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may be new status symbol in India

By MATTHEW ROSENBERG, Associated Press Writer, July 4, 2006

NEW DELHI - What may have begun with a couple of snorts has fast become a media-driven blizzard over whether, along with German cars and French handbags, another Western import is sweeping India cocaine.

Call it the full-on yuppification of India's latte-swilling set.

"It's all linked with purchasing power," said Kiran Bedi, a police official who runs a drug treatment center. "Cocaine is expensive. You've got to have money for it, and now more people have money. It becomes a matter of keeping up with the Joneses."

It's natural to see many Indian trends through the prism of the country's economic boom, and this story is no different. Exposed in increasing numbers to clothes, music and mores of the West, some well-off Indians have, perhaps inevitably, picked up its less savory habits.

That's clear on any given weekend at New Delhi's trendy clubs and bars places with velvet ropes and steep cover charges where drugs are readily on offer, and, occasionally, openly in use.

A twenty-something banker at an elite New Delhi country club says that when he lived in New York it was common to snort a line or two of cocaine. "Now I'm back here ... and so are a lot of other people," he said. "But we're still living like we did in New York."

He asked not to be named for fear of India's stiff anti-drug laws and "my mother-in-law."

Only a tiny percentage of Indians are believed to have tried the drug. It costs upward of $100 a gram and more than 40 percent of the country's billion people live on less than a dollar a day. A bigger problem is heroin, on sale dirt-cheap in much of India, and thought responsible for an

AIDS crisis in the country's northeast among those who inject the drug.

Still, there's ample anecdotal evidence that cocaine is growing more popular among the affluent.

There has been a string of busts over the past months, including one at Olive, an upscale New Delhi eatery, and the arrest of a Nigerian alleged dealer in the capital last month.

But those arrests were small-time mere grams compared with the seizure three weeks ago of 440 pounds of cocaine, India's largest bust, aboard a ship at a container depot outside Bombay.

Then there's the hospitalization of the scion of a prominent political family for overdosing on what appears to have been a mixture of cocaine and heroin.

In the hands of the Indian media, the plight of Rahul Mahajan has become a cautionary tale for a potentially wayward generation and an excuse to introduce readers to the mechanics and effects of cocaine consumption.

"The usual method for cocaine intake is sniffing, smoking or injecting," one daily, The Hindu, revealed to its readers. The Times of India reported that cocaine "makes one euphoric and enhances sexual prowess."

The Hindustan Times went even further, linking the drug to bisexuality. "India's power-packed beautiful people are 'doing it'" bisexuality, that is "just to add value to the cocaine snorts and tequila shots" at parties, the paper said.

With police rounding up alleged pushers, some of the more visible partygoers in town are scrambling to make sure their dealers aren't yet on the authorities' radar, the banker said.

Police say foreigners make up the core of the trafficking and distribution network in India, but acknowledge that Indians are involved too. The cocaine, all from South America, arrives by courier on airplanes or ships such as the one caught near Bombay, which police say came from Ecuador.

India's economy has grown 8.1 percent on average over each of the past three years. The boom has given tens of millions of people disposable incomes for the first time and is estimated to have more than doubled to 50,000 the number of households with incomes above $225,000.

The new money has helped foster a Western-style urban consumer culture that in turn has loosened many conservative traditions. One hit Bollywood movie last year was about an unmarried couple living together, a phenomenon almost unheard of here.

Cocaine too was also relatively unheard of until recently.

A woman who does public relations for fashion designers, and who asked not to be named for fear of upsetting clients, said there used to be one dealer in New Delhi. "Now there are dozens."