It’s a nightmare that Deepam wished he would have woken up from sooner – the kind that irreversibly changes your life, leaving you as vulnerable as a lost child in a crowded train station, and makes you want to believe in a god.
In the desert state of Rajasthan, on the outskirts of its capital city Jaipur, the 23-year-old photographer consumed weed that was likely spiked.
“My friends and I were together at this house party,” he told VICE. “[When] I felt my mind go numb the moment I consumed it. I was aware of whatever was happening around me, but I couldn’t respond either verbally or physically.”
Deepam lay spread-eagled on the floor while the effect of the spiked weed slowly began to manifest. He recalled an argument breaking out over something trivial, further exacerbated by the effects of the drug, followed by fist fights. Somewhere in the background, “Prison Song” by the heavy-metal band System Of A Down blared from a boombox.
Ironically, the song critiques the easy accessibility of drugs: “Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids/ I buy my crack, my smack, my bitch, right here in Hollywood.”
Deepam was crawling on the floor, removed from the violent altercation taking place a few feet away. “I crawled under the bed as if guided by some force, but it only made things worse because I felt claustrophobic and like I was going to die.”
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) of 1985 prohibits the consumption, storage and supply of cannabis or weed in India. However, spiked weed is something that the NDPS Act did not foresee. Spiked weed is the contamination of the drug with any other substance. Often introduced by dealers, contaminants can include shoe polish, cheaper drugs, anxiety pills, detergent powder, caffeine, and ground glass, among other nasty adulterants.
Gayatri Bhatia, a doctor who has done a three-year super specialisation course in addiction psychiatry and worked extensively with spiked weed patients at the All India Institute Of Medical Science (AIIMS) in Delhi, told VICE that spiked weed usually has two kinds of adulterants: psychoactive and psychologically inert.
“Psychoactive substances are opioids or drugs that have a mental or a neurological effect of their own, which complicates the picture,” she said. “Psychologically inert adulterants such as ground glass, shoe polish or eucalyptus oil result in physical effects ranging from severe bronchitis to asthma and permanent scarring of the lungs, which is very painful [for the patient] and extremely hard to treat.”
There is no separate punishment for dealers who lace or spike weed with these additives, according to lawyer Advait Tamhankar, who was part of the legal team of Arbaaz Seth Merchantt, a co-accused in the infamous Aryan Khan drug case that turned out to be a non-case.
“However, the Supreme Court ruled in the 2020 Hira Singh vs Union of India case that regardless of what the drug has been spiked with, the quantity of the entire mixture must be considered as the final drug quantity,” Tamhankar told VICE. This means the possessor of 20kg of weed or higher can still be punished like it is commercial quantity, whether or not the weed is spiked. However, if 8kgs of the 20 has adulterants, the batch would still be penalised like it’s a 20kg one and not a 11kg one.
He explained that the 2020 case marked a watershed moment for law enforcement authorities, who could now prosecute dealers without having to subtract the spiked elements when mentioning the final drug quantity in the charge sheet. The judgment was important because a 2001 amendment to the NDPS Act had determined the length of punishment based on the weight of the illegal substance.
“For instance, with cocaine, the ‘commercial quantity’ specified in the act is 100 grams, so if you’re found with that quantity, you’re looking at 20 years of imprisonment,” he said. “Before the Hira Singh judgement, if half of those 100 grams was caffeine, then the contraband would fall under ‘small quantity’ with lesser punishment.”
For weed or ganja, the commercial quantity is 20kg and the small quantity is 1kg. Tamhankar further added that in cases where two offending drugs are mixed, the drug with the more serious punishment attached to it would be considered for determining the cumulative weight of the entire mixture.
So, why contaminate one of the most widely used and cheapest drugs available? According to Parash, a 29-year-old dealer based in Delhi, there’s more than one reason. Parash asked for a pseudonym for fear of legal repercussions.
“Weed is illegal in India, so the quality is not consistent,” he told VICE. “In India, many dealers tend to spike weed with rat poison, as it prevents rodents from splurging on it because they are attracted to the seeds of the cannabis plant. Other dealers also spike weed with eucalyptus oil, sugar and jaggery syrup, so that it becomes heavy and masks the smell.”
In some cases, he added, dealers also spike weed with smack – also called black tar heroin which is an illegal form of a strong opioid drug and is cheaper than weed. So, giving a stronger high at the cheapest price is also one of the reasons dealers spike the drug.
“You can get high even from smoking detergent, but it comes at a heavy price and can fuck up your throat completely,” said Parash. “In certain Delhi circles, some dealers put acid battery water in what is commonly called brown weed.”
Fucking up one’s throat is one of the milder consequences. Bhatia, the addiction psychiatrist, recalled that one of the most disturbing cases of spiked weed that she encountered was that of a 19-year-old.
“He consumed spiked weed for over a year,” she said. “Within months, he reported having severe throat complications. When we performed a throat endoscopy on him, we discovered that he was consuming weed spiked with some particulate material – glass, sand, we couldn’t say for sure.”
In the end, the damage to his lungs and airways was permanent. Bhatia said that he was put on a heavy dose of steroids but to no avail. “The problem wasn’t cannabis, but the particulate material it was spiked with. He is a singer who can no longer sing and says his life is now completely ruined.”
Parash admitted to spiking his supply in the past with his own anti-anxiety pills to enhance the high. The pills hook customers who are unaware that they are addicted to the medication and not the weed itself.
Making people numb sells, he said. “So, you can use anything to make them numb.”
Limits of Sanity
Another reason spiked weed is so common – many people are unaware weed can be spiked, such as college students who are now often targeted by dealers. There is a hippie connotation attached to weed like it’s something natural and organic, and hence, safe. While the plant might still not spiral things out of control, few young people know the weed they buy could be adulterated.
Amit Ghawate, who heads the Mumbai office of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) that is under the federal home ministry, told VICE that in his experience, spiked weed is prevalent throughout India.
“The average age of consumption is going down every day, starting even from school days,” he said. “The larger issue is that people start with weed and end up getting addicted to different synthetic substances [added to it]. I have seen the worst kind of cases because the tolerance of the consumer only increases.”
“Spiked weed works on a simple equation of demand and supply,” Ghawate added. “In some cases, the consumers themselves demand a certain type of spiked weed because it gives them the high they want.”
On the enforcement side, the NCB ensures that the spiking, or “cutting agent” as the bureau refers to it, is chemically analysed by their labs and the proportion of its deadliness is added to the charge sheet.
In the case of Abhimanyu, a 29-year-old graphic designer who preferred to be anonymous so as to not invite legal repercussions, the realisation that his weed was spiked came only after a dangerous experience.
“In colleges that are in far-flung areas, including mine, students are desperate for weed,” he said. “When I first consumed spiked weed, the hallucinations were so scary that I could see my projections in different spaces and almost felt like I was jumping off the ledge of my college. Another friend of mine who had consumed the same weed fell on the staircase and nearly suffered a concussion.” These inexplicable happenings prompted Abhimanyu to examine his high. On a whim, he crushed the drug only to find a black residue. It turned out to be shoe polish. “I haven’t consumed weed since.”
Bhatia said that consuming unadulterated weed will usually not result in these experiences or reactions, and that people must be alert to the fact.
“We ask patients for the colour of the weed they consumed or the price they purchased it for, because they don’t know it’s spiked in the first place,” she said. “Usually, the cheaper the weed, the higher the [chances of it being spiked].”
How does one recognise spiked weed? Bhatia said that the usual markers – vivid colours, foul smell, experiencing symptoms such as hallucinations and burning not usually associated with weed, excessive seeds, black residue when crushed – are not necessarily helpful in a country like India where the majority of the weed is spiked in some form or another.
Bhatia suggested a few DIY hacks that can hint if the substance is spiked. If running weed against a CD leaves scratches, it is probably spiked with glass. Major throat irritation after smoking might indicate adulteration, so would any odour out of character or no odour at all. If dipping the weed in cold water forms a firm, translucent coating, it is spiked with wax. If bubbles form after you add a small amount of weed to a water container and shake it briefly, detergent is the likely spiking agent.
For Parash the dealer, things came to a head when his own friends started getting affected by the disastrous world of spiked weed – the guilt was simply too crushing for him to continue.
“One of my friends sat in front of the college and just started crying and howling. She kept saying, ‘can you end it, please, can you end it’ and that was really scary because, for the first time, I could see the physical manifestation of what I’d done.”