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Synthetic drug ‘Yaba’ makes silent entry into North East with lethal consequences for future

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In the early morning hours of 28 March, the Border Security Force (BSF) confiscated contraband items at Mankachar in Assam bordering Bangladesh during an operation based on specific inputs. The seizures included not just items like cattle and ganja, but also small packets of glittering pills for local consumption and for export to Bangladesh.

A press release from the BSF said that two veteran smugglers €” Samsul Alam and Noor Mohammad €” were arrested during the operation. The consignment of 4,566 tablets that was seized came close on the heels of another seizure of 110 tablets on 20 March in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills which were en route to Bangladesh.

Yaba, a Thai word for “crazy medicine”, is a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine that comes in different flavours and colours. Inhaling its fumes or snorting the crushed powder induces a hyper-alert state so exhilarating that users have been tempted to give up on heroin and ganja. There is also a crystalline variant of this drug called Ice made up entirely of methamphetamine.

The sustained use of Yaba can cause permanent damage to the lungs, kidneys and blood vessels in the brain, which could eventually cause a stroke, cardiac arrest and rotting of the teeth.

BSF officials informed that the arrested duo has been receiving consignments from agents in Meghalaya but they were unaware about the origin of the pills. Officials believe they are imported from laboratories in Myanmar through the Mizoram and Manipur borders. On interrogation, the two accused confessed that Yaba’s demand has been steadily picking up in some border zones, but more important for them was transferring the packets across to Bangladesh where the demand has been steadily soaring.

 

BSF officials after a seizure of Yaba tablets. Image courtesy: BSF press release
BSF officials after a seizure of Yaba tablets. Image courtesy: BSF press release

 

BSF officials after a seizure of Yaba tablets. Image courtesy: BSF

Bangladesh receives the bulk of its supplies through Cox’s Bazar which borders Myanmar. According to reports, the seizures last year in the country yielded 29.4 million pills. These could comprise only a small amount of the total quantity consumed in the neighbouring country. The pills are available in different labels like R7, Guti, Champa and Baba in a wide price range varying between Taka 300 €” 2000.

Alarmed over the situation, the Bangladesh High Court had instructed the government in January to take effective steps to check the influx of illegal narcotics, including Yaba.

Origin of Yaba

In “The Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion In The Golden Triangle,” Bertil Lintner and Michael Black have documented the origin and spread of methamphetamine which was first created in Japan in 1918 by a chemist named Akira Ogata but marketed only in the late 1930s. Called ATS (Amphetamine Type Stimulants), these tablets were widely used by the Japanese and German militaries during the Second World War for helping soldiers to fight round the clock.

According to a report in Spiegel Online, more than 35 million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan were supplied to the German army and air force during the short period between April and July of 1940. These tablets were sent to the Wehrmacht’s (Armed Forces Headquarters) medical divisions under the code name OBM and then distributed directly to the troops. The packages were labeled “Stimulant,” and the instructions recommended a dose of one to two tablets “only as needed, to maintain sleeplessness.”

After the war, production of methamphetamine resumed in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China which subsequently became available in Thailand as Yama since the mid-1950s. Its use decreased in the country in the 1970s after the government clamped a ban.

However, that was only the beginning of Yaba’s journey in the region. As the book reveals, drug gangs which once produced heroin shifted to the tablet from the early 1990s since it was easier to manufacture them in portable laboratories, less expensive and not dependent on the supply of opium. A primary ingredient required for its manufacture is Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride which is supplied to the laboratories from multiple sources in China, Thailand and India.

 

North East At Risk

In the last two decades or so, the bulk of the methamphetamine labs have been concentrated in Myanmar, especially in the Shan state. This state, bordering China and Thailand, is also a hotbed of insurgency. Most of these labs are in territory controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of the largest and well armed drug-dealing outfits in the world. Sections of the Myanmar army are reported to be involved in the trafficking of the drugs.

BSF officials are apprehensive that Yaba’s demand in Bangladesh could fuel more imports from Myanmar into the North East and also lead to a spurt in the export of Actifed pills to the neighbouring country for its pseudoephedrine content.

Arteries that already exist in the North East have been transporting large quantities of Heroin No-4 and gold among other items from the Indo-Myanmar border to different destinations which is evidenced from the seizures in the past few years. The two most prolific routes are from Chandel in Manipur and Champhai in Mizoram that pass through Assam’s Barak Valley to multiple points along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Besides Yaba, another synthetic drug similar in colour and size that has surfaced in the North East is ‘Word is Yours,’ the usage of which is increasing in a section of the youth from the upper income groups in the region. Consignments of these tablets, which are also imported from Myanmar, have been seized at least four times since 2012. Most of them have been seized near the border in Manipur.

(Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men)

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