BANGKOK – Take the prescription pain killer tramadol, add cough syrup to taste, and ‘taxi’ narcotic becomes Thailand’s first opioid street drug.
Teenagers are increasingly using a new concoction derived from a prescription drug for a cheap high, according to the police.
“Taxi” is the casual name for tramadol, a prescription opioid pain medication, mixed with cough syrup. Although its abuse is on the rise, tramadol itself is not illicit.
The drug comes in green and yellow capsules and is sold at affordable prices.
This widespread misuse of tramadol recently captured public attention and led to a police crackdown which began on Aug 17 when 20 spots in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces were raided. The operation is a joint initiative between the Royal Thai Police and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In one particular raid that day, five suspects were detained and a large amount of powdered tramadol, a capsule-filling machine, filled capsules and bottles of cough syrup were seized at the commercial premises in tambon Suan Luang in Samut Sakhon’s Krathum Baen district.
Pol Col Thiradet Thamsuthi, deputy chief of Narcotics Suppression Bureau, who is leading the crackdown in Samut Sakhon to suppress tramadol abuse, said the Technology Crime Suppression Division had received complaints from parents of high school and university students about drastic changes in their behaviour which they suspected were caused by drug use.
Their children had regularly been missing school and appeared to be isolating themselves from both friends and family, he said.
A drug suppression team was sent to get acquainted with the children. After several days, the police gained the children’s trust and they began to open up about the drugs they had been taking, according to Pol Col Thiradet.
“At first, the officers were puzzled when they were told by one of the teenagers that he was hooked on Taxi. The police searched the teenager’s room and found some green and yellow capsules,” he said.
The police brought them to the FDA where lab tests were conducted to determine what drug they were.
The FDA later confirmed they were tramadol, which doctors normally prescribed to patients who are suffering extreme pain for which a normal painkiller is ineffective.
The medicine is prohibited from being sold to people under 17 and a prescription is required before the drug can be dispensed. Even then, it is only allowed to be sold in quantities not exceeding 20 capsules.
Some teenagers interviewed by the drug suppression team said they normally mixed 20 capsules-worth of tramadol with cough syrup and would then sip the concoction to experience what they called a pleasant “drifting” sensation, said Pol Col Thiradet.
According to the officer, the mixture is highly addictive and can cause withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, seizures and even coma among heavy users. “However, if they continue using the drug, they end up looking and behaving like zombies,” he said.
Parents are advised to keep a close eye out for any changes in their children’s behaviour, Pol Col Thiradet said.
Police found some pharmacies in Ramkhamhaeng and Bang Khen areas of Bangkok were secretly selling tramadol to the youths, he said.
The investigators managed to locate the suspected pharmacies after questioning the teen users. But, since tramadol is not categorised as an illegal narcotic, police found the task of dealing with the pharmacies far from easy. They cannot simply raid the pharmacies because the drug can be sold legally to adults with a proper prescription.
The police then worked with the FDA to trace the origin of the tramadol sold at the suspected pharmacies. If the Tramadol production was not approved by the FDA, the police might have a case, said Pol Col Thiradet.
Unauthorised producers of tramadol are regarded as makers of fake medicine, he said. But technically, to seek prosecution against someone for producing fake medicine, police are required to find and seize the containers, labels and medicine first, he said.
The offence carries a maximum prison term of five years and fine of up to 10,000 baht. “The [producers] know fairly well what they must do to avoid getting into trouble with the law. So they separated their production, packaging and labeling bases. The processes were carried out at different places,” he said.
Each container of tramadol contains 1,000 capsules and is sold for 1,700 baht, while the average retail price of the drug is 3.50 baht per capsule, which makes it affordable to most teens, he said.
Deputy Tourist Police chief Surachate “Big Joke” Hakparn, who is supervising operations to halt the rising abuse of tramadol and the illegal trade of the drug, has warned that more crackdowns are on their way.
By Wassayos Ngamkham