An investigation by SBS Punjabi radio has revealed that South Asian grocery stores in Australia are selling dangerous drugs which are prohibited.
The trade is so lucrative that it has now allegedly become the prime source of income for some of these small businesses, who are offered discounts on their grocery product imports only if they also agree to purchase (and sell on) the opiate tablets.
A laboratory test on a herbal product bought in Melbourne, reveals that it contains a significant amount of opium, and some experts believe consuming just two tablets will give the user a "hit".
Named Kamini Vidrawan Ras, and popularly known as 'Kamini tablets' this ayurvedic medication is sold as an aphrodisiac or often as a stimulant by many South Asian grocery stores around Australia, and as alleged to SBS, more and more people are getting addicted to it.
And yet, the tablets are actually illegal in Australia.
In a statement to SBS, the Australian Border Force (ABF) explained, "the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 prohibit the importation of medications such as this, which contain opium."
One woman, who says her husband had become addicted to these tablets before finally weaning off, told SBS, "he became aggressive and his behaviour changed completely while he was using Kamini."
"He became violent at home with me and my children. Apart from ruining our family life, it has also damaged his health."
Preferring to remain anonymous, this woman told SBS, that her husband is an emergency services worker, who works 12-hour night shifts and began taking Kamini tablets "as a supplement," to get through his long days.
He believed it made him "physically stronger and energetic".
But she says soon his addiction became so bad that he was going through 3-4 bottles within two weeks - at roughly $100 a bottle, she says this added a huge financial burden to the family.
Listen to the full Radio story from SBS Punjabi below:
WHAT IS KAMINI?
'Kamini tablets' exist under the guise of several different names. SBS commissioned a chemical test on one such brand, known as 'Multani Kamini Vidrawan Ras'.
Nicknamed "Indian viagra" because of its aphrodisiac quality, it is sold as an ayurvedic remedy to improve mens' virility in India.
Import of Kamini into Australia is prohibited, with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) stating, "these tablets pose a serious risk to your health and should not be taken."
The lab testing of Kamini tablets by Sharp and Howells (commissioned by SBS) has revealed these tablets contain compounds codeine, morphine and papaverine, which are major components of opium.
Each handmade tablet varies in size and weight: between 0.2 and 0.4 g, with each containing up to five per cent opium. The test result also revealed presence of heavy metal mercury in Kamini tablets, which can be toxic.
"These tablets pose a serious risk to your health and should not be taken" - Therapeutic Goods Administration
What do the experts say?
John Franceschini has been analysing chemicals in consumable products at Sharp and Howells for over three decades now.
His laboratory, which is accredited by the National Association of Testing Authority, conducted a detailed chemical analysis of the Multani Kamini Vidrawan Ras for SBS.
Mr Franchescini is particularly concerned about the illicit substances found in Kamini tablets, because he found that the sample tested, "contained morphine and codeine, in a combination that is typical of opium."It was also found to contain the chemical papaverine, and mercuric sulphide, a metallic compound that can be toxic in large quantities.
According to Mr Franceschini, "Upto five per cent of the Kamini pill was made up of opium, so about one part in twenty, which is actually quite high.
"Even two pills could cause an overdose”
"And because these pills are hand-made and quite variable in size, we estimate each tablet can contain anywhere between 2mg to 20 mg of opium."
He explains, "these (pills) were meant to give the user a whack, and it would be very easy to overdose on them."
He adds that if on average a tablet contains 10mg of opium, "then even two pills could cause an overdose," in some consumers.
Mr Franchescini also highlights that mercury, another component found in Kamini tablets, can be toxic to humans.
He says it is of great concern that this product is openly available in the market and is potentially being consumed without any medical need or supervision.
Listen to the full interview with John Franceschini, below:
What do users say?
"People start with one or two tablets in the beginning - and I have seen a guy who sculled down 12 tablets in one go."
Rohan, who runs a private business in Melbourne, says he became curious after he became aware of Kamini tablets.
"I saw this being sold at my friend’s grocery store," says Rohan. "He told me it had opium."
"I couldn’t believe opium could be sold over the counter in stores in Australia.
"So, just to experiment, I had one pill and it gave me a hit. I was driving back home, I could feel my nervous system slow down, my reactions were getting slow."
He never took them again.
Rohan says Kamini tablets are easily available at many grocery stores, and a lot of night-time workers like cabbies and truck drivers take the tablets because they say it keeps them alert, and it seems to go undetected in road-side tests.
He elaborates, "I asked people whose primary occupation is driving and they tell me they have been pulled over but it doesn’t show in breath test. Some have even been swab tested, nothing shows up even in that."
The Australian Drug Foundation confirms that roadside testing for drugs usually involves taking a saliva sample to test for drugs such as cannabis, speed, ice, crystal meth and ecstasy - and not for opium.
Anecdotally the Kamini tablets, like many opiates, appear to be quite addictive.
Rohan told SBS, "People start with one or two tablets in the beginning - and I have seen a guy who sculled down 12 tablets in one go.
"The shopkeeper friend of mine also told me about one guy who sculled half a bottle at one time."
"They say it’s very easy to give it up, but I am pretty sure it’s not.
"I have seen them take it regularly – that’s what worries me the most.
"They are my friends - I think they are addicted to it.
"If they don’t take it, they feel there isn’t enough energy in the body."
Users consume it to 'stay alert'
Opiates are typically known to dull the brain and make the person sluggish. So what is the appeal for people who are consuming Kamini tablets in order to stay awake and alert for longer?
Dr Aurora is a Melbourne-based medical practitioner and President of the Australia India Society of Victoria, who sees many patients from Melbourne’s Indian community. He is also aware of the popularity of Ayruvedic medicines in the Indian community.
Dr Aurora said he was concerned when he saw the results of the lab tests commissioned by SBS, "I can’t understand why or how this medication can be used as a stimulant."
"All main components like codeine, morphine, papaverine and mercury definitely do not stimulate the senses – in fact, they make a person lethargic and sleepy."
He highlights though that opiates may not be the only active ingredient of concern to be found in Kamini tablets.
He explains, "this pill contains many other ayurvedic and herbal components that we have little understanding about."
"It is possible that the combined effect of all these herbs and chemicals may be that a person feels stimulated.
"Perhaps it’s a placebo effect that people 'feel good' because they’ve been told this is a good medication that will keep them alert."
Dr Aurora also highlighted his concerns for the users who may be targeting the drug especially for the 'alertness' factor.
"I feel Kamini is very dangerous for bus drivers, truck drivers or taxi drivers," he said.
"And the other big issue is when our police does the drug testing over here, these medicines are not picked up either in the breath test or the saliva test."
The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation confirms this, explaining on their website that Mobile Drug Tests (MDTs) "do not detect the presence of legally prescribed drugs or common over-the-counter medications."
Dr Aurora explains, "Morphine and codeine are prescription drugs so the police tests don’t pick them up."
"So my concern is the consumption of this drug can cause a serious accident or a death on the roads, overdosing can also cause death, so I really believe this should be banned."
Supply of Kamini is illegal in Australia, but, as SBS found, it is frequently slipping through the cracks. More on that below.
Calling Kamini an extremely "dangerous drug," Dr Aurora has concerns about its addictive nature and its physiological effects.
"Consuming these tablets will first give a person a bit of high, and the opium will make them lazy and sluggish."
"But if they were previously experiencing headaches or body aches, those aches and pains will go away, making the user feel good about the pills, and they keep going back to them."
"And as they keep taking more of these tablets, they become addicted to the opium and the codeine.
"Soon they will reach a stage when they just can’t do without the pills.
"And if for any reason they can’t access these tablets, then they’ll have withdrawal symptoms – the person can be uncontrollably angry, can get very agitated and even become violent, because that’s a side effect of not consuming the substance they are addicted to."
Sold under the guise of 'Ayurvedic medicine'
Kamini tablets are not sold as a dangerous substance, either here or in India – but as an ayurvedic medicine – an ancient form of medicine from the subcontinent, said to have many healing properties.
The tablets are legally manufactured in India by many well-known companies and are available over the counter there at many ayurvedic medicine shops. There are no legal restrictions applied on possession or consumption of these tablets.
But Dr Aurora counters that claim, "This is definitely not an ayurvedic medicine. It contains chemicals and components which are probably banned in most countries around the world."
"I don’t understand how Kamini continues to be made in India and sold around the world in the guise of an ayurvedic medication."
Though concerns have been raised in the Indian press at the opium content in Kamini tablets and their misuse and abuse in India, it’s manufacturing and sale continues there, as does its export to other countries.
Medical experts in India have in the past raised concerns about the ease with which Kamini misuse is allowed to occur under the guise of ayurvedic medicine.
Much like complementary medicine in Australia, ayurvedic medicines fall under different regulations to prescription medication or other drugs. According to a The Times of India report, they do not fall under any drug authority’s regulation there and do not require any licence to be administrated.
Dr Aurora says he has found the test results so concerning that he was moved to write to the Indian Prime Minister to highlight his concerns, suggesting that if further testing in India confirms that Kamini indeed contains opium, then a ban should be placed on its production.
HOW ARE THESE PROHIBITED SUBSTANCES ENTERING AUSTRALIA ?
A whistle-blower, who wishes to stay anonymous, has told SBS that a majority of the Kamini tablets being imported into Australia comes via shipping containers, alongside normal grocery items like wheat, lentils, spices, snack-foods etc.
"Although I know of one person who used to import shoes and would bring in these things hidden inside shoes," the whistle-blower explains. "I would say a majority of this stuff is now being shipped in by food importers."
"I would say a majority of this stuff is now being shipped in by food importers."
As noted in an earlier investigation by SBS Punjabi about the importation of dangerous and banned foods into Australia, only 5% of the grocery items and foods imported under the ‘surveillance’ category have a chance of being tested or checked at the point of arrival into Australia.
This whistle-blower explains, "The way they bring it in is, say there are 20-25 items, they just hide them in the container."
He added that the products are camouflaged in such a way, "that even the X-ray doesn’t detect it."
The source says the importers are able to siphon off the illegally imported substances before the quarantine inspectors arrive, because importers are permitted to open the container even before the mandatory inspection is carried out.
"They’ve got their own approved premises, where they can transport the container, break the seal, take it off, and show whatever they feel like next day to the quarantine officer.
"I mean the quarantine officer also only comes when the importer wants him to come – he can’t just come in any time. These are the loopholes, which they are basically taking advantage of," he said.
HOW BIG IS THIS BUSINESS?
Harjinder Singh, a grocery store owner in Melbourne tells SBS, "At the moment, selling Kamini is the most lucrative thing in the market. I’ve seen many young people who are addicted to this and just can’t stop taking the pills."
He says a bottle of Kamini sells for around $100, which usually lasts 4-5 days.
Mr Singh believes this illicit trade is big business cities with large Indian populations, such as Melbourne and Sydney.
He says some shops rely solely on the sale of Kamini for income.
"If you survey the grocery stores in Melbourne, you’ll find many shops which have practically no grocery sales, but make their money purely out of selling Kamini," says Singh.
He explains, "think about it – if you sell groceries, the maximum profit you’ll earn is 7 to 10 per cent."
"But these addictive products have a margin of 400 to 500 per cent. So people find it an easy option to make money."
IMPORTERS PRESSURING SOUTH ASIAN GROCERS TO SELL THE TABLETS
Mr. Singh says the traders sell grocery products at a cheaper price, offsetting their losses with exorbitant profits made by selling Kamini.
"They don’t even care about the price they sell their groceries for," he says.
He says honest shopkeepers who don’t sell Kamini are being edged out of business as Kamini importers won’t supply their cheap groceries to them.
"This is like a vicious circle. Now, I don’t sell these illegal things, but that means that I can’t even buy the cheap groceries for my shop, because those importers won’t sell it to me.”
"I don’t sell these illegal things, but that means that I can’t even buy the cheap groceries for my shop, because those importers won’t sell it to me"
Mr Singh gave the example of a bag of imported wheat flour.
"The cost-price of just importing this to Australia would be $8- $9 per bag," he says.
"If you only want to earn a dollar, you will sell it for $10, which is hardly 10% profit.
"But those who bring in illegal products in their containers may sell it for $5- $6 a bag – because they don’t care about the cost of the grocery items.
"Many grocery stores are opening up, just to sell these products, because they have created a demand for it.”
"Now I know why I have to charge $10, but the customer doesn’t understand why."
A whsitleblower importer, speaking anonymously to SBS, agrees with Harjinder Singh.
"Many South Asian grocery stores are selling illegal substances," the importer says.
"There is no big money left in the grocery business. So for them to survive, they basically sell these products.
"If you look at the market, the Indian population is not that big that you need that many grocery stores.
"So many grocery stores are opening up, just to sell these products, because they have created a demand for it.”
The whistle-blower says he has informed the Australian authorities about this illicit activity, but he has been very disappointed at the response so far.
"Authorities are very well aware of this thing," he says. "I have personally informed them and I know of many people who have informed them.
"But the way things happen with the government system, the informers actually don’t want to do it, because there is no action from the government and it becomes very frustrating."
WHAT ARE AUTHORITIES DOING ABOUT THE KAMINI TRADE?
SBS has sought a response about this investigation, from the Australian Border Force, Australian Federal Police, Victoria Police, Therapeutic Goods and Administration, as well as a local government Council.
In a formal response from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which oversees the work of Australian Border Force, the department spokesperson acknowledged that ABF had "detected importations of Kamini" at Australia’s borders.
In a statement to SBS, the ABF said, "The Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 prohibit the importation of medications such as this, which contain opium, and the ABF will seize the goods."
The Australian Federal Police, to whom the ABF refers cases of Kamini importations, declined to give SBS any details about the size or volumes of the drug seized.
Victoria Police, on the other hand, said they "haven’t been involved in the seizure of this substance at all. It is not something we have seen yet."
But Peter Shelton, the manager of regulatory services at the City of Greater Dandenong told SBS Punjabi that the Victorian Health department is aware of the availability of Kamini and has issued a warning to all local governments about it.
"We did receive advice from the state department of Health about that product, asking us to be aware of it, and to look for it when we’re doing inspections, but we haven’t come across it in our municipality as yet." Mr Shelton said they had instructions to seize the product, if it is found.
Therapeutic Goods Administration
TGA has not responded directly to SBS's query about Kamini, but, after being approached by SBS, they recently issued a warning against its consumption.
Victoria Police have confirmed that strict penalties apply for possession and trafficking of drugs of dependence – such as Opium, which is contained within Kamini.
In a written statement to SBS they said, "Possession of a Drug of Dependence has a penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment depending on the circumstances."
"Trafficking in a Drug of Dependence has a penalty of up to 15 years. This period can be increased to 25 years if it is a commercial quantity."
This statement however, relates to Opium which is present in Kamini, but it remains unclear how penalties would apply to Kamini itself.
The Victoria Police advise that the law’s stance, "doesn’t refer to the Kamini tablets per se so the penalty would be applied in relation to the possession of the Opium in the tablet."
Previously, SBS Punjabi investigated the seizure at Port Melbourne, of millions of dollars' worth of chemicals used to manufacture the synthetic drug Ice.
In 2013, nearly 300 kilograms of ephedrine was found in a container of Basmati rice shipped from India to Australia. Four people were charged in Australia and a major drug syndicate in India was apprehended.
An Indian court also found a rice exporter guilty of smuggling the drug in basmati rice bags, which were to be delivered to an address in Springvale in Melbourne's east.
SO WHAT SHOULD BE DONE, AND WHY?
The wife of the reformed Kamini addict that SBS spoke to is worried about the potential effects of addiction on families.
She adds that her family is lucky, since her husband could eventually wean himself off the Kamini addiction, but warns that it is very easy to become hooked.
"My husband works in the field of medicine and health, and even he found it extremely hard to give it up," she explains.
The whistle-blower importer says the only way to stop this drug from finding its way to the Australian market is by plugging the loopholes in the import protocol.
"For the sake of easy money, shopkeepers are selling these drugs to other peoples’ children today. But tomorrow, it could be their own children buying it".
He suggests, "The seal of the containers should not be allowed to be broken unless a quarantine officer is present."
He says this will help prevent illicit substances being siphoned off before inspection. "The authorities should take this seriously and should act on the information provided to them," he adds.
"The smugglers should be prosecuted and put behind bars."
He said the biggest worry is about its adverse effect on the human health.
"It’s a very big health hazard which is going to cost the government a lot of money: you and me, everybody is going to pay for it," he said.
This is what also worries shopkeeper Harjinder Singh.
"For the sake of easy money, shopkeepers are selling these drugs to other peoples’ children today. But tomorrow, it could be their own children buying it."