– When Lakshmi Motam sent 20 tramadol tablets from her south Indian village to her labourer husband in Dubai, she didn’t realise the pain relief pills would land him in jail.
Tramadol, a synthetic opioid painkiller that her husband used for his aches and pains was among nearly 400 drugs the United Arab Emirates banned in 2010 for their addictive nature.
“He worked as a coolie and often asked me to send the medicine. This was the third time I sent the tablets to him. They were for his personal use,” Motam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The drug, readily available in India for less than 8 rupees (12 cents) a tablet, last year landed her 35-year-old husband with a 24-year jail sentence.
“Before, he would call every day, and wire money home every few months. I wire him money now so that he can call us,” she said. “He calls once in two months. He was crying on the phone the last time we spoke.”
Indian migrant workers in Gulf states, often find themselves in a cycle of poverty and pain – they put in long hours in the searing heat and then pop painkillers to keep going and ensure their wages are not docked.
Lured by illegal agents with the promise of a free ticket to Dubai, or a well-paying job, many find themselves smuggling the drugs to the Gulf in their luggage, ignorant of the fact they are breaking the law.
Tramadol is described by the World Health Organisation as a “relatively safe analgesic”, but is banned in various parts of the world.
The drug is the most common illegal medication smuggled into the UAE where it is widely used by recreational users, according to local media reports. The drug’s illegal trade has led to strict checks and severe punishments, campaigners said.