On March 24, Bengaluru City Police destroyed 4297.8 kg of narcotic drugs worth Rs. 90.8 crore, which they had seized in almost six months from October 2022 to that day, to mark the “Drug Disposal Day”.
This included 4,110 kg of ganja/marijuana and 62.7 kg of MDMA crystals apart from 8,703 ecstasy tablets. This also served as a snapshot of the drug scene in Bengaluru. Ganja is the most widely used and seized narcotic, even as MDMA remains the most popular synthetic drug on the city’s streets.
The tipping point
The sheer quantum of narcotics seized by the police in less than six months betrays a vigorous “war on drugs” that took off in 2019. While there were 286 cases booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, in 2018, 4,027 cases were booked in 2022.
The tipping point came in 2019, a senior police officer said. As part of a priority set by the Ministry of Home Affairs to go after narcotics across the country, the then Home Minister and now Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had then said “war against drugs” was his top priority.
Since then, even the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been roped in to fight the menace of narcotics and its alleged links to mafia and terror networks.
Police go after consumers
“Given that Union and State governments had made this their top priority, there was an unflinching focus on making drug busts like never before. A lot of human and financial resources were invested in the problem. This was the first time such an intense campaign was launched in the city. We learnt a lot of lessons during this campaign, whose momentum has sustained till date,” said a senior police official who was part of the city police in 2019.
From 286 cases in 2018, police registered 768 drug cases in 2019, which peaked during the pandemic at 4,555 cases in 2021 to see a dip in 2022 to 4,027 cases. While a definite improvement in enforcement notwithstanding, the data hide more than it shows.
Most of the cases registered under NDPS Act, 1985 since 2019 are against consumers who are mostly let off with a fine of Rs. 10,000 or may face imprisonment up to six months in rare cases.
In 2017 and 2018, cases against consumers accounted for less than 0.1% of the total number of cases - 2 against consumers and 352 against peddlers in 2017 and 2 against consumers and 284 against peddlers in 2018.
However, come 2019, this ratio changed — of the total 768 cases registered that year, 467 (over 60%) were against consumers and 301 against peddlers. In 2022, over 85% of the cases registered were against peddlers.
During 2017-22 the number of cases against peddlers increased by just over 64%, while the number of cases against consumers shot up from 2 to 3448.
Tracking the peddler
A senior official part of the team that led the crackdown in 2019 defended the changed strategy.
“More than wanting to target and punish consumers, we decided to go after them to build the chain up to the peddlers, and the strategy has evidently paid off. Even the mobile phone of a single consumer provides us with several leads to track the entire network. The starting point of most of our drug busts today is consumers. Since consuming narcotics is also a crime, we book them too. But they are often let off with a fine,” the officer said.
However, it can be recalled that Kannada film actors Ragini Dwivedi and Sanjana Galrani had to spend many months in prison after they were arrested on charges of consumption, drawing the ire of many. A senior official said the case against the two actors effectively disrupted a “drug-fuelled party ecosystem” in the city.
In the case, city police also used the new technology to test for drug consumption by testing the hair roots. “This method has proved extremely effective as the test can not only confirm drug consumption in the past year but also which drug was consumed,” a senior official said, adding it was being used more and more on consumers to good results.
Challenges in the fight
Police officials maintain that consumers are not their focus, but they remain the best route to reach peddlers and track down their networks. Officers part of the Anti Narcotics Wing, Central Crime Branch themselves admit that while they are able to nab some of the peddlers — mostly the last link on the city’s streets — they haven’t had much success with tracking down and dismantling the source of these narcotics as most of these are outside the State and the country.
For instance, marijuana is sourced from Visakhapatnam of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, apart from parts of Kerala of late. “We have been coordinating with agencies, especially in the Visakhapatnam range, who are also doing their best efforts to curb growing of ganja there. However, it is a challenging topography, and there are no other economic opportunities in the region, making it a pestering problem,” a senior official said.
More challenging has been the effort to track and dismantle networks pushing synthetic drugs. “This segment of the narcotics trade offers multiple challenges — involvement of African nationals and procurement of drugs from the darknet,” the officer who led the charge in 2019 said.
In many cases, peddlers caught selling synthetic drugs like MDMA crystals, ecstasy tablets, LSD strips, or cocaine have either directly procured them from the darknet or bought it from peddlers in Delhi, Mumbai and Goa, who in turn would have most probably bought it off the darknet, officials said. “On a rough estimate, over 80% of the synthetic drugs we recover are sourced through the darknet,” an official said.
Darknet offers anonymity and allows for lone wolf operators, creating very decentralised, diffused networks unconnected from each other. Payments are mostly made in cryptocurrencies, and the source of the narcotics is mostly anonymous and abroad.
“We presently have no technology to carry out surveillance on the darknet and intercept trade there,” an official well-versed with cybercrime said. So the city police have been focusing on intercepting these parcels when it jumps from the virtual to the real world — at the delivery stage.
“We have charge-sheeted five officials at foreign post offices for colluding with drug importers. We have stepped up our surveillance at these delivery points where the darknet orders turn into material reality that can be intercepted. But we do not have any means to control the trade on the darknet. What we are catching may only be the tip of the iceberg of the quantum of narcotics import via the darknet,” a senior official said.
Making these busts have also become a challenge increasingly as peddlers are also adapting to technology extensively. For instance, in many cases, peddlers place drugs in locations across the city and share the location of the drug on encrypted messaging platforms sitting outside the state. Meanwhile, drugs that cross the border of Punjab from the Af-Pak region also make their way to the city, tackling which is beyond the realm of the city police.
The widespread involvement of African nationals in the synthetic drug trade poses its own challenges. “Most of them we catch are without proper documents and are overstaying. The best way to curtail their activities in the country is to deport them. However, as they are booked under NDPS Act, they cannot be deported till the cases are settled, which takes many years. Meanwhile, they secure bail, come out and revert to peddling drugs,” a senior official said.
To control the menace of habitual peddlers, city police have started booking habitual peddlers under the Prevention of Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1988, under which habitual offenders can be detained for one year without bail and attach their assets.
Given the challenges involved in tracking down and dismantling these networks, including jurisdictional issues, sufficient human resources and time are not invested in these facets of the war on drugs, which provide long-term benefits.
“Given Bengaluru is a global city, with a vibrant middle class with considerable disposable income and pub culture, there will always be a market demand for narcotics in the city. If the supply source is not neutralised, narcotics will keep flooding the city. This is a constant fight, and we need to be ever-vigilant. But we need to step up and graduate to try and take down the source of narcotics,” said an official with considerable experience fighting narcotics in the city.
More than wanting to target and punish consumers, we decided to go after them to build the chain up to the peddlers, and the strategy has evidently paid off. Even the mobile phone of a single consumer provides us with several leads to track the entire network.