Global trail: Tramadol high on drug enforcement agenda

Late last year, officials of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence had been tracking a large export consignment of Tramadol, a synthetic opioid, a prescription painkiller that was listed in the Schedule-H of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. For several months, drug enforcement agencies from various countries had been telling their Indian counterparts how there was widespread diversion of Tramadol tablets originating from pharmaceutical units in India. One case was proving particularly tough to track but the DRI was able to finally trace the shipment to Nigeria. However, the consignment vanished deep into the African country.

Intelligence reports from international drug enforcement agencies indicated the opioid was getting into the hands of Islamic State fighters in Syria and insurgents in African countries, who had taken to using the drug both as a pain suppressant and resilience booster.

For the manufacturers, exporters, middlemen and the international drug cartels it was a lucrative proposition. Usually priced as low as Rs. 4 for every 50-gm tablet in the domestic market, Tramadol fetched as much as Rs. 160 per tablet in the overseas grey market. “The problem compounds when consignments get diverted to countries with a very weak governance environment,” an enforcement officer told this reporter.

As a result of increased vigilance, huge consignments of the drug began to be intercepted in Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malta.

Widely abused

“Tramadol is often used to mitigate pain during cancer treatment. But, studies show that there is also a great possibility of Tramadol being abused as a replacement for heroin and other opioids. The drug triggers a feeling of euphoria, numbness, relaxation and out-of-body experience,” a de-addiction expert said.

Such findings were also recorded in a 2012 paper titled “Tramadol Dependence: A Case Series from India” by a group of doctors at the Department of Psychiatry, Drug De-addiction Treatment Centre, PGIMER (Chandigarh). “While this drug is abused in several parts of the country, it is prevalent in Punjab where the addicts, who were earlier hooked to Dextropropoxyphene, switched over to Tramadol after the former was banned,” said the expert who was part of the research team.

With Tramadol fast turning into a global menace, and its wide abuse in India, enforcement agencies petitioned the Government to declare it a psychotropic substance. The Department of Revenue under the Finance Ministry issued a notification to this effect on April 26. The notification brought Tramadol under the purview of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Act.

Raids and seizures

Acting on specific intelligence, in the last week of May, the DRI raided two manufacturing units at Valsad in Gujarat and Maharashtra’s Palghar.

The operation led to the seizure of about 13 crore Tramadol tablets/capsules, loose pills weighing more than 4,800 kg and over 900 kg in powder form. The orders had been placed on behalf of a Haryana-based exporter. And again, the ultimate smuggling destination was Nigeria.

For now, a DRI official said, the unlicensed Tramadol manufacturing business has fallen silent after the raids. In the past few weeks, licences of several pharma units have been cancelled and enforcement agencies are keeping a vigil.

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