Medicines being diverted for drug abuse: UN official


New Delhi : India faces a problem of medicines being diverted for drug abuse and the smuggling of such drugs to neighbouring countries is also a serious issue, says a senior UN official.

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"There is some diversion at the retail level, (but) primarily the problem of diversion exists at the wholesale level," Gary Lewis, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) representative for South Asia, said in an e-mail to queries fom IANS.

"There needs to be better implementation of laws in order to curb this problem. The smuggling of pharmaceuticals from India is a major concern for India's neighbours, particularly Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka," Lewis said.

"Although there are strict regulations in India, it has been pointed out that weaknesses in the implementation of these regulations result in diversion along the supply chain."

Lewis pointed out that India's borders with neighbouring countries were largely porous. "Trafficking – both to and fro – of drugs across the border, across the North-West and North-East of the country and the coastal areas in the South, is a source of great worry for India.

"There is a need for improving collaborative attempts with the neighbouring countries to increase interdiction in the border areas."

When enforcement agencies in India do seize any heroin, they do not know for certain where it has come from, because there is no "heroin signature programme" in India, Lewis pointed out. "This hampers the allocation of resources in correlation with the source of the threat."

Lewis was also worried about the abuse of internet pharmacy facilities and the production of fake (spurious) drugs. "The present law and control regimes did not contemplate the technological advances like the marketing of pharmaceuticals over the internet, which pose a new set of challenges.

"There is a need to beware of the misuse of the internet for the selling of internationally controlled substances. There have been reported incidents where India has been used for sourcing of drugs, by such illegal internet pharmacies."

Lewis referred to media reports to say that Maoist guerrillas have forced farmers in West Bengal to grow opium and demand a share of the harvest. "The opium from West Bengal is then reportedly trafficked to Jharkhand, Bihar and onwards to Nepal.

"In May 2007, the Central Bureau of Narcotics, in one of the biggest such operations, destroyed more than 6,300 hectares of illicit opium crop being grown in the Murshidabad and Nadia districts of West Bengal.

"The fact that this large amount of illicit cultivation was not detected earlier is very worrying. The estimated crop of 380 tonnes, if undetected, could have produced a massive 40 tonnes of Afghan-variety heroin."

India is a growing producer of heroin for the international market, according to Lewis. It is the only country where opium is grown legally for medicinal use.

But there is leakage from these fields. Lewis said: "India produces heroin from this diverted opium for the domestic market. It is also a modest, but growing, producer of heroin destined for the international market.

"Using opium diverted from licit production, low-grade heroin, or 'brown sugar', is prepared in improvised and mobile laboratories, mainly in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Utter Pradesh."

The UN official was concerned because "India does not have a national drug control policy or an apex organisation in respect of drug control. The system of drug administration is cumbersome. While some of these matters are under the ministry of home affairs, others are departments within the finance ministry.

"The policy response to drug use, as evidenced by the ministry of social justice and empowerment sponsored programmes and law enforcement, has remained unchanged for the last two decades."