Drugs are not the only problem

Published: April 13, 2012
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Given the ‘explosive personalities’ of some of our populace, a war on drugs is like trying to fight an elephant with a flyswatter. PHOTO: REUTERS

Drug use usually starts as a form of rebellion, be it against mom and dad, your own friends or society as a whole. Ease of access only increases the likelihood that someone will make an uninformed decision and light up their first joint, smoke their first bong, or worse, pick up their first needle.

Pakistan is historically a hashish-smoking nation, with records of the cannabis-derived substance’s use going back thousands of years. Although some would try to deny it, drugs, at least soft drugs, are part of the local culture. From bhang and charas up to opium, Mother Nature’s gifts to the stoner are both plentiful and high quality here.

This presents a problem that just can’t be swept under the rug by carting out a few kilos of seized hash, opium or heroin and saying that drug use is being effectively combated. The reality is that drug use not only continues, it is diversifying. Cocaine and ecstasy are easily available to those who can afford them, while cheaper drugs or other ways to get high, such as the ever-popular Samad Bond remain the staple for the economically-challenged.

This problem is by no means isolated to Pakistan, with abject failure being the common thread among countries aggressively trying to end drug use. This is why some countries have shifted focus from drug use to something else, namely drug abuse.

While it is only two letters added to the former, drug abuse is an easier issue to focus on than mere use. For one, a user could be someone who smokes a joint once a week, or a person who shoots up heroin five times a day. Granted, both are illegal, but it would be unfair to bracket the functional smoker with the heroin addict.

Trying to get everyone off drugs is well intentioned, but it requires too much focus on people who are not a societal issue. Just like cigarettes and alcohol, or for that matter coffee, tea, candy and sugar, addiction is a self-inflicted problem. Many users, especially with ‘soft-drugs’, never go down that rabbit hole. Plus, many such anti-use campaigns inadvertently encourage drug use, either by showing hilariously unrealistic consequences, or unintentionally applying peer pressure through reminders of how widespread its use is.

Anyway, the real societal issue with drug use stems from addiction. Last year, an official working with the anti-narcotics campaign said that over eight million people, roughly 4% of the population, are addicted to drugs, spending at least Rs3,000 a month on getting high. In a country where minimum wage is Rs7,000, this is frightening, especially when coupled with a more recent survey which found that almost a third of intravenous drug users in Rawalpindi have HIV/AIDS.

The latter survey shows almost a quarter of needle users first shot up before they were 18. Half the users didn’t know what AIDS even is. And this is Pindi, an urban centre, one of the largest in the country. If people, even junkies, don’t know what AIDS is, we have a serious problem, and drugs are not it. Our problems are our own inbuilt biases. An occasional hashish smoker is not a ‘charsi’, no more than AIDS is a disease that only affects gay people. In the US, after years of unfair association of AIDS with homosexuality by those with their own agendas, it took a child with haemophilia (infected via a blood transfusion) to prove that AIDS can affect anyone.

Yes, the illegality of drugs means there is going to be a connection with crime and violence, but given the ‘explosive personalities’ of some of our populace, a war on drugs is like trying to fight an elephant with a flyswatter. Even if the flyswatter looks like a mouse on steroids.

Then there is the issue of corruption. The blanket ban on alcohol consumption for Muslims may be applied using a very thin weave, but that is because there is too much money to be made for those without scruples. Regulation would eliminate the parallel economy, and along with the tax revenues on such a commodity, would bolster the economy. Those revenues are genuinely new and untapped. They could be used for development, or drug and alcohol awareness.

Also, it would reduce police corruption and force them to actually fight crime instead of rounding up a few token merrymakers who apparently present a threat to the law and order situation with a couple of beers, while (alleged) terrorists get to roam free because they have rights. Something is very wrong with the law, and the system as a whole, when (alleged) criminal/ terrorist masterminds can walk free, sometimes with police protection, while a guy busted with one bottle gets booked as a criminal.

Read more by Vaqas here or follow his on Twitter @Vasgar

Vaqas Asghar

Vaqas Asghar

The author is a senior sub-editor on the Islamabad Desk and also reports on diplomatic events. He tweets as @vasghar (twitter.com/vasghar)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.