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    South Asia
     Feb 22, 2012

India opens up opium business
By Neeta Lal

NEW DELHI - India plans to open up trade in opiate-based pharmaceuticals to private players, with the aim of enriching foreign exchange coffers while also tackling drug trafficking.

The government has for a half-century kept strict control of the entire process of opium production, including pricing and the disposal of psychotropic substances. However, under the new National Policy on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, private players will be allowed to extract narcotic alkaloids such as morphine and codeine.

Under the previous guidelines, licensed farmers were only allowed to sell poppy plants to two state-run opium and alkaloid factories that produce poppy straw concentrate. Now, reputable firms with


an annual turnover of over of US$20 million will now be able to buy poppy plants directly and manufacture their own medicines.

"The ultimate aim is to graduate to mechanization of the extraction process as per international best practices, and to avoid illegal trafficking," a Health Ministry source told Asia Times Online. The official added that a comprehensive rehabilitation package will be worked out for the opium-producing farmers before the entire process is mechanized.

The new policy also includes measures that aim at curbing drug abuse and improving the treatment, rehabilitation and social re-integration of addicts. "Implementation of the provisions of the policy will lead to reduction of crime, improvement in public health and uplifting of the social milieu," the Finance Ministry said in a statement.

According to a United Nations report released in 2011, up to 272 million people or 6.1% of the world's population aged 15-64 used illicit substances at least once in the previous year.

To keep the illicit cultivation of poppy and cannabis in check, the new policy also recommends use of satellite imagery for detection and eradication, and the development of alternate means of livelihood in pockets of traditional illicit cultivation. India is one of the world's three biggest producers of opium (also known as black gold), alongside Turkey and Afghanistan. It is also a primary exporter of alkaloids and caters to more than half of the global demand.

Opium - derived from the word "opios", meaning vegetable juice - has enormous industrial value as a raw material for morphine (the final product in the extraction process) and codeine, which are used by pharmaceutical companies for a raft of medicinal preparations.

Medical experts, however, are cautious about the government initiative, fearing it might have a domino effect on drug pricing. “While the objective of the new policy is laudable, it might escalate prices of essential palliative medication for cancer patients," Dr M R Rajagopal, palliative care expert from Trivandrum Institute of Palliative Sciences, told the media.

The specialist said morphine is currently available for 1-5 rupees (US$0.02-$0.10) per 10 mg. "But if prices go up, it would mean reduced availability for poor patients because most of them have no resources left even for the cheapest medicines by the time they land in palliative care clinics," he added.

However, the media has noted that an increase in the number of drug manufacturers could actually improve the availability of morphine. "Some medicines such as morphine are currently in short supply in the domestic market and increased production will change the dynamics of the trade in favor of better availability and lower drug costs. This can save hundreds of lives apart from saving the government precious money," India Today wrote in an editorial.

"It is not fair to always assume that once private players come in, prices have to go up," Dr Nagesh Simha, president of the Indian Association of Palliative Care, told the newspaper.

Despite stringent restrictions by global bodies like the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, some countries continue to grow opium poppies illegally. For instance, raw opium is illegally cultivated as a cash crop in Pakistan despite US efforts including checkpoints and .

In India, poppy fields are strictly regulated by the government. Across vast swathes of North India (primarily Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), poppy fields produce tons of precious opium before being shipped to major pharmaceutical companies around the world.

Each poppy plant branches near the ground and usually attains a height of 60 to 150 centimeters. The plants flower during May to June. The flower ranges in color from white and purple to red and orange. After fertilization, the flower petals fall off and the fruit, known as the "poppy capsule", can be seen. It reaches the size of a small pomegranate and looks quite similar to it as well. A single poppy plant bears about five to eight poppy capsules.

According to existing regulations, narcotics in India have to be procured from licensed farmers strictly under the surveillance of Central Narcotics Bureau. The narcotics are then shipped to one of the two processing plants in the country - at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh or Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh.

Once the opium reaches the factories, hundreds of workers turn it into a blackish opium paste kept in huge vats. For several weeks, the laborers diligently stir and fold the tar-like substance, drying it in the hot sun until it dries up almost completely. Once the opium is dry, it is repacked and readied for export. A small portion is refined chemically at the factory to be sold directly to Indian drug manufacturers for use in medicines.

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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