Indian ephedrine fuels Myanmar's meth labs

Bags of methamphetamine pills seized by the Thai narcotic police department . Photograph:( AFP )

WION New Delhi, India Aug 08, 2016, 02.39 PM (IST) Daniele Pagani
The mind cheater

“This drug cheats your mind. When you start using it, you stop sleeping and eating. You just stop thinking that these are basic necessities. Nowadays many are doing it on daily basis and you can clearly see it in their eyes, in their body. The more you use it, the more you need it,” says Ranjeev, in his forties, who asked to change his name to protect his identity. “I also do it sometimes for recreational use,” he says smiling while whiping off his cigarette's ashes.

“It is very quick in deteriorating your body. In only three months you see people perishing, they start losing weight consistently, they lose their teeth, become pale and nervous,” he says. 

The drug he is speaking about looks like a common tablet and has many names in the streets of Asia: YaBa, WY and bhul bhuliya, to name a few. Bright pink and vanilla-flavoured, it contains methamphetamine, the powerful and extremely addictive stimulant that has already become the main US drug problem and is now storming Asia.  

It can be smoked, crushed and snorted, ingested or even diluted and injected. In this part of the world, most users burn it on a foil and inhale the smoke through a straw.

Methamphetamine is making the fortune of many criminal organisations worldwide, from Mexico to the Philippines. It is mainly because it is easy and cheap to produce. Starting from commonly available pharmaceutical products it is possible to obtain the crystal-shape drug in a lab. There is no necessity of natural precursors like opium poppies for heroin or coca trees for cocaine, nor of big spaces. 

The well settled Myanmar criminal networks seem to have understood the game well: almost all South Asian methamphetamine comes directly from their country, the largest producer on earth.  
The rules of the game

How can Myanmar, a country with approximately no indigenous pharmaceutical production, become the major supplier of a drug made out of pharmaceutical precursors? 

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are the fundamental ingredients to prepare methamphetamine. These are legal and widely used substances in medicine to decongest respiratory tracts or to tackle low blood pressure. 

In the past, ephedrine used to be made out of the bushy plant Ephedra, but now it is entirely synthetic. This process requires very big chemical plants which Myanmar does not have, but India and China do. The two countries are among the top three largest ephedrine exporters in the world.  

Constant seizures speak the truth, the last being approximately one month ago when Myanmar police seized 60 kilograms of Indian pseudoephedrine worth roughly $1.7 million. 

Almost all Indian ephedrine reaches Myanmar illegally: there is no consistent legal trade between the two countries.  

The precursor is produced under government control in India and every license must be vetoed by the Narcotic Control Bureau (NCB), which is normally very strict when it comes to allowing the commerce with countries commonly known for their drug production. 

Lucrative businesses always find their ways though, and so has been for ephedrine. The major Indian ephedrine producers are all located in the Southern part of the country, mainly close to Mumbai and in the Tamil Nadu region. The illegal path towards Myanmar does not seem to start directly from their plants, which are too controlled to risk.  

A police woman stands close to a huge quantity of seized methamphetamine. (AFP)

"It is not the big producers who manage the trafficking. It all happens at the wholesalers level. Their numerous transactions makes it difficult to control extensively," says, Romesh Bhattacharji, former commissioner of the Central Bureau of Narcotics who was posted in India's northeast border for six years. 

The mechanism is roughly this: a wholesaler buys legally a bulk of ephedrine meant to produce, for instance, cough syrup. Once the medicine is ready, wholesalers prepare many smaller shipments towards other companies, often created on purpose and mainly located in India's northeast. From there, Indian ephedrine goes “off the records” and is smuggled into Myanmar. 

The country is the largest methamphetamine producer on earth, a status that requires a massive supply of ephedrine: hundreds of kilograms at the minimum. Such quantity can not be smuggled through a petty network, it requires a well organized structure with a large control of the territory.  
The trail

Manipur, along with the other northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Nagaland, plays the main role in this part of the story.  

These regions share a long, porous and hilly border with Myanmar, a strip of land covered with jungle and with a strong history of smuggling. People have always smuggled goods in these area, from Chinese grocery to luxury items like jade, gold and sandalwood. 

"Smuggling has been there on the northeast border since many years," says Bhattacharji.
For decades, the region has also been home to a low intensity war between the Indian Army and the many small separatist ethnic guerrilla groups, some of which are still active and in full control of pockets of territory. 

The main port of entrance from Myanmar is the Manipuri city of Moreh, where there is an official checkpoint used every day by thousands of citizens travelling between the two countries to buy and sell their products in the many local markets. 

The fact that Moreh is an official point of access does not mean it is the only one. Roads run all along the Indo-Myanmar border and the loopholes are potentially infinite for those who know perfectly the lay of the land. 

Along this muddy, unpaved streets there are many warehouses, where ephedrine in its various forms is stocked and hidden. "They hide trucks in warehouses and they unload goods during the night," says Bhattacharji.

Despite its strong presence, the Indian Army cannot physically control everything that moves along the border. In many cases, there is also a lack of awareness among border security forces about the nature and the real final use of ephedrine. If camouflaged, tablets or liquid substances containing ephedrine could easily look like any other medicine. The true nature can only be discovered after proper chemical analysis, a measure that policemen have not always the time to carry on. 

The small money, the big money

Not all ephedrine seized in Myanmar comes from India; Chinese criminal syndicates are also playing a big role in the game. These groups have traditional ties with many Myanmar drug lords, a “friendship” that is probably turning useful for the ephedrine trade. The channel is the same that China has used for decades to arm the ethnic guerrilla groups in Myanmar. It is a constant of contraband all over the world: once a route is set up, it does not matter for what good it is used. 

A similar law rules drug trafficking. Criminal organisations do not really care about the drug they deal with. They care about profits. Myanmar has been a major opium exporter for centuries and the country's powerful and deep-rooted criminal organisations have built an enormous fortune from opium. Methamphetamine, for them, is just another way to make money, to diversify their investments and increase profits. From a business perspective, it has been a good choice since there are no relevant competitors in the southern part of Asia. There is, for now, no other state where criminal networks enjoy the same level of impunity and protection they have in Myanmar. 

YaBa has been available in South East Asia for a long time, especially in Thailand where a lighter version of it was even considered legal unitl the 70s. It was commonly used by long distance drivers and daily workers to beat tiredness. Due to its stimulating effect, YaBa is currently used in the sex market, a phenomenon for which several countries in the area are sadly famous. 

A Thai official puts methamphetamine tablets into a bin before destroying them. (AFP)

In the last five years, the red vanilla tablet has opened its way to South Asian countries, especially Bangladesh which turned out to be a major consumer. According to the Central anti-Smuggling Force, YaBa tablet seizures in the country have increased from 2.8 million pills in 2013 to 23.2 million in 2015 and local authorities are also suspecting the existence of a small indigenous production. 

The drug follows the same route of every other goods smuggled from Myanmar: it follow the river Naaf which runs for tens of kilometres along the southern border between Chittagong and the Rakhine state. 

Indian market is not currently a privileged place of destination for this drug, which is used only in the northeastern states of the country and mainly in urban areas. It is probably just a matter of time for such an addictive drug to gain a foothold. 

This despite the bizarre finding of this reporter who during his research discovered that on a popular Indian online retailer, it is possible to buy YaBa pills. WION did not try to buy the drug and therefore was not able to verify if the advertisement leads to a real delivery or not.



The Product

Around the world, methamphetamine is commonly sold in its traditional crystalline form and prices vary according to the purity levels. Crystals are not cheap, a gram of an average quality cost roughly $100, which can increase up to $300 for the highest quality. A recreational user can get high for three to four days with one gram, but an addict can consume up to three grams a day. 

These prices are too high to make pure methamphetamine a drug for mass consumption in the South Asian market, the biggest consumer is in fact China. YaBa has been able to fill this gap: the tablet contains 15 to 20 per cent of meth, thus consistently reducing the end user's cost. The best-quality pill costs approximately $1.

Parts confiscated crystal meth drug is displayed to journalists during a press conference in Germany. (AFP)

It is still not clear what is the 'methamphetamine turnover', but a quick look at the latest seizures suggests enormous figures. In June, Myanmar police seized YaBa tablets for a street value of more than $36 million. A few months earlier, they seized YaBa worth $100 million.

Considering that seizures normally represent only a minor part of the production, the economy of methamphetamine could be worth billions of Dollars.
“The impact on the traditional subcontinent user could be devastating,” says Kunal Kishore, responsible for the overall management of the regional project on the prevention of HIV and AIDS amongst South Asian drugs users at the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"India is a place where there has been a large use of downer drugs, like heroin and opium. Several users are now combining these drugs with methamphetamine, thus beginning a cycle that never ends and turns out to be very dangerous for their health,” he says. 

A user smoking meth. Representative image. (AFP)

India and its neighbouring countries have traditionally been places where users favoured sedative drugs. Methamphetamine gives the opposite effect and the mix could become deadly in many ways. 

Heroin users start using methamphetamine to fight the sense of weakness between their doses. This leads to a sense of invincibility due to which one feels like being able to inject more heroin and the cycle begins. In the meanwhile they stop eating and sleeping. 

The more heroin users inject, the less control they have on themselves and on the basic hygienic norms related to needles use, thus increasing consistently the risk of contracting HIV. "The chance of people starting to inject meth extensively is our biggest concern," says Kishore.

Down with heroin, up with meth, down and up, again and again. Deprived of sleep and hunger, a user ends up spending all of his time and money after drugs.  

“I have seen people who used heroin for a long time and managed to control their addiction, at least through using safe needles, screwing everything up with meth. They started smoking YaBa and in a few months became like ghosts,” says Ranjeet sadly, throwing away his cigarette.