“I’ve stopped scoring entirely because of the number of stories of people getting caught,” said Ashish, who, like all the users and dealers quoted in this piece, asked us to change his name for security and privacy reasons.
Ashish, 29, moved to the city of Bengaluru, often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India, in 2020, where he works at a start-up. “I heard that people were paying Rs 200,000 to Rs 300,000 ($2,500-3,800) after the police came to their homes by tracking their UPI payments [to dealers],” he said. The Unified Payments Interface, or UPI, is a payment system that allows the instant transfer of funds between two bank accounts via a mobile interface. It is regulated by the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank.
“One of them was caught through a four-month-old UPI transaction,” Ashish recalled. “Somebody else was caught because of his dealer, and another because of his friend. The police asked the guy to call his friends to smoke up together, and instead [nabbed] them.”
Ashish is describing a now common predicament in India’s cities, where law enforcement have stepped up surveillance to curb “massive drug activities”. The efforts have intensified since the country’s first lockdown and a series of celebrity scandals, with the government launching initiatives like Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan (NMBA) (Drugs-free India Campaign) in December 2021 as part of its “zero-tolerance policy.”
“The Modi government considers drug abuse a major threat to national security that can only be dealt with through overall coordination,” officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs said to India Today.
According to data from the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), there are 100 million drug users in the country, with consumption rising 70 percent in the last eight years. In Bengaluru alone, there has been a nearly 10-fold increase in cases over the last three years, with India’s Silicon Valley registering the highest number of cases related to narcotics in the country in 2020. News reports and online forums refer to people’s phones being snatched, with cops searching their chat and photo applications for keywords like “score,” “ganja” and “pot”.
Internationally, technology has played a mixed role in the drug market. Across the U.S. and Europe, where weed is getting increasingly legalised, tech start-ups are innovating how people get high. New breakthroughs in tracking and detection have aided law enforcement, and improved drug treatment services to help healthcare professionals reach more patients.
But as the pandemic fuelled a major increase in drug usage worldwide, according to the World Drug Report 2021 by the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), buyers and sellers soon overcame initial lockdown restrictions. Advances in communication technology, e-commerce, and digital payments have made it easier to expand operations and bypass the law.
In India, the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act prohibits the production, possession, and sale of most commonly known drugs, including weed, known locally as ganja (the “flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant”) or charas (the resin, which also produces hashish). And in a world that increasingly necessitates that we live our lives online, a peculiar kind of resilience has infused its urban drug networks – where technology has been both a boon and a bane for everyone involved.
Vishesh, a 27-year-old engineer at a crypto start-up, recalled a troubling incident outside his suburban Bengaluru home in late July.
“Two cops pulled up to my car on a Monday at 11PM, and told my friend and I that we smelled,” he told VICE. “They said if we didn’t hand over our phones, they’d take us to the station.” When asked by the cops for a bribe of Rs 200,000 ($2,515), Vishesh realised he’d have to find a way out. He negotiated the amount down to Rs 80,000 ($1,000), but the cops searched his phone and found a picture of a joint, suggesting he should pay more. “They said I must have done cocaine also. You won’t imagine how thoroughly they searched my car and where all they touched me, without even asking.” After about two hours, a lecture on the perils of drugs, and trips to a few cash machines, Vishesh could finally return home.
Two days later, when he stepped out to score, he made sure to change the sellers’ contact names on his phone, and wore a crisply ironed shirt and perfume to “look well-dressed” – basically play on the classist angle that makes well-dressed people less suspicious to cops.
These are among the milder measures people have resorted to in the face of heightened scrutiny. For Sita, a 30-year-old freelance content writer, getting married seemed the best solution. Sita came home one day in November, last year, to find her partner missing, not knowing that his UPI payments had been used by the NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau), Bengaluru, to track and pick him up at his flat. When she tried to file a Missing Persons complaint several hours later, she was dismissed for not being related to him. That’s when she called her partner’s siblings for help, but the stress of having to prove her relationship to the authorities got to her. Two months later, the couple decided to get engaged.
“It is legal for cops to check you for evidence, if they suspect you,” said Advait Tamhankar, a lawyer from the legal team of Arbaaz Seth Merchant, a co-accused in the recent high-profile Aryan Khan (non) drug case. “According to Section 37 of the NDPS Act,” said Tamhankar, “all offences are cognisable. So when you, as a police [officer], suspect that someone has committed an offence under the Act, you can straight away search that person for that offence.”
Bribes, on the other hand, are an unwritten contract that neither party will turn on the other. “If you have done nothing [wrong], it is good to be aware of your rights [so as to not get extorted],” said Tamhankar. “According to Section 20B-2A of the NDPS Act, the punishment for possessing small quantities of ganja, for example, can extend to one year, and 20 years for commercial quantities.” That is, in addition to fines.
The increased scrutiny has caused sellers across the country to take precautionary measures – or re-evaluate their career options entirely. Dinesh is a 25-year-old delivery executive at a logistics start-up in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and its second-most populous city. Dinesh sells weed and hash through social media apps by posting pictures and taking orders via DMs. He told VICE that he pipes down for a few days whenever he hears about crackdowns. “I do it as a side-hustle because of this only, because it’s not legal.”
A college dropout, Dinesh makes an extra Rs 10,000 ($126) a month by selling to students and young professionals in the city. He claims his personal use also helps him manage neurological disorders. Intrigued by the concept of “weed vending machines,” he hopes to start a business in the space if and when it is legalised in India. “I only sell marijuana and hash, never hard drugs,” he said. “I never intended to sell. I just wanted to start a stoner community and when I posted pictures, people started to reach out to me. And I needed the money and rich people need stuff.”
Rachel, a Bengaluru resident who sells baked edibles, attested to this too. While Rachel refused to divulge her age and whether this was her only gig, VICE looked at the menu she sends customers over an encrypted chat application. The edibles contain “green stuff” that she gets from her dealer, “who went missing for a long time, but these guys always find a way back,” she said. Brownies are listed at Rs 300 ($3.79) a piece and chocolates at Rs 500 ($6.31) for three pieces, followed by a disclaimer: “NO DISCOUNTS, NO NEGOTIATION, NO BULK ORDER/ REGULAR CUSTOMER DISCOUNT.” There are also instructions on delivery (charges as per popular food and delivery apps); payment (via common Indian payment apps); and storage (with details on refrigeration, how the edibles will kick in, and how long they will last).
“It wasn’t always so brazen,” Sita recalled, in half-horror and amazement. “When I had just moved to Bengaluru, straight out of college, seven years ago, everyone used to smoke up then too, but we used to be a lot more quiet about it. Now, after the last two years, cops must be like, ‘At least do it shamefully, no? What do you mean you’re sending money through payment apps? Obviously, you’ll get caught!’”
Procuring illicit substances using technology, which is inevitably entangled with other aspects of daily life, is a double-edged sword not only for buyers and sellers, but law enforcement too.
While chat and payment apps have made it easier to gather evidence once someone is held, technology has also made it harder to trace and catch operators. “What you see is one percent of the internet,” said Saadik Pasha, a police inspector from the anti-narcotics wing of Bengaluru’s Central Crime Branch. “On the darknet, you can buy anything – MDMA, ecstasy, LSD, even cocaine or heroin – whatever you want. And if you pay with crypto, it’s impossible to track.” The darknet, also referred to as the dark web, is an encrypted portion of the internet that is not indexed by search engines, so that specific configurations and networks are needed to access it.
Pasha added that it isn’t just these savvy use cases that complicated matters. “In the name of electronics or household items, people send each other all this through delivery and grocery apps. On chat applications, they can use encryption, disappearing messages, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls, etc. How will you track, then?” VoIP networks are more connected to the internet than traditional phone services, which exposes them to attacks by experts, but also offers more possibilities for encryption and security.
With large, fragmented, and isolated networks – which also have deep interconnections within – the size and scope of the market is challenging. “Natural stuff” like ganja and hashish is bought by working-class labour and white-collar professionals alike, coming into Bengaluru from nearby places like Vijayawada, Mysore, Orissa and Bihar. Meanwhile, the “synthetic stuff” – LSD, MDMA, cocaine, and heroin – is used by a smaller, more affluent segment that sellers procure for over the darknet.
The police have created special units to track darknet activities over the last year, resulting in large seizures of narcotics. Those caught dealing had procured drugs from the U.S., the UK, the Netherlands, and Poland, using cryptocurrency to pay foreign vendors. The drugs were then delivered to the doorsteps of their Indian customers via popular delivery apps, disguised in gift-wrapped packages; payments were collected over UPI; and communication happened over encrypted-chat groups, which often contained hundreds of buyers.
“It’s quite resource intensive to nab a dealer,” said Raman Gupta, Joint Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru. Catching one involves an informant pretending to be a genuine customer for a while, and using surveillance over a period of time. “You have to outshine them in every aspect,” he said. “Before [sellers] speak to you, they check how you got their number. Sometimes they request a video call to know who you are and how you look. Getting good cases is difficult. The informant also needs money.”
It doesn’t help that sellers often quickly bounce back after serving jail time, or even operate through it. “This is their source of income,” explained Tamhankar, recalling a seller who said he wouldn’t stop even after he got out, because his entire life had already gone into this. “Even in jail, they have contacts. So you can put them in a de-addiction course, but they may be addicted to selling drugs, and there is no de-addiction course for that.”
Gupta believed that the solution for repeat offences was harsher penalties, both for sellers and buyers, and awareness drives across schools and colleges to educate people that “drugs are a menace.” For a “new generation with disposable incomes, it starts as fun, but can easily become a habit or an addiction they do not realise,” he said.
Pasha, the police inspector from the anti-narcotics wing who has lived in Bengaluru for 20 years, attributed India’s rising drug culture to an increasingly modernised and apathetic society. “Previously, there was less impact of technology, social media, this hippie culture,” said Pasha. “But now people have adopted this very easy-going lifestyle, they want everything instantly – even euphoria.” He claimed that narcotics rewired one’s nervous system, making the chase for rewards constant, and bemoaned the country’s declining social fabric. “We used to have high informal social control. But the era in India since the 90s is one of consumerism and capitalism. People are borrowing behaviours from the West, and traditional values are on the decline.”
Those on the other side arrived at similar, yet lass damning, diagnoses. Sellers like Dinesh thought that India’s “rap scene is also giving a boost.” “New-age rappers openly smoke in videos,” he said. “Mostly cigarettes only, but you can see bongs in some videos and they talk about taking pills and syrup.”
For Ashish, such harsh restrictions – especially over weed, which is being increasingly decriminalised across the world – are making him contemplate on ways to leave India, “which many of my friends are thinking about,” he said. Sita remarked on the influence of the city, and the freedom it finally gave her after living in places that had a 7PM curfew for women. “I’m obviously not going to do this with my parents’ money,” she said. “Our generation and class does this because we manage well-paying jobs too. But this also cuts us off from any real problems, sadly.”
In the face of such hassles, staying old-school has been the key for some sellers. Ajay, who runs an airport-taxi business and has lived in Bengaluru for 27 years, has also been selling weed on the side for the last four. He buys 30-gram packets that come from Mysore for Rs 900 ($11), and sells them in Bengaluru for Rs 1,200 ($15).
“I am not a big player,” he told VICE. “That is when it gets dangerous. I just sell to a few people who have known me for long now and are like friends. It would’ve been easy to sell in the hundreds of thousands, but that comes with more responsibility. I like driving my cab.”