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Curbing drug abuse

Alarming rise in drug addiction calls for innovative and rational measures to protect youth

Curbing drug abuse

Almost free from the use of fatal habit-forming synthetic drugs till late 1970s, Pakistan now figures among the top 10 drug abusing countries in the world.

According to a UN report, there are 7.6 million drug addicts in Pakistan; 78 per cent male and 22 per cent female, and their number is increasing at a rate of 40,000 per year.

In October 2016, an NGO reported that about 53 per cent of the students in leading private school chains are addicted to various kinds of drugs in Islamabad. Similarly, a recent study, which included 10 schools and two universities from Lahore, revealed that 57 per cent of students reported the use of at least one drug.

The drug scene has changed alarmingly over the last 30-35 years, impelling Islamabad High Court Justice Shahid Aziz Siddiqui to direct IGP Islamabad Capital Territory to submit a comprehensive report regarding the sale and purchase of narcotic drugs in the city and action that the metropolitan police had taken against the drug-traffickers and prostitution. Justice Siddiqui issued the directive, on April 17, while hearing a case pertaining to the increasing crime rate in the federal capital.

Now, many people in Pakistan are addicted to hard drugs, like amphetamines, cocaine and heroin, while in the past some people in the lower strata of the society had been using less harmful substances like cannabis, hash, gutka and opium, the later mostly for medicinal purposes. Of late, a synthetic drug, popularly known as ecstasy, is becoming popular among the addicts, despite established lethal consequences of this narcotic drug.

Ecstasy or MDMA (3, 4 methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) is a psychoactive drug, which is banned in most countries of the world. Ecstasy comes in the form of various coloured tablets under brand names such as Orange Owl, Dutch Lion, Breaking Bad, Rock n Roll, Euro, Nintendo, Love Doves, Mad Bastards, Lightning Bolts, Yellow 007, Pink Pistols, Harley Davidson and Red Ferrari. Costing around Rs2500 per pill, this costly drug is primarily used in night parties by the youth from prosperous families. To enhance their profits, criminal elements adulterate it with additives, like Dextromethorphan (cough suppressant), Ketamine (anaesthetic), Ephedrine (stimulant), LSD (acid), Methamphetamine, Caffeine, Cocaine and Heroin, consequently making it exceedingly unpredictable and dangerous.

Its users/advocates propound that consumption of the pill produces profound feeling of comfort, enjoyment, euphoria, emotional warmth, mental stimulation, confidence, empathy and connection to others, allowing the user to get rid of shyness and vacillation and effortlessly communicate with and boldly dance among people.

But, problems associated with ecstasy use are colossal. These may include: joint pains, muscle cramps, stomach disorder, appetite loss, insomnia, fatigue, nausea, mouth/throat dryness, jaw tightening, teeth clenching, palpitations, sweating, flashbacks, renal failure, liver damage, cardiovascular problems like increased heart beat rate, heart attacks, hypertension or hypotension. According to psychologists, ecstasy use can result in irritability, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, schizophrenia and suicidal tendencies; while neurologists say its abuse can result in impaired brain structure, leading to loss of brain functioning, bleeding in brain, distorted image perception and memory loss. Increased physical activity or dancing non-stop for hours, with low or high water intake, can result in dehydration, hyperthermia or hyponatremia, thereby seriously enhancing the chances of death by heart attack, coma or heat stroke.

Furthermore, persons addicted to ecstasy are more likely to get involved in reckless or unlawful activities to reach to limitless ecstasies with no care for imminent implications. According to psychiatrists, extended use of ecstasy pills incapacitates the immune system of the body and lowers judgment, thus leaving the user at the mercy of exploiters and market predators.

Social reasons cited for its increasing use include shrinking public spaces for recreation and healthy interaction. Till late 1970s, Pakistan was fairly a liberal country where art, cinema, horse and cattle shows, etcetera flourished, but the successive governments’ policies and menace of terrorism closed all such avenues of entertainment, making raves forcefully tempting for the pleasure-seeking youth to get rid of boredom and depression.

Small quantities of these pills are smuggled into Pakistan but quest for higher profits have steered suppliers towards their indigenous production clandestinely. The unregulated nature of this business, coupled with local manufacturing with unknown quality controls and expertise, is a highly dangerous trend as no one has the slightest of idea about what type of chemicals are being used as additives. There is a high probability that the additives are deadly.

As far as heroin is concerned, in Pakistan, over 800,000 people, between the age of 15 and 64, are addicted to it, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Heroin consumption estimates show that at around 44 tons of heroin, its annual consumption in Pakistan is two to three times higher than the US. Other countries like India, Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal all have drug dependence issues, but the higher rate in Pakistan makes it exceedingly awful throughout South Asia, earning for it the title like ‘an abode of heroin’ and making it as one of the biggest market for heroin smugglers and dealers. Hash (Charas) is the most easily accessible drug, with a very high demand because of its comparatively low price as compared to other drugs of abuse.

Tobacco smoking is another form of addiction, though it is less hazardous as compared to lethal synthetic drugs. However, in the South Asia Sub-Continent, people have been smoking tobacco sing long. But, over the years, majority of them have switched over to smoking cigarettes, consuming about 80 billion cigarettes sticks annually. Some 62 per cent of cigarette sticks are manufactured by the companies on the government radar for taxes and duties, while 38 per cent sticks are either smuggled in the country or prepared by unscrupulous elements in AJK and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to evade taxes and duties.

Experience tells that whenever duties and taxes on cigarettes are increased the share of legitimate manufacturing sector declines and that of the non-duty paid sector increases substantially, inflicting a heavy loss to the national exchequer. For example, when duties and taxes were enhanced in the fiscal year 2016-2017, the government revenues declined to Rs74 billion against Rs111 billion in 2015-2016. Due to introduction of third tier and reduction in duties and taxes the government revenues are expected to increase to Rs90 billion, this year, due to gradual improvement in manufacturing by the legal sector.

A major reason contributing to the increasing addiction is the alarmingly low conviction rate of addicts and peddlers. Greed for quick money encourages more people to get involved in this trade due to no fear of arrests. Of course, if the staff of enforcement agencies do not collaborate, such heinous and illegal activities cannot flourish. But, greed often lures the black sheep to enter into private arrangement with the mafia elements.

There are multiple causes, both demand driven and supply driven, for the existence of this phenomenon. It is a well-known fact that the supply of goods depends upon their demand. So long as the demand is there, the supply of illicit goods will continue to proliferate despite best possible enforcement or even complete prohibition.

Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that smuggling and manufacturing of illicit drugs and cigarettes is hazardous to human health and a major cause of deaths. This explains why nations and states introduce measures to bring their consumption down. But, experience tells that the success of prohibition in attempting to control illicit drugs is being questioned in many countries as it seems to have caused more harm than good. Despite the involvement of enormous financial, human and legal resources, in fact, the supply and demand for drugs have steadily increased globally.

Alarmed at the situation created by the widespread use of illicit drugs and the continuous increase in the number of addicts, some developed countries have adopted a more rational, humanitarian and understanding approach to drug abuse, an approach which is designed to reduce the harm and undermine the black market. They have adopted a problem-oriented approach specific to each drug and category of users. While not condoning their use, they let less harmful substances within the reach of addicts and focus on creating awareness about lethal effects of the drugs of abuse so as to keep border-line cases away from the drugs.

For devising a prudent/strategic policy for curbing addiction, the authorities may call a meeting of the stakeholders, including manufacturers and policy-making in the health, education, finance, law enforcement, revenue sectors, so as to reduce the demand for these drugs and the fatalities associated with them through a long-term well-publicised and strictly monitored policy. As regards taxes and duties on cigarettes, these should not be fixed on year-to-year basis but for a term to be decided by the stakeholders.

Meanwhile, considering it as an issue of public importance, the authorities need to educate the youth about the adverse effects of smoking and drug abuse, while continuing with the policy of awarding deterrent punishment to the producers, smugglers and pushers of these drugs.

Alauddin Masood

alauddin masood
The writer is a freelance columnist based at Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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