Frequently there were reports of seizure of suspected brown sugar besides, heroin, opium, methamphetamine, etc. We take the report in good faith and believe that brown sugar was seized in large quantities but after listening to statements made by a few police officials involved in such seizures, a doubt has crept into one’s mind whether the seized items are really brown sugar. This writer has been insisting on videography for spot colour test to confirm at the time of seizure whether the seized items are heroin or other opiates or illicit drugs.
Brown sugar also called smack, junk, dope, chew or heroin No.3, by definition is an adulterated form of heroin prepared by mixing adulterant like chalk powder, zinc oxide, even caffeine or strychnine (a highly toxic compound) to pure heroin and contains about 20 per cent heroin. It is called brown sugar due to its colour and is used mainly for smoking purposes and is also called smoking heroin. It cannot be injected unlike pure heroin which is used for “mainlining” or “skin popping”.
From the reports, the seized materials are not prepared using pure heroin but are basically an intermediate product in the preparation of heroin. The method to process raw opium in Manipur seems to be similar to the one used in Afghanistan, known as the lime method. There are documents which provide the process adopted in Afghanistan but for obvious reasons the details are omitted here.
A number of steps are required for conversion of opium to heroin. The first step is the extraction of morphine from opium and in this process Calcium oxide is used and after a series of steps, morphine is precipitated and dried and the intermediate product is called the “morphine base” which contains about 53 per cent morphine.
The next step is conversion of morphine into heroin which can be divided in three sub-steps. The first sub-step is conversion of morphine into heroin by adding acetic anhydride to the morphine base.
The heroin was precipitated by using another chemical and the “brown heroin base” is filtered and purified repeatedly. This brown heroin base is also called heroin No.1. In the second sub-step, another chemical is added to the brown heroin base solution which results in “white heroin base” also known as heroin No.2.
The concentration of heroin in the brown heroin base and white heroin base are about 68 per cent and 79 per cent respectively.
The final sub-step is the dissolution of the white heroin base in an acid and a solvent from which heroin hydrochloride using a chemical is precipitated through evaporation and then filtered and dried.
It has been reported that 70 kg of raw opium results in 7.8 kg of morphine base, about 11 pr cent by weight of the raw opium while it produces about 3.9 kg of 74 per cent white heroin hydrochloride or six per cent of the weight of the raw opium equivalent to 2.9 kg of pure heroin hydrochloride.
There are also reports that 10 kg of raw opium results in 1 kg of morphine base which in turn results in 1 kg of heroin base. Heroin is chemically diacetylmorphine and the final product may contain a small amount of monoacetylmorphine.
There are very strong arguments from the law enforcing agencies that as at present the makeshift labs in Manipur is not able to produce pure heroin No.4 (heroin hydrochloride) and this may be true though there was a case where both brown heroin base and pure heroin were seized from a makeshift lab in Thoubal District.
It is suspected that the different steps are not carried out at a specific location and different steps are carried out in different locations. The reason is the utmost need to maintain secrecy.
Most likely, the step which can be completed in two days or so is carried out in one place and then shifted for the next step to another place. This is to ensure that people in the surrounding areas are not wiser to the illegal activity and before the neighbours got an inkling.
However, as the process is not that difficult, just like moonlighting in the forest during the Prohibition era in the USA; if a few labs are established in the interior, the whole process can be carried out in less than a week’s time. From the transportation point of view it is much easier to carry 3 or 4 kg of heroin than to carry 70 kg of raw opium while the value shoots up dramatically after converting opium to heroin.
From the description given and the reports of the police, most of the claimed brown sugar seized seems actually brown heroin base, one of the intermediate products in the process of manufacturing heroin hydrochloride. Just because the seized item looks brown does not make it brown sugar; though both contain heroin as its main component.
If this proposition is true, there is likely to be a problem while prosecuting those caught, as the law enforcing agencies could not even correctly identify the materials seized. In fact, NCB which has a much longer experience in tackling heroin smuggling should be aware and should have provided technical knowhow to the state police who are new to this challenge.
Another issue raised by many is that the number of seizures and arrests is high while the conviction rate is low. NDPS Act 1985 is a very strong law which bars suspension, remission or commutation of any sentence imposed. Section 54 of the Act operates under the presumption that a person who is caught with drugs is guilty unless it is proved that his possession of the drugs was legal. Section 35 further provides that the court presumes that the accused had an intention with regard to the possession of drugs, unless proven otherwise and beyond reasonable doubt.
These provisions go against the general principle of criminal law of “presumptive innocence” and here the onus is on the accused to prove his innocence. To prevent or reduce unscrupulous use of the law to harass innocent people, certain checks and balances are incorporated in the Act itself and if these are not fully satisfied, the chance of conviction is low. Has such checks and balances scrupulously been followed by the investigating agencies is a question asked from different quarters, including from the law enforcing machinery itself?
Another issue raised is whether the focus is more on seizures rather than on conviction. Most of those apprehended with illicit substances are mules or carriers and there are as yet hardly any cases where after investigation, the leaders of any drug syndicate is identified and apprehended. It is generally assumed that about 10 per cent of the illicit trade is intercepted by the law enforcing agencies. If this is so, the large number of seizures points to a very large smuggling of illicit drugs and psychotropic substances in the state.
It came as a bit of surprise to learn that there is hardly any fund to reward informers. Informers have to be paid for reliable information and their identity kept a secret. Just like the Secret Service Fund, there ought to be a fund for paying informers in such cases. There is also a concern that the seizures may be a result of gang supremacy, one gang fingering the others and if this is so, it will not be able to stop the smuggling. Rather it can only make one gang with connections the sole operator or garner monopoly in smuggling.
Due to seizures of large quantities of such drugs, three district police have been rewarded with Rs 10, 8, and 7 lakh respectively. They really deserve it but the seizures must be followed up with proper prosecution and conviction. The reward system at present is like a knee jerk reaction and instead a system should be put in place with the reward based not only on the quantity seized but also on successful prosecution resulting in conviction. If the successful prosecution element is left out and the seizure deemed the end; the identification and conviction of the kingpins which are crucial for controlling the menace will remain unfulfilled.
If the conviction rate continues to be low, a time may come when people may infer that the seizures are basically a smokescreen to hide the kingpin, while on the other hand publicising the efforts of the law enforcing agencies.
Arresting some hired hands and convicting them will have limited impact on this business and there are reports of the gang looking after the family of those arrested and convicted. The visuals of policemen receiving the rewards from the CM is heartening but handing over in cash such huge amount was a major surprise as under Sec 269ST of the Income Tax Act, the limit of cash transaction in a day is limited to Rs. 2 lakh and each transaction is limited to Rs, 20,000. Perhaps, a bad precedence that could have been avoided!
(The views expressed are personal)