Although the problem of drug use in Mumbai has been highlighted a lot lately, the threat is not new to the City of Dreams. Almost a century ago, Bombay was in the throes of some sort of drug epidemic and the culprit at the time was cocaine, a recreational and euphoric drug obtained primarily from coca leaves.
Even before that, opium was the favorite recreational drug smoked in the opium dens or madak houses that dotted Bombay. Opium was smoked in two forms: a relatively milder form called Madak and a stronger preparation called Chandu.
A parliamentary commission established in 1893 by the British government to investigate the extent of opium consumption in India recommended that the sale be banned except for medicinal purposes. The recommendations then led to the forced closure of the dens by the local administration in the same year.
However, SM Edwardes, Police Commissioner, Bombay (1909-1916) wrote in his book on the Bombay Police: the supply of drugs only causes the public to seek other more disastrous forms of self-indulgence. In Bombay, the closure of opium shops led directly to a sharp increase in drunkenness and a few years later to the much more pernicious and degrading habit of cocaine use.
Edwardes says that by 1909, the use of cocaine had reached an extraordinary hold on the lower classes of the population, even women and children falling victim to the habit. In previous years, cocaine was subsequently approved by medical authorities as a harmless remedy for everything from the common cold to opium addiction.
The most common method of consuming cocaine was to eat it with betel leaves and nuts (pan-supari).
“The Bombay prison doctor will meet daily with one or more new prisoners arrested for possession or sale of cocaine, or for theft, who are cocaine eaters,” Major AW Tuke, Bombay presidential surgeon wrote in The Indian Medical. Gazette of 1914.
Cocaine was smuggled into Bombay largely from Germany in packages bearing the Merk name, with Null Bazaar in present-day Bhuleshwar considered the epicenter of the trade as the majority of cases have been recorded here.
Interestingly, even at the start of the 20th century, two separate agencies were responsible for controlling the drug trade. The police were aided by a large number of excise officers who reported to the Bombay collector for drug trafficking control.
Bombay Police in 1911, however, embarked on a special campaign sending a European inspector and special duty gendarmerie personnel to and around areas like Bhuleshwar, Null Bazaar, and Dhobi Talao. During a two-month journey, nearly 600 people were arrested and sentenced by the courts.
Meanwhile, ingenious attempts were made to smuggle cocaine into the city. An incident in 1911 involved an Austrian who served as a flight attendant on a ship trying to smuggle 300 grains of cocaine concealed in the soles of his boots.
Two subsequent drug seizures where cocaine valued at Rs 45,500 and another large consignment valued at Rs 17,000 were seized by Bombay police in 1912-13. These busts are said to have upset the local drug market.
The traffickers, however, found a way to overcome this shortage by distributing powdered magnesia and Epsom salts to buyers.
The cycle of cocaine use calmed down after trafficking became difficult with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the sudden halt in the trafficking of mainland steamship companies between Europe and the ‘East.
The lag, however, did not last long, with Mumbai again witnessing an increase in drug supply and use in the 1930s.