On a humid Thursday evening in August of 2021, a chance encounter in Goa’s buzzing Mapusa town set off a chain of events that led Shekhar (name changed to protect identity), 27, into getting lost in the labyrinth of drug addiction. The popular tourist destination unwittingly drew the multinational company employee from Hyderabad into its casual drug scene, and he eventually got hooked to ganja and LSD. Soon, he started peddling drugs among his friends in Hyderabad.
In February 2023, Cyberabad police caught Shekhar peddling contraband at KPHB Colony, a tiny locality in Hyderabad. As a practice, the police provided counselling and advised his family to send him to rehabilitation.
Shekhar is just one of the thousands of drug users/peddlers caught by the police in Hyderabad. Hyderabad’s Narcotics Enforcement Wing (H-NEW) alone booked 932 consumers in 86 cases in 2022 while seizing ₹2.3 crore worth of drugs.
Opinion | Hyderabad’s drug trafficking problem
A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment’s report revealed that Telangana, with a population of 3.5 crore, has over 29 lakh drug users. Of these, 1.90 lakh adults are regular cannabis users, 5.47 lakh consume opioid drugs like heroin and codeine, and 16.63 lakh resorted to sedatives. While Telangana tops the list of Southern States, it is followed by Andhra Pradesh with over 17 lakh drug users, the report stated.
De-addiction therapist Dr. V.S. Gideon from the city says there has been a significant rise in the number of youngsters seeking drug rehabilitation in recent years. “Earlier, it used to be alcohol addiction, but over the last few years, we started getting calls seeking help for children as young as 12 and 13 years,” he says.
Every week, the tri-city police Commissionerates of Hyderabad, Cyberbad, and Rachakonda announce one drug bust or the other, painting a worrisome picture of Telangana as an emerging transit hub for narcotics. Herbal contraband like marijuana and cannabis oil enters from Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. At the same time, synthetic drugs like cocaine, heroin, MDMA, LSD, and ecstasy are trafficked from Karnataka and Goa, and drug runners from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh funnel poppy and opium.
Overall, in Telangana, 1,176 cases were registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act during 2022, of which 1,104 were ganja cases and 2,582 individuals were arrested. The remaining 72 cases were pertaining to other synthetic drugs.
The latest findings of the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India for the year 2019, commissioned and funded by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, say nearly 64,000 people in Telangana use injectable drugs, as opposed to 86,909 in Delhi, 44,530 in Bangalore, and 44,323 in Maharashtra.
As the noose tightens around peddlers with the establishment of dedicated departments like Hyderabad’s Narcotics Enforcement Wing, Narcotics Investigation Supervision Wing and Telangana State Anti Narcotics Bureau being launched within the last 18 months, drug users in Hyderabad are adopting new tricks to fuel their addiction. Some are cultivating their own marijuana crop in their backyard and balconies, while others are cooking up drug formulae from the comfort of their own homes.
In one such case reported in November 2022, Rishi Sanjay, a 22-year-old student, was arrested by Hyderabad’s Narcotics Enforcement Wing, along with Musheerabad police, on charges of manufacturing and peddling chocolate bars laced with concentrated hashish oil. Rishi’s ‘clients’ were primarily aged between 18 and 24 years, with more than half of them being women.
A resident of Narsingi, one of Hyderabad’s emerging satellite towns, Sanjay was pursuing an online business management degree from a U.S. university. He operated his illicit home lab while his parents, who own a pharmaceutical company, were away at work. He became a master of stealth, leveraging encrypted messaging on Snapchat to discreetly peddle his drugs that were branded as ‘edibles’. “He depended on mobile-based delivery services to transport the drugs. Payments were accepted through both online and cash transactions,” Hyderabad Police Commissioner C.V. Anand reveals.
Sanjay started off with selling e-cigarettes and vapes to fund his own drug addiction in his teenage years. Later, he learned to make drug-infused chocolates on the internet. “He used to buy 4 kg of chocolate and lace it with 40 grams of hashish oil to make about 60 bars of chocolate. He would sell it for ₹5,000 to ₹60,000 per bar,” Anand says.
In February this year, the Hyderabad Narcotics Enforcement Wing (H-NEW) announced that 104 drug cases were booked within one year of its inception. According to data, cops caught 13 foreign peddlers, 185 local peddlers, 10 transporters and 1,075 consumers. Amongst the foreigners, three Nigerians, two from Ivory Coast and one Sudanese were deported.
“The performance of H-NEW kept peddlers at bay and dismantled many drug cartels not just in Telangana but in Goa, Mumbai and other cities too. Local peddlers, inter-State gangs, international suppliers and dark web deals were busted by H-NEW,” Commissioner Anand says.
Despite the sustained crackdown on the drug trade in Telangana, one thing is clear, say officials. There is a well-oiled supply chain as the demand for drugs in Telangana, especially the cosmopolitan city of Hyderabad, has increased manifold.
In 2022, the Hyderabad city police Commissionerate alone witnessed the seizure of 556 kilograms of marijuana, 12 litres of hash oil, 586 grams of cocaine, 295 grams of heroin, 742.5 grams of MDMA, 355.7 grams of charas and 262 LSA/LSD blots.
Clipping peddlers’ wings
In a major blow to the synthetic drug trade, police made two big arrests on August 17 and September 14 this year. They caught four Nigerian peddlers from Bengaluru allegedly supplying drugs to Telugu film personalities and some influential businessmen. Overall, 33 Nigerians have been arrested in the past few months for peddling drugs, Anand has said at a press meet.
It was in July 2017 that the Telugu film industry found itself embroiled in a major drug scandal following the crackdown by Telangana Excise (Enforcement) department on a drug racket. Several top actors were among those questioned by the Enforcement Directorate based on the chargesheets filed by Telangana Excise Department’s Special Investigation Team against drug trafficker Calvin Mascarenhas, the arrested kingpin of the racket. Calvin’s arrest revealed how around 200 students of leading private schools and colleges in the city, some studying in Class 8, as young as 13, were using high-end drugs.
The racket also exposed the dark side of the Telugu film industry, as 12 personalities from Tollywood were grilled by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for their alleged links with the racket.
In August last year, came a big development related to the drug case with officials from Hyderabad’s Narcotics Enforcement Wing’s arrest of Edwin Nunes, 45, a drug dealer from that State, in connection with the mysterious death of BJP leader Sonali Phogat, who was allegedly drugged in his restaurant, Curlies, in Anjuna beach, Goa.
It was also revealed that Nunes, along with drug dealer Priteesh Narayan Borkar, who was earlier arrested, had around 1,000-1,200 customers from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Hyderabad as transit point
Notwithstanding the ongoing police efforts to crack down on the expansive supplier-consumer network, various conduits for narcotics have begun infiltrating the State, especially Hyderabad and its outskirts.
Recent arrests have shown how lesser-known players in the inter-State drug trade have been emboldened by the surging demand for marijuana. Truck drivers and cleaners enlisted to transport huge drug consignments across State borders were found to be surreptitiously syphoning off small portions of the contraband to make a quick buck.
Significantly, a majority of drug seizures conducted by law enforcement agencies involve shipments destined for States like Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, with Hyderabad serving as the transit point. Smugglers have been employing innovative tactics to outwit the police, including methods such as using pilot vehicles or hiring mules.
Officials from Cyberabad’s SOT shared that the entry of drug mules from varied backgrounds has made a roadblock for cops to track down suppliers and keep the drugs from entering the city. “Lorry drivers, private employees, drivers and other such individuals are resorting to making quick cash by carrying contraband in their ‘trip’ and end up getting anywhere between ₹30,000 to ₹50,000. Earlier, there used to be known habitual criminals running such trips, and our informants also used to be aware of such movements. With a rise in such transporters, we are facing trouble tracking the packages,” said the official.
An official working with the Anti Narcotics Bureau reveals car decor shops sprung up in Ramkote, a locality in central Hyderabad, and surrounding areas to modify a vehicle, no questions asked. The contraband is concealed in a customised compartment either by the doors, dashboard or in the boot of the vehicle.
Bulk seizures made by Railway police, SOTs and the Excise and Prohibition department were mostly headed to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, and Kerala. “Such routes often necessitate passage through Telangana, and since the best route is either via Hyderabad or its outskirts,” an official from the SOT of Rachakonda police says.
In one such case, a gang of four individuals smuggling 200 kg of marijuana from Odisha journeyed through Sileru, Chintur, Bhadrachalam, Khammam, Suryapet, Outer Ring Road, Medchal, Kamareddy, Adilabad, and then onto Nagpur, Bhopal, Kota, and ultimately reached their destination in Ajmer, Rajasthan.
However, in an attempt to bypass Hyderabad and its surrounding areas, smugglers have started exploring alternative routes via Bhadrachalam in Telangana and Rajahmundry in A.P., say officials of State Task Force (STF) of the Excise and Prohibition department.
Officials say that smugglers opt for routes with higher passenger traffic to blend in seamlessly and discreetly transport the contraband. “We have had cases of drugs being smuggled inside coconuts, bangles, false bases of trucks and cars, inside the speaker system of an autorickshaw, inside car door panelling etc. Most of them often use public transport to avoid suspicion,” adds the official.
But how does the unorganised racket work? Officials say smugglers from the lower belt have no connections or network and are more likely to get away. “Since the crackdown is carried out systematically to bust the organised network, one-off smugglers have started entering the trade. These men notice the demand, and then supply the contraband accordingly. There is no network, channel or a structure to their way of working, which makes it hard for us to track them,” says an official of Rachakonda police.