HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Crime And Politics Of Opium Trade
Pubdate: Fri, 15 Jul 2005
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2005 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Paul Watson, LA Times
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


KOLKATA, India - Cancer was slowly killing an old man in his 
fourth-floor apartment, and as the disease spread from organ to bone, 
sharp pains stabbed at his very core.

A clear, oblong patch was stuck to Shyam Sundar Nevatia's chest, just 
above his weakening heart, gradually releasing a 25-milligram dose of 
opium-based narcotic over three days. The medication was no match for 
the relentless pain as death drew near.

Nevatia's doctor had prescribed more powerful morphine pills, but the 
74-year-old businessman's family checked at hospitals and pharmacies, 
and even on the black market, without finding any.

India is the world's largest producer of legal opium, the raw 
material for codeine, morphine and other painkillers. But corruption 
and red tape have left thousands of Indians such as Nevatia to die in agony.

And strict licensing hasn't stopped drug gangs from diverting opium 
meant for medicines to smuggling routes shared by heroin and morphine 
traffickers, gun-runners and Islamist militants, police say.

"Organized crime and politics join together in this to make life 
miserable," said A. Shankar Rao, zonal director of the Narcotics 
Control Bureau, a national police unit.

Mala Srivastava, the federal official who oversees the licensing 
system, denied that it had serious flaws.

"Whatever little diversion there is is internal," she said. "We have 
never heard of Indian opium, or Indian heroin, traveling abroad."

But the U.S. State Department's annual report on narcotics-control 
strategy calls India "a modest but growing producer of heroin for the 
international market."

In an effort to keep opium out of criminal hands, India's federal and 
state governments license every step of the process, from growing 
poppies to stocking and transporting the painkilling drugs they produce.

But officials who issue the permits often don't answer the phone, are 
away from their desks or let applications languish for weeks, doctors 
and pharmacists complain. Sometimes hospitals run out of morphine 
while waiting for permit applications to work their way through the 
bureaucratic labyrinth.

"We have so many patients suffering," said Dr. Dwarkadas K. Baheti, a 
pain-management specialist at Bombay Hospital, in India's largest 
city, Mumbai. "After two or three months, suddenly we have no 
morphine left, and for the next month, none is available."

The problems India faces have ramifications beyond the pain of its 
people. Afghanistan, which has the world's largest supply of illegal 
opium, is considering whether to license production for painkilling 
medicine, to channel opium away from the heroin market.

Experts with the Senlis Council, a French drug-policy advisory group, 
are conducting a feasibility study in Afghanistan on the issue.

"Initial research reveals a serious lack of morphine and other 
opiates on the global medical market," the agency said when the study 
was announced in March. "Because of its present situation, 
Afghanistan could play an important role in the production of 
essential medicines for the world."

The French study's results are to be released in September at an 
international drug conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Rao said 
the Afghan government should learn from India's mistakes and do all 
it can to eradicate opium farming.

The United States imports 80 percent of its opium for pharmaceutical 
companies from India and Turkey, a policy up for review next year. 
U.S. drug companies processed 357 tons of opium, almost two-thirds of 
global consumption, in 2003, according to the most recent figures 
available from the International Narcotics Control Board.

Indians who have money often turn to an expensive opium-based 
medicine imported from the United States because it is easier to get 
than cheap, locally produced morphine. Nevatia's family paid a 
Kolkata pharmacist about $10 for each Johnson & Johnson Durogesic 
patch, more than five times the cost of a three-day supply of opium tablets.

But licensing hasn't stopped traffickers, aided by corrupt officials, 
from getting opium and other drugs, Rao said.

"With the support of local police and politicians, they convert this 
opium into 'smack,' " slang for heroin, said Vinod Kumar Shahi, a 
lawyer in Lucknow, capital of northern India's Uttar Pradesh state. 
Shahi has learned a lot about the drug trade in 20 years of defending 
many of the region's top gangsters.

By helping traffickers, police can earn 50 times their official 
monthly salary of about $230, Shahi said. So they pay large bribes to 
superiors to be posted at police stations in the opium belt of 
northern India, he said.

Tons of tarlike opium gum are skimmed off India's legal supply each 
year and sent to ad hoc chemists. With a plastic tub, a cup and 
chemicals easily found on the black market, they make the low-grade 
heroin base known as "brown sugar" on the street. There, illegal 
morphine is worth as much as 25 times what the government pays for 
it, Rao said.

India is a transit country for almost-pure Afghan heroin, which is 
smuggled in from neighboring Pakistan, often in inflated tire tubes 
that are floated across rivers along the border. The high-grade 
heroin produced from Afghan opium accounts for about 87 percent of 
the world supply, according to the United Nations. Indian drugs also 
go south to Sri Lanka, where guerrillas with the Liberation Tigers of 
Tamil Eelam use money from heroin trafficking to fund their war for 

Meanwhile, those who need the painkilling peace that opium-based 
drugs brings go without.

"The pain is spreading," Shyam Sundar Nevatia said from his bed, in a 
raspy whisper, in May. "It's all over the body. Sometimes the pain 
moves slowly, and sometimes it's intense."

Before he retired, Nevatia ran his own steel-trading company, and set 
up a charitable foundation to provide medicine to the poor in the 
name of his late wife, who died of cancer.

On May 21, he died in his bedroom.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth