin abuse can be treated through detoxification and rehabilitation but getting a disturbed mind back on keel is tricky business,” he says.

Among his current patients are school kids and teenagers, who are in a mentally disturbed condition—thanks to using party drugs. They require sensitive care to be brought back to normalcy. “I would go so far as to say that these new drugs, when it comes to treatment of those abusing them, are deceptively more dangerous than heroin. They can also psychologically scar an abuser,” says Dr Merchant.

Methylone, the new alternative to MDMA or ecstasy, is also bulk manufactured in India. It came into focus after it began to be sold as a “room odourizer” in Europe a few years ago with this direction on the label: “Do not ingest. Keep away from children. Never use more than one bottle.” In the party circuit it came to be known as “Explosion” and consuming it orally was said to give the same buzz as ecstasy. Indian pharma companies openly offer methylone on the internet. Their primary target is the exports market, where the profit margins are huge—over 300 percent—although innovative packaging is essential to evade drug authorities abroad. But getting it out of India is easy since it can be packaged as innocuous medication and is not detected by sniffer dogs as are conventional drugs like heroin, cocaine or hashish.

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, has over 200 drugs which are banned or come under the category of controlled substances. In the latter grouping are several formulations, which have medicinal uses and are therefore manufactured legally. This is where the illegal production comes in and crosses permissible limits.

Ketamine is an anaesthetic that is used as an emergency pain killer and to treat bronchospasm in asthma patients. But it is also being abused as a party drug. When consumed in lesser doses than when it triggers a condition seen during general anaesthesia, it
produces a “floating feeling” of being detached from the physical body. Those injecting,
snorting or taking the drug with drinks also speak of experiencing the “K-hole” when they have visual and auditory hallucinations
similar to the one produced by LSD.

There have been several seizures of illegal export consignments of Ketamine, following complaints from countries like Thailand which consider the drug as a narcotic. Incidentally Chennai is the hub through which Ketamine is routed abroad. According to Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) officials, a kilogram of the drug, which costs `35,000 or thereabouts in India, fetches over `3 lakh in the international market.

Domestically, the illegal market is very miniscule, since the drug is consumed among a select young urban crowd at rave parties or clubs. Typically, friends get together and organize the drug for a few hundred rupees to “trip out.” Since designer drugs are not being pushed in an organized manner like cocaine and heroin, the enforcement agencies do not focus much attention on them. There is also no societal or governmental pressure to check the misuse of legal highs.

Dr Merchant points out that it is not seen as a problem yet. Parents are quite unaware that their children are abusing these drugs. Unlike heroin or brown sugar, where there are telling physical signs, the only manifestation in the legal highs are unusual behavior—paranoia, depression or a sense of elation —which may not immediately be traced to any drug use. In such a situation, the victim might be treated for behavioral disorders which are a part of growing up in modern society.

The problem with cracking down on designer drugs is that they surface in new avatars every now and then. Given this, NCB sources say it is difficult to keep track of the emergence of a new party drug unless close tabs are kept, which is not possible, since much of its efforts are directed at cracking down on the syndicates that deal in harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. They point out that the NDPS Act frequently updates the list of banned substances but there is no guarantee that it will cover every formulation that contains a mind altering substance.

As it is, the NDPS Act is seen as being rather stringent, so giving it even more teeth may not be the solution. Perhaps the drug control authorities, who monitor pharmaceutical companies, should work in tandem with the NCB to report unusually high production of a particular drug which falls into the category of controlled substances. For example, a few years ago a pharma company came under the scanner when drug inspectors noted that it was producing and despatching huge volumes of cough syrup containing codeine, an opiate, to the North East. The quantum released in the region was way beyond the normal demand. Investigations revealed that it was meant to tap the market among drug addicts.

But there are several loopholes in our pharma laws that can be exploited. In the 1980s, a Mumbai-based company promoted by the brother of a prominent Bollywood star, got media attention in England when it was identified as the supplier of steroids being illegally sold in health clubs in that country. When confronted by the media, the management of the firm said that it was doing nothing illegal and that manufacturing and exporting steroids was perfectly legal in India and that it was not responsible for its abuse abroad.

At present, any crackdown on those manufacturing legal highs is because of alerts and tip offs from countries abroad. Britain has been voicing its concern. Clearly a system has to be evolved to ensure that we do not allow such drugs to be exported out of the country. That will also ensure that domestic availability is contained. Remember, heroin was considered a rich man’s problem till brown sugar came in and began to be abused by the man on the street. The health authorities also need to go to elite schools and make the young aware of the dangers of the so-called legal highs. At present there are enough websites and blogs which claim these drugs are safe and debunk those who advocate against their abuse.

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