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Hard Drugs Hit a New High in India

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The tabloidesque story is straight out of Hollywood: a politician's son is wheeled into the hospital after a night of partying, only a month after his father, a leading politician, was gunned down by his brother. The doctors admit that the prodigal son's blood is swimming with traces of cocaine, opiates, barbiturates and cannabis, among other substances. It's on the cover of every paper, with one daily dedicating half its front page to a graphic-novel style recreation of the fateful, bacchanalian night of partying.

But this isn't L.A. It's New Delhi, and the patient is Rahul Mahajan, son of Pramod, former leader of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who was killed in a family dispute last month. In this conservative city of 14 million, corruption scandals may be routine, but designer drugs have historically seemed as easy to find as steak.

And yet, for the past week, the Indian media have been playing up the Mahajan scandal as emblematic of a hidden hard drug scourge among India's elite. ExposÚs detail how cocaine is purportedly all the rage among chic Delhi denizens, with posh South Delhi neighborhoods singled out as coke, acid, and ecstasy hotbeds. Journalists routinely quote anonymous socialites, designers, and models on the drug scene at clubs, raves, and even weddings. One paper went so far as to list Bollywood stars living in Bombay who are rumored to have hefty coke habits. A particularly juicy allegation making the rounds is that wealthy Indians frequently use 500 rupee notes — worth around ten dollars — to snort the stuff.

All the media attention has left a few lone voices wondering if a high-class drug scene is an inevitable consequence of India's recent economic growth and newfound wealth. It's no secret that there are drug-fueled raves on the outskirts of Delhi, and just last week, Indian authorities seized 200 kilograms of cocaine from a South African ship in a Bombay port. Authorities and journalists alike point fingers at India's Nigerian community, who they claim arrive on easily obtainable student visas before beginning to deal cocaine and heroin to the wealthy. In the capital, four cocaine busts have been made this year — after nine busts in the whole of 2005. But the number of arrests may soon grow in the wake of the Mahajan scandal.

Soft drugs traditionally don't raise too many eyebrows in India — a vast swath of the population, from government ministers to saffron-clad Hindu holy men, occasionally consume bhang, a potent and popular cannabis tincture. But India's wealthy have hitherto frowned upon hard drugs, looking upon them as the purvey of the country's poor. For years, India has grappled with "brown sugar" —low-grade heroin produced locally or imported from Afghanistan or Burma — that has left a trail of overdoses and HIV infections in its wake.

While scandal-watching in India can often seem like a national pastime, this recent, rather breathless coverage of the party drug scene conveys a naivete that is almost endearing. Journalists are reporting that heroin is usually snorted, and while it's strange that papers are printing cocaine's street price, what's stranger still is that their estimates are all over the place. One paper reported matter-of-factly that cocaine "makes one euphoric and enhances sexual prowess on consumption," and boasted that "one can dance all night long after consuming it."

Last year, after a cocaine bust in a swanky Delhi restaurant, a Narcotics Control Bureau officer confidently declared that most of the cocaine users in the capital are fashion designers and hairdressers. But in a country of a billion, with more and more money to spend, it's becoming very clear just how much bigger and more diverse the market for hard drugs really is.