Heroin use in Pakistan: Deep and deadly

Published: May 28, 2011
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There is an urgent and critical need for a comprehensive strategy to combat heroin drug use in Pakistan.

In all the blitz of news this week, there was a remarkable story that the largest ever heroin cache had been seized in the country’s history – a whooping 375kg, worth an estimated $44 million. Indeed, this is a job well-executed on the part of the Anti-Narcotics Force, but this whole episode should serve to open the box on heroin drug use in Pakistan, rather than just a mere round of applause.

To give a short history of heroin use in Pakistan, this menace came into prominence in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Domestic cultivation of poppy in Pakistan started to decline from the 90s, from a peak level of 9,4441 hectares in 1992 to a ‘poppy-free’ status in 2000, but since 2003, the cultivation has again picked up pace. The problematic areas are concentrated in FATA, and concerns about losing community acquiescence in the counter-terrorism operations coupled with a lack of security forces, are crucial factors hampering eradication efforts.

The fact that 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s poppy is grown in five provinces along the border with Pakistan, only helps to add fuel to the fire. Pakistan acts as a major transit conduit for Afghanistan, with the border being too rugged and porous for a fully effective control policy to be implemented.

A UN Drug Survey completed in 2000 estimated almost half a million chronic heroin users in Pakistan. No doubt this number would have swelled in conjunction with our mushrooming population, but some experts argue that the opiate abusing population in Pakistan has reached a plateau. Even if this is the case, this is still a cause for concern, as a deeper look at the heroin abusing populace reveals a truly frightening picture.

Cause of grave concern

One would imagine that it is the downtrodden and destitute in our society, who fill up the ranks of the drug addicts in Pakistan. However, it is exactly the opposite, with research showing that as high as 60 per cent of the addicts belong to the educated class, with a majority of them being university students. This is a cause of grave concern, as we are losing out on the brightest and best amongst us to the menace of drug use.

The other frightening fact that emerges is that the phenomenon of injection drug use has doubled in Pakistan in the last ten years. Not surprisingly, this coincides with concentrated HIV/AIDS epidemics in the country as a result of sharing of infected needles along with other high-risk behaviour. This even more precarious direction that the drug addicts are taking only helps to already stretch an over-stretched and ill-equipped health-care system.

Urgent measures to be taken

Therefore, there is an urgent and critical need for a comprehensive strategy to combat heroin drug use in Pakistan. This has to be a multi-tiered approach, focusing on all aspects. Undoubtedly, the way to tackle heroin originating from Afghanistan entails stringent check and control measures, with the Anti-Narcotics Force being given more equipment along with more manpower. This should be the easy part.

Taking on the heroin challenge inside Pakistan entails a broader strategy. Wooing students off drugs means providing other avenues of fun and opportunity, this may come from offering increased recreational opportunities, be in the garb of sports facilities or cinemas. The spectre of unemployment and lack of job opportunities also needs to be brought into the equation, as they are also crucial factors that force educated youth into the pit of drug abuse.

Pakistan is in a special demographic transition phase currently, with youth comprising a major chunk of the populace. This limitless potential could easily fall prey to the menace of drug use, and prompt action is needed to stop this from happening. The Anti-Narcotics Force should only be a mere small cog in the scheme of things combating drug use in Pakistan, as time and again it has been shown, prevention is much better and less costlier than the cure.

Dr Mohammad Ali Rai

Dr Mohammad Ali Rai

A graduate student at Oxford who lives and breathes politics and healthcare issues. He tweets @MAliRai

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