Ephedrine scam: UN drug regulator to come knocking for answers

Failure to satisfy visiting team could cost Pakistan’s pharma industry.

Arif Rana July 30, 2012


An international watchdog on illicit drug trade has unilaterally announced that its delegation will visit Pakistan from September 10 to 15 for verification of investigations into the politically-explosive ephedrine drug quota case.

Reliable sources told the Express Investigation Cell (EIC) that a three-member delegation of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) will meet senior officials including the Interior Division, narcotics ministry and investigation agencies directly or indirectly related to the ephedrine probe.

INCB is a UN body with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria, and is authorised to check illicit trade of drugs across the globe.

“We have received a final schedule from INCB for a visit of its mission to Pakistan from September 10 to 15 to see (for) itself the progress made by authorities in the ephedrine case,” a senior official of the Ministry of Narcotics Control (MoNC) said.

Earlier, INCB wanted to dispatch its team to Pakistan in the second week of July to inquire from authorities the status of the case, but the visit was rescheduled for September this year on the request of Pakistan government.

INCB is said to be extremely concerned about the misuse of authority by senior Pakistani authorities in awarding huge quotas of ephedrine, a controlled substance and a potentially addictive drug, to some pharmaceutical firms to allegedly make pep pills and illegally dump them in local and foreign markets such as Iran and European countries. The delegation is looking to get a comprehensive briefing on the drug case from the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF).

When the case of increasing ephedrine-based drugs first emerged, INCB had taken strong notice and urged the government to look into the issue seriously and take all possible measures to put in place a flawless system to check such diversions in the future. INCB had also listed a number of complaints made by Iran, Australia and several other countries, which accused Pakistan of transporting huge quantities of ephedrine-based addictive drugs to their markets. The body also asked Islamabad to present it a clear roadmap of its effort to curb such happenings in the future. In a related development, INCB listed Pakistan as the fourth major ephedrine-based drug supplier to world market in its annual report 2011.

“Despite repeated calls, Pakistani authorities are still undecided [whether] to accommodate INCB’s request to arrange meetings for a comprehensive briefing on the issue. ANF is also not included in the listed of the scheduled meetings with INCB,” said an official.

The ephedrine drug scandal hit Pakistan in the last quarter of 2011. After an initial probe, the case was forwarded to the ANF for thorough investigations. However, from the outset, the ANF has faced huge pressure from top government authorities given that the force has refused to stop investigations and bury the matter. The ANF has also been restrained from arresting or detaining the high-profile names allegedly involved in the matter, such as former health minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin, former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son Musa Gilani as well as the former premier’s personal secretary Khushnood Akhtar Lashari. These figures are accused of granting out-of-turn quotas to select pharmaceutical companies – and the quota was well beyond allowed limits.

Pakistani authorities concede that they may face a tough time providing information, updates, and, most importantly, answers, to the visiting INCB delegation. They also concede that the failure to satisfy the INCB delegation could mean Pakistan would face curbs on its pharmaceutical industry.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2012.