Demystifying the synthetic drug menace: India’s struggles and strategies
By the end of the Cold War, the evolution of the referent object of security from a state-centric approach to a broader focus on human security has led to recognising various non-traditional security threats that extend beyond traditional state boundaries. The rise of synthetic drugs has added a new dimension to the illicit drug landscape, altering the dynamics of traditional plant-based opioids and associated trafficking networks necessitating governments to rethink their conventional counter-narcotic strategies. Synthetic drugs like Amphetamines, Meth (methamphetamine) and MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), K2, and Fentanyl made in labs (semi-synthetic or synthetic) have become a growing concern due to their affordability, being unaffected by climatic conditions, profitability, and ease of transportation. Of further concern is the potential transnational crime-terror nexus that might be fuelling the synthetic drug industry. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that synthetic drug trafficking from East and South-East Asian and South-West Asia, targeting South Asia, is surging, particularly high volumes of Methamphetamine continue to be produced in Shan State of Myanmar by ethnic insurgent groups like the United Wa State Army and Shan State Army.
Ball-and-stick model of the fentanyl molecule, Public Domain
The repercussions of this synthetic drug crisis are not confined to Asia alone; they are evident in the largest illegal drug market, the United States. The dramatic increase in overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids, primarily Fentanyl, has reached alarming levels according to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The involvement of Mexican organized criminal factions like the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) in the manufacturing and smuggling of Methamphetamine and Fentanyl precursors from countries like China and India into the United States has raised serious national security apprehensions for the United States. Consequently, the United States has taken a proactive stance, advocating for global collaboration to combat the synthetic drug trade. The US law enforcement priorities have undergone a notable shift primarily focused on thwarting the access of international criminal syndicates to precursor chemicals essential for synthetic drug production through close coordination and information sharing with partner countries. Additionally, extensive efforts are being dedicated to unravelling non-traditional alliances between terrorists, transnational drug trafficking organizations (criminal cartels) and transnational gangs that might be driving this illicit industry.
In this regard, Social Network Analysis (SNA) and node similarity-based algorithms have gained popularity worldwide after 9/11 in the law enforcement community for predicting complex links within criminal organizations. These tools are invaluable for helping policymakers gain a deeper understanding of these clandestine structures and devise strategies to weaken and disrupt them. Scholars have used SNA to study a wide range of criminal groups, from terrorist cells involved in the 2002 Bali bombings to identifying criminal groups engaged in an extensive series of convenience store robberies in Richmond, Virginia and unravelling a cannabis cultivation network in the Netherlands known as Blackbird by allowing Dutch police to identify intelligence gaps and potential informants. Nathan P. Jones, Irina Chindea, Daniel Weisz Argomedo, and John P. Sullivan based on the study on Mexican drug trafficking organisations network, recommend that policymakers and intelligence agencies should integrate machine learning techniques and SNA into their analysis of complex illicit networks for counter-narcotic operations. A key contribution from their analysis is the ability to predict alliances, which help policy-makers find the likely missing data on dark networks. Thus, studies are ongoing to unravel and predict the possibility of future nexus within illicit networks.
Meanwhile, the report released by the insights crime highlight’s a concerning gap between the apparent scale of the synthetic drug problem in the United States and the ability of law enforcement agencies to successfully dismantle the networks responsible for its proliferation. This could be due to various factors, including the complexity of these networks, the adaptability of criminal organizations involved in synthetic drug production and distribution and international challenges in counter-narcotic coordinating efforts.
In this context, it is worth noting that in 2019, under pressure from the US, China scheduled all forms of fentanyl. However, the counter-narcotic collaboration between the two countries became strained in 2020 when the US unilaterally imposed sanctions on Chinese companies, arrested Chinese nationals, and criticized China's counter-narcotics efforts. China, in turn, blamed the US for escalating its domestic security concerns to an international issue and for shifting the blame by not addressing its domestic illegal drug consumption issue. In August 2022, China declared the suspension of all counter-narcotic and law enforcement cooperation with the US, and this situation continues to date. In light of these developments, the United States views India as a reliable partner in advancing counternarcotics initiatives within the South Asian region.
Given its status as the largest global manufacturer of generic medicines offered at affordable rates, India has evolved into a transit country as well as a source of precursor chemicals used in the illicit production of synthetic drugs, including Meth and Fentanyl, exploited by criminal organizations. Furthermore, India's long coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the highest drug-producing regions of the world- Golden Crescent and Golden Triangle; make it vulnerable to narcotics smuggling. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intelligence report, although China and Mexico remain primary sources of trafficked fentanyl and its derivatives into the United States, India has emerged as a supplier of precursor chemicals for manufacturing synthetic drugs. Consequently, the US has listed India in the Presidential Determination on Major Illicit Drug Transit or Producing Countries, necessitating counter-narcotic collaboration. India's unintended role in this lucrative narcotic trade is evident from the large seizures of precursor chemicals. Moreover, the underemployment of pharmacists, lax regulations, corruption, and remote locations make India a cost-effective and profitable destination for transnational drug trafficking organizations to exploit the system and establish clandestine labs. The 2018 arrest from Indore and Mumbai with around 10 kg of Fentanyl and 100kg of N-Phenethyl-4-piperidinone (NPP) demonstrates growing links between Mexican Transnational Criminal Organisations and India-based fentanyl precursor chemical suppliers.
The crime-terror/insurgency nexus resulting from this lucrative trade can have implications for funding extremism, separatist movement, and insurgency, particularly in regions such as India's Northeast, Punjab, and Kashmir. This poses, a threat to India’s national security. In collaboration with regional counterparts, these organisations employ sophisticated smuggling methods using legitimate shipping channels, couriers, and front companies for smuggling activities. In India’s North-East region, insurgent groups have been known to derive profits through drug distribution and involvement in drug protection rackets. This is achieved by engaging in the trafficking of precursor chemicals into Myanmar and subsequently trafficking the finished products back through the porous Myanmar-India border. This intricate operation often involves collaboration between the insurgent factions operating in the North-East and criminal syndicates across the border. Further, another significant concern is the collaboration between states and criminal syndicates to finance covert operations to bleed India with thousand cuts through the drug trade. A stark illustration of this concern is the documented role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency in collaboration with D-company, Haji Salim, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen, and other militant-terrorist gangs in exporting drugs and arms to regions within India, such as Kashmir and Punjab to flare up separatist movements and target India’s youth. Further, a 2022 NATO report revealed the involvement of Pakistan’s Army and the Taliban in an “unholy” nexus of the narco- trade.
India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) of 1985 establishes the legal regulatory framework for controlling narcotic and psychoactive substances. The NDPS has been amended four times since its implementation, in 1988, 2001, 2014, and 2021, respectively. It sets provisions for controlled drug precursors identified under the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Under this Act, India classifies controlled substances as per three schedules A, B and C. Schedule A must register and obtain a unique registration number from the Zonal Director of the Narcotics Control Bureau. Any facility that exports or imports-controlled substances in Schedule B or Schedule C must obtain a “No Objective Certificate (NOC)” from the Narcotics Commissioner. Further, the penalties for selling precursor chemicals used in drug manufacturing is a maximum sentence of 10 years as mentioned in section 25 A of India’s NDPS Act.
In 2018, the Indian government designated two direct fentanyl precursors, N-Phenethyl-4-piperidinone (NPP) and Anilino-N-phenethylpiperidine (ANPP), as Schedule B, which restricted their export. In 2020, after domestically manufactured ANPP was trafficked in Mexico, the Indian government tightened controls over ANPP and NPP by designating them as Schedule A in the NDPS Order of 2013. This order brought the domestic manufacture, distribution, sale, possession, and use of those substances under national control.However, since then, traffickers have adapted their approach to using alternative precursor chemicals for fentanyl manufacture. Thus, the significant challenge with regulating the synthetic drug industry is that a well-trained pharmacist or chemist with knowledge of pharmaceutical synthesis can potentially manufacture fentanyl or other drugs using alternative precursor chemicals with similar chemical structures. In this regard it will be difficult to ban all precursor chemicals as they have legitimate scientific and medical uses. Indeed, the complex and diverse nature of the precursors, pre-precursors, and essential chemicals used in synthetic drug production poses a significant challenge for law enforcement and regulatory agencies. Attempting to tackle the synthetic drug production problem with a single, uniform solution is often impractical and insufficient. Further, when one government aggressively restricts the precursor chemical, traffickers simply buy it elsewhere, a phenomenon referred to as the ‘Balloon Effect.’
India’s approach to precursor control involves balancing the need to prevent drug production and trafficking while ensuring the legitimate use of precursor chemicals in trade and industry. The country emphasizes sharing knowledge, best practices, and technical assistance to help other nations strengthen their laws, standard operating procedures, and working mechanisms in precursor control.
India has also established bilateral and multilateral agreements with several countries to enhance cooperation in combating drug trafficking and precursor control. In 2020, the United States made a decisive move to work with India in establishing a bilateral Counternarcotics Working Group. This working group, marked by annual meetings, aims to enhance collective efforts in disrupting the trafficking of precursors and illicit synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, amphetamine, tramadol, and tapentadol. Both nations agreed to cooperate on drug regulatory matters, address workforce shortages and skilling requirements, secure pharmaceutical supply, strengthen law enforcement, multilateral coordination, intelligence sharing, joint operations, and initiatives to curb drug trafficking and demand reduction. Such cooperation affords India insights into US interdiction endeavours and technologies employed across maritime, aerial, land, and postal routes.
The fourth annual US-India Counternarcotics Working Group (CNWG) meeting, convened on July 19, 2023, at the US Department of State during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic State visit, culminated in the establishment of a bilateral Drug Policy Framework for the 21st Century. Within this framework, an expanded drug policy partnership is founded on three key pillars: demonstrating global leadership in countering illicit drug production and supply chains, creating a sustainable and comprehensive public health collaboration to prevent and address addiction, including workforce shortages and skilling needs, and advancing a secure, resilient, reliable, and exemplary pharmaceutical supply chain model for the world.
In 2023, India launched Operation Samudragupt through coordination between the navy and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), targeting drug trafficking via ships to cleanse the Indian Ocean region of drugs. The move was in response to the surge in use of maritime routes by criminal syndicates due to easy transportation of high drug volume, and exploiting the challenges faced by countries in high seas-based checks, including difficulty inspecting the sheer volume of containers, and jurisdictional complexities. However, due to the effective coordination between Indian agencies and intelligence sharing by international partners, particularly the United States, substantial seizures of both traditional and synthetic drugs within India’s maritime borders were achieved. The seizures also revealed the interconnections of cross-border drug traffickers and other criminal organizations with terrorist entities like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Haji Salim network, and Hizbul Mujahideen.
Moreover, the advent of unregulated platforms like the darknet, coupled with encryption and cryptocurrency transactions, has facilitated the buying, and selling of narcotics, connecting global criminal networks. In response, India established a dedicated Task Force on the Darknet and Cryptocurrency to monitor dubious drug-related transactions and initiated the “Darkathon -2022” endeavor through the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) to understand the patterns of these Dark Net activities and find solutions.
In response to the challenges posed by financing of terrorism through illegal narcotics trade, India has also directed its attention towards the fight against money laundering including crackdown on virtual assets that funds terrorism. This approach, formulated during the “Global Trends in Terrorist Financing and Terrorism” conference held in November 2022 in New Delhi by the Ministry of Home Affairs, rests on six pillars: (1) reinforcing legislative and technological frameworks, (2) establishing a comprehensive monitoring system, (3) facilitating actionable intelligence sharing while bolstering investigation and police operations, (4) enabling provisions for property confiscation, (5) prevent misuse of legal entities and emerging technologies, and (6) fostering international cooperation and coordination.
As a signatory to pivotal international conventions including the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988), India underscores its dedication to combatting the global synthetic drug trade. In August 2022, India actively participated in the UNODC’s global SMART (Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting, and Trends) initiative, affirming its commitment to monitor, analyze, report, and comprehend synthetic drug trends. With twenty-six bilateral agreements, fifteen memoranda of understanding, and two security cooperation pacts with various countries, India forges ahead in its collaborative efforts to combat the illicit trafficking of narcotics and psychotropic substances.Moreover, along with the supply side counternarcotic strategies, India has balanced demand-side initiatives through Integrated Rehabilitation Centers for Addicts (IRCAs) for substance-dependent individuals, the National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction (NAPDDR), Project Sunrise and the Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan (Drugs-Free India Campaign).
As India navigates the challenges of the 21st century, it becomes evident that the formidable spectre of drug trafficking has eclipsed traditional interstate wars as a significant non-traditional security threat. This illicit industry’s intricacies involve a web of diverse actors, often operating without centralized hierarchies, leading to a dangerous potential for collaboration between criminal organizations and terrorist groups. Widespread violence and corruption further compound the issue, as they have the capacity to destabilize nations and push them toward state failure. This corresponds to Richard Norton’s concept of a ‘Feral City’, and Susan Strange’s idea of the ‘Retreat of the State,’ thus providing safe havens for non-state actors to operate. Additionally, the presence of government-sponsored covert agendas exacerbates the multifaceted nature of this transnational menace. Consequently, confronting this global threat necessitates a united front characterized by cooperative endeavours, shared responsibilities, and an unwavering commitment from the international community.
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