NARCONOMICS

While destroying the production of a soft drug, cannabis, which is freely available in some parts of the developed world, a massive market has been created for arguably a hard drug

In early December 2018, Police Narcotic Bureau (PNB) officials seized 213kg of heroin in the seas off Beruwala, hidden in a fishing trawler. This, according to police, has an estimated street value of around Rs2.8 billion (that makes the current price per gram of heroin Rs13,000 – a figure that changes rapidly with time). This was also the second-largest haul of heroin ever detected in Sri Lanka. The biggest haul was detected in August 2013 when Customs agents seized 250kg of heroin in a container from Pakistan. In addition, police have found 200kg of substance stashed inside plastic bags in a car north of Colombo in May 2017 and a stock of 104kg of heroin in a raid carried out in the Kalubowila and Battaramulla areas in July 2018.

These figures are of little use in deciding the size of the ‘nacro-economy’ in Sri Lanka for multiple reasons: 1) what police seize could be just the tip of the iceberg – nobody has figures for demand and supply; 2) heroin is not the only hard drug, although it is the most predominant; 3) local consumption and what is transported though the country are two different things; and 4) prices are volatile. So, it is meaningless to estimate the local market based per se on this information.

Still, it does not mean we are at a complete loss. There are other ways of totaling the size of the drug trade with a certain margin of accuracy. Two commonly used methods are a supply-side approach and a demand-side approach. Both make the best use of limited information— either about drug production or use—and both need a series of assumptions to fill the blanks. The supply-side approach utilizes satellite data that estimates coca and poppy production. This is of no relevance to us, as Sri Lanka only grows cannabis, which has few side effects, if any.

Demand-side estimates, on the other hand, are derived from information gathered in household surveys. In addition, they use hospital admissions data, surveys of the prison population and other data sources. Researchers typically make assumptions to account for under-reporting, which can be substantial. They also account for the fact that heavy users are generally under-represented in household surveys, and often in other data sources. As they are the key consumers, missing even a tiny fraction of heavy users can result in large inaccuracies in demand-side estimates.

Two commonly used methods are a supply-side approach and a demand-side approach. Both make the best use of limited information— either about drug production or use—and both need a series of assumptions to fill the blanks. The supply-side approach utilizes satellite data that estimates coca and poppy production

Sri Lanka’s data is still thin, but a 2017 study by the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board estimated that there were over 45,000 heroin users in the island. Assuming the aggregate need of 4kg per day, the annual local heroin consumption could be about 1,440kg, with current market prices worth around Rs19 billion. Not bad. For a $87 billion economy, it constitutes 0.12% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. In relative terms, it is nearly three times the annual revenue of Sri Lankan Railways. Mind you, this is only local heroin consumption. It does not account for the use of other hard and soft drugs, and the transit business.

Given Sri Lanka’s geographical proximity to the Golden Triangle (covering areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) and the Golden Crescent (Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), the two largest opium-producing regions in the world since the 1950s, it is highly probable that Sri Lanka became a transit hub.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) finds no definitive or consistent information regarding the final destination of the ‘excess’ heroin trafficked into Sri Lanka. Indian and Sri Lankan authorities also appear to possess no evidence of heroin being smuggled out of Sri Lanka so far (there are no significant seizures of heroin exiting Sri Lanka, except at ports, nor are there any major seizures of heroin sourced though Sri Lanka seized elsewhere in the world). However, things can change and it’s a question of supply chain development.

Again, except for the amounts seized, little data is available on heroin traffic across Sri Lanka. To quote Sagala Ratnayake, then-minister of law and order, addressing the United Nations’ Security Council Open Arria Formula meeting in June 2017, the Police Narcotics Bureau with the support of Customs has seized over 1,700kg of cocaine in major seizures only in 2016 and 2017. This includes the largest cocaine haul in South Asia of 928kg from a container of timber on a Colombian ship bound for India when it docked at the Colombo Port, with an estimated street value of Rs12 billion. It may be possible that some of these vessels release partial shipments for the local market.

Another key concern for Sri Lanka is what is commonly known as KG (Kerala Ganja). Many misconceptions prevail about this product. In the absence of comprehensive research, we continue to believe them. Local authorities categorize this too as cannabis, but that could be a serious mistake.

Cannabis, aka marijuana or ganja/kansa as it is better known locally, is a soft drug – the only one produced locally. It is mostly grown in the dry zone – particularly in the Eastern and Southern provinces. The land area under cannabis cultivation was estimated to be about 500 hectares (5 sq.km) a few years ago, but this may have shrunk since. These areas are getting rapidly populated. Also, police now use technology – particularly drones equipped with cameras to track ganja cultivations. Consequently, the local ganja production has dramatically thinned over the past few years.

Enter KG. Is it ganja? Nobody is sure, but key differences between the two products suggest otherwise. KG is supposed to give a ‘quick high’ for a relatively longer period with an exceptionally little amount consumed, compared to the local version. Users typically assume it at least to be a different species of the same genus cannabis or a chemically treated version of the natural substance. Still, this per se does not explain the vast characteristic differences.

Indian media, on the other hand, questions how such large amounts of KG is seized en route to Sri Lanka from Kerala, which is not particularly known for ganja farming. Kerala is a small state with a high population – density 2.5 times that of Sri Lanka. It simply does not have area for plantations. Kerala excise officials maintain that no mass ganja cultivation is happening in any part of the state. Chances of smuggling through the western coast of India too are remote, especially owing to the thick population. If this were the case, KG could be another unidentified hard drug in the guise of ganja that originates not in Kerala but elsewhere and is smuggled through the east coast in India, a route well known for heroin smuggling.

So what have we been doing? While carefully destroying the production of a soft drug, which they continue to make freely available in the developed world, a massive market has been created for arguably a hard drug.

Is cannabis safe? Not really, but it is neither as addictive nor as harmful as earlier thought. Opinions about cannabis are changing worldwide. Although drugs are typically associated with crime, most criminal activity tied to ganja has to do with illegal distribution, not violence committed by people who smoke it

Is cannabis safe? Not really, but it is neither as addictive nor as harmful as earlier thought. Opinions about cannabis are changing worldwide. Although drugs are typically associated with crime, most criminal activity tied to ganja has to do with illegal distribution, not violence committed by people who smoke it. In comparison, the number of crimes that are committed after excessive alcohol consumption is greater and far worse than what’s going on with ganja. Violent assaults, in particular, are often fueled by alcohol, not by ganja, which calms rather than provoking. Canada has recently made it legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes. An October 2016, a national poll suggested that about five million adult Canadians now use cannabis at least once a month. That does not make it any safer than it is, but yes, it speedily becomes socially acceptable in the west. There is no point ignoring that fact, and letting another potentially detrimental product eat local markets.

In this backdrop, it is high time Sri Lanka revisits its drugs policy, which remains largely archaic and Victorian. In one way, it is essential that local authorities join hands with regional and international bodies to break Indian Ocean drug trafficking routes. On the other hand, less harmful soft drugs (may be even soft liquor options like beer) should not be discouraged, pushing users towards hard drugs. While taking these efforts, one must remember that we fight a practically hard fight and solutions need lots of commitment and planning. It is a difficult game, but one that’s worth attempting.