Escalation of the world drug problem
The amount of narcotic drugs seized by the police had increased in Sri Lanka, according to the latest reports presented to Parliament. A total of 388,722 Kgs of narcotic drugs had been seized in 2016 compared to 13, 548 Kgs in 2015. This included 36,817 Kgs of ganja, 15 Kgs of opium, 27 Kgs of hashish, 205 Kgs of heroin, and 1,302 Kgs of cocaine seized by the police in 2016.
The total amount of ganja seized in 2015 was 13,253 Kgs, while four Kgs of hashish, 44 Kgs of heroin and 44 Kgs of cocaine were found in the same year.
Year 2016 can be considered as a year in which dangerous intoxicant drugs had been seized on a large scale. The number of reported offences relating to this subject remains at a similar level as those reported last year. The police was able to maintain a solving percentage similar to that of the previous years, which was 98%.
Last month, Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayaka stated that a special anti-narcotic force has been created to curb the international narcotic trade in Sri Lanka.
"We have a responsibility to the nation, to the region and to the world to stop these activities," he said adding that Sri Lanka hopes to carry out programmes with international assistance to eradicate the drug menace.
The minister pointed out that Sri Lanka is located strategically at a pivotal point for major drug cartels to utilise as a tran- sit hub and some of the narcotics that pass through Sri Lanka remains in the country.
"We are fighting this on two angles. One is our responsibility to the region and the world and also to ensure that there are no drugs in Sri Lanka. We are going to fight both very hard," he said.
The minister said Sri Lanka is working very closely with the countries in the region to eradicate the drug trade, and also within Sri Lanka, a new police unit called “Organized Crime and Narcotics Range” has been created. The unit is headed by a senior DIG and he has been given a very talented team to work on the task, the minister added.
Minister Ratnayaka stated that Sri Lanka had become a transit point for mass scale drug trafficking by major drug cartels due to the prolonged illicit activities of the Tamil tiger rebels.
Confirming the minister’s statement, Sri Lanka Customs has arrested a 54- year- old Pakistani national attempting to smuggle 376 grams of heroin worth 3.7 million rupees last month at the Bandaranaike International Airport. He has arrived from Bangkok. The heroin was found concealed in the suspect's hand luggage.
Internationally, the drug situation is getting worse. The federal government of the USA just put out new statistics for drug overdose deaths in 2016. They are very, very grim.
The preliminary figures from the National Center for Health Statistics ( NCHS) suggest that there were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016. In a shocking, but not quite surprising revelation, synthetic opioids like fentanyl overtook both heroin and prescription pain- killers in terms of overdose deaths.
Based on the NCHS figures, traditional opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin and Percocet ( a combination of paracetamol and oxycodone) were involved in about 14,400 overdose deaths in 2016, and heroin was involved in more than 15,400. Percocet is used to relieve moderate to severe pain. Non- methadone synthetic opioids like fentanyl were linked to more than 20,100 overdose deaths. The remaining overdose deaths involved other drugs, such as cocaine.
If these numbers hold up (and final figures will come out later this year), it solidifies the opioid epidemic as America’s deadliest overdose crisis ever! (In comparison, more than 58,000 US soldiers died in the entire Vietnam War, nearly 55,000 Americans died of car crashes at the peak of such deaths in 1972, more than 43,000 died due to HIV/ AIDS during that epidemic's peak in 1995, and nearly 40,000 died of guns during the peak of firearm deaths in 1993.)
The numbers show the evolution of the opioid epidemic. It originally began as a crisis rooted in the dramatic over-prescription of opioids. But over time, many users moved onto other opioids, particularly heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl is an opioid pain medication with a rapid onset and short duration of action.
In the mid-1990s, Fentanyl was introduced for palliative use with the fentanyl patch. As of 2012, Fentanyl was the most widely used synthetic opioid in medicine. Fentanyl patches are on t he Wo rl d H e a l t h Organisation's List of Essential Medicines, the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system. Fentanyl is an approved drug in Sri Lanka.
Medical examiners and coroners in the USA are increasingly testing for opioids due to much greater awareness of the crisis. Some of the increases in numbers are partly attributable to the fact that people are looking for these deaths now. Still, a bulk of the increase is likely due to a genuine rise in overdose deaths.
The latest drug epidemic is not solely about illegal drugs. It began, in fact, with a legal drug. Back in the 1990s, doctors were persuaded to treat pain as a serious medical issue. There is a good reason for that: About 100 million US adults suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine.
Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this concern. Through a big marketing campaign, they got doctors to prescribe products like OxyContin and Percocet in droves, even though the evidence for opioids treating long-term, chronic pain is very weak (despite their effectiveness for short- term, acute pain), while the evidence that opioids cause harm in the long term is very strong.
Painkillers proliferated, landing in the hands of not just patients but also teens rummaging through their parents’ medicine cabinets, other family members and friends of patients, and the black market!
As a result, opioid overdose deaths trended up - sometimes involving opioids alone, at other times involving drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines, typically prescribed to relieve anxiety. By 2015, opioid overdose deaths totaled more than 33,000 - close to two- thirds of all drug overdose deaths.
Yet many people who lost access to painkillers are still addicted. Some who could no longer obtain painkillers turned to cheaper, more potent opioids: heroin and fentanyl.
Attor ney General Jef f Sessions of the USA recently called drug overdose deaths "the top lethal issue" in the USA and urged law enforcement and social workers to "create and foster a culture that's hostile to drug use." Sessions spoke to the annual conference of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children. He said preliminary data show nearly 60,000 overdose deaths in the US in 2016, the highest ever. "Our current drug epidemic is indeed the deadliest in American history. We've seen nothing like it," said Sessions.
According to Canada’s Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), three Toronto- area men were responsible for allegedly importing more than 1,000 kilograms of pure cocaine worth $250 million into Canada from Argentina recently. Bricks of cocaine were hidden in blocks of cement. Three men face drug importation and drug trafficking charges.
The drug problem in Asia is also getting worse.
The Border Security Force in Bangladesh has seized 3,045 bottles of banned cough syrup Phensedyl near the IndiaBangladesh border in West Bengal's Berhampur. Phensedyl cough syrup contains chlorpheniramine maleate and codeine phosphate as active ingredients.
The bottles were to be smuggled into Bangladesh, where these cough syrups are banned and selling them is punishable.
Last year, Bangladesh’s government had taken a major step to ban the manufacturing of codeine- based cough syrups, which were earlier easily available at chemist shops. These syrups, which are being sold under different brand names, had become a major menace as many youths became addicted to them.
Although Codeine- based cough syrups are effective in suppressing coughs and colds, their misuse emerged as a major problem. The active ingredient Codeine is a narcotic belonging to a class of chemicals called opioids.
Delhi is rapidly turning into a hub for the drug trade. In the past six months, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), together with the Special Cell of Delhi Police - both functioning under the Ministry of Home Affairs ( MHA) - has seized drugs worth Indian rupees 300 crore ( 3,000 million) in the national capital.
According to the anti- smuggling cell of the NCB, starting from January 2017 till July this year, the NCB, working jointly with the special cell of the Delhi Police, has seized drugs worth Rs. 300 crore.
An NCB official said that the NCB’s alertness has helped to crack down on the drug trade in the city and cartels are being busted. “The NCB has become strong and that is the reason why we are busting one or the other drug cartel the country. The centre wants to strengthen the NCB to combat illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs, which is fuelling terrorism on Indian soil,” a senior NCB official said on the condition of anonymity.
Responding to a query regarding why, despite the seizures, drugs are freely available in the capital, the official said there was a need for increased intervention of the police to curb retail drug peddling. “The NCB has limited resources and we cannot be present everywhere, something which the police can easily do. The policing system in the capital needs to be more serious about this. They need to take action against the small drug peddlers who do not come on our radar,” he said.
Sri Lanka is not alone in the fight against drugs. Led by the Ministry of Law and Order and Sou thern Development, the police, security forces, Civil Defence For c e, Special Task Force, customs, excise and National Dangerous Dr u g s C o n t ro l Board of Sri Lanka are in the forefront of this struggle. (The writer is the Chairman of the National Dangerous Drugs Control