LAHORE - Over the years, the number of drug addicts has been steadily rising across Pakistan. It is as if either the state is too busy grappling with challenges like terrorism, loadshedding and economic sluggishness, or it is unaware of the enormity of this problem.
As of now, there are approximately 6.7 million drug addicts in the country . While four million addicts consume charas (cannabis resin), 860,000 are heroin users. Similarly, 320,000 are opium users. Most of the addicts are between 25-39 year age groups.
As many as 430,000 addicts use needles to inject injectable drugs, with 73 percent of them using contaminated syringes. These figures have been collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in collaboration with Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior and Narcotics Control and Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics.
However, other figures and research conducted by private organisations and government departments indicate that the number of the addicts is higher and it has been steadily rising. According to Syed Zulfiqar Hussain who is associated with Anti-Narcotics Campaign, the number of addicts stood at 8.11 million in 2011. An Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) official says approximately 0.6 million people are becoming drug addicts each year. The number of such addicts has risen enormously, particularly in Islamabad and Peshawar. According to one estimate, in Peshawar alone almost 11 percent of the population is addict.
For Pakistan, the problem has been compounded by porous Afghan border and the fact that poppy cultivation is still a thriving business across Afghanistan. Despite years of American intervention, poppy remains the primary choice of the farmers there, making the country still the largest supplier of opium in the world. Though Pakistan offers a convenient route to funnel Afghanistan’s opium to the world, a substantial part of that drug traffic is consumed inside the country .
A senior Rangers official in Peshawar said that Torkham border and other major road routes are no longer the primary option for drug traffickers. Since trucks are scanned regularly at border areas, traffickers prefer concealed routes such as the Torious border. Also, drugs are smuggled through mountains either on mules or by men who walk through Nullahs, which are dry almost the whole year and anyone can cross into Pakistan or Afghanistan without being noticed. These zigzag Nullahs are too difficult to monitor and they are so deep that a man walking on the bed cannot be spotted from the mountain tops. The official said that such areas cannot be properly patrolled because of the highly treacherous terrain and because their vastness, they cannot be practically monitored even through radars. The officials stated that in any case, the radars would either be stolen or attacked with explosives.
Unlike the 1980s and early 90s, today there are no poppy fields in Pakistan, but still the chemicals to refine raw opium into heroine are being manufactured in the country and provided to factories in Afghanistan. Once the raw opium is processed into heroine, it is smuggled into Pakistan through Nullahs and other concealed routes. For the militants, poppy offers the easiest means of raising revenue for their wars. The militants provide protection to the farmers and the dealers and receive their cut from the profit.
Although reportedly the Afghan farmers – approximately one million – sowing the crops get only 1 percent of the total profits, it is still enough for them to carry on with poppy cultivation. Each year the militants and the warlords controlling the areas where poppy is grown raise huge sums of money through levying taxes on these crops. In this multi-billion dollar industry, it is eventually the dealers and drug traffickers in the West who take away the lion’s share of the profits.
Pakistan is sinking deeper and deeper into the drugs quagmire. Just one indication of how seriously and how uncontrollably the menace is spreading can be gauged from the number of rehabilitation centres mushrooming across Pakistan. If anything, they show the alarming increase in the number of addicts . In Lahore alone, there are 100 odd private rehabilitation centres.
The average cost of treatment that includes, counselling, food, lodging and medicine is close to 4-5 lac. This is huge cost and sometimes the centres receive the amount in instalments. For the patients who do not have sufficient resources, there are government run rehab centres where the conditions are barely suitable for a full recovery. In Lahore, there are only three government run hospitals that provide treatment for addicts . Usually, patients turn away from these hospitals and prefer the private rehabilitation centres because of the quality of treatment.
The care and attention provided at the private centres makes the people opt for them. Once the patient is admitted he/she is confined to the hospital premises and not allowed to meet even the family members. Regular lessons are imparted by psychologists along with medicine and other treatment that is meant to completely change the habits and lifestyle of the patient. But rehabilitation is a hard job and harder still for the patient to bring his life back to normal.
Aslam, a lean 24-year-old, was a tailor by profession leading a happy life. With bad company, he turned to drugs. Injecting heroine through needle, he became an extreme case but luckily his family came to his rescue. He was put through multiple treatments, without much improvement. His condition, however, started to improve at one of the private clinics in Lahore. Once he was through with the treatment, Aslam was free to go home to start a normal life. But a few days later, he died mysteriously. The family did not disclose the cause of death but the doctor who had been treating Aslam suspects he might have committed suicide.
So far as the government or police in particular is concerned, it lacks a plan to deal with the scourge. For majority of the addicts who are dirt poor and have nowhere to go, there is no systematic government rehabilitation programme. There are no separate hospitals for treatment of addicts whereas those where treatment is provided, it is barely enough to allow a patient to stage a full recovery. These addicts can be seen rotting on the footpaths, street corners and shrines abandoned to their fate. One of the doctors interviewed bemoaned that most of the focus in Punjab has been on dengue. And since there are virtually no proper hospitals dedicated to the treating the addicts , all that the police can do is to just tear their gaze away.
These addicts are on their own; they are estranged from their families and at times when desperate, they turn to theft and robbery as well. The impact on society has been a phenomenal increase in crime rate and beggary but it has also led to unchecked spread of AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases transmitted through use of injections. A group of addicts use the same needles and are infected with deadly diseases something which makes their treatment even more difficult.
It is hard to predict if Pakistan will be successful in coping with the drugs menace . Chances seem bleak. Regarding efforts to cleanse the country of drugs, an ANF official said that under a Drug Abuse Control Master Plan set up with a fund of 125 million dollars, the country aims to become drug-free by 2020. As part of the plan , the ANF is now targeting drug mules with more vigour. Indeed, there have been arrests and seizures but the growing number of addicts indicates that a lot more needs to done.