It was a hot summer day. The air conditioner thermostat was set at the lowest possible point. The room was as cool as it could be. Waqas was wrapped in his favourite yellow quilt, lazily scrolling through his Facebook feed. Life could be better, but this, right now, was pretty good, too.
His phone rang,. “Why is Aunty Fauzia calling me this early in the morning?” he thought. Fauzia’s voice was shivering and breaking as she told Waqas what had happened to her son, his best friend. “This couldn’t be. No, no, no this must be a dream,” protested Waqas as his heart sank and his cheeks turned red. But the salty tears streaming down his face were real. The disgusting sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was real. He had lost his best friend forever.
Shahzeb, he found out later, had been found in his room that morning along with hard drugs and lots of vomit. Shahzeb had lost his life to drug overdose. Waqas had never imagined this could happen. It happened to Shahzeb and it happens to seven hundred people in this country every single day.
We have all heard the stories, stories of ninth graders being suspended and expelled from school for possessing lethal drugs, stories of dozens of young adults and teenagers losing their lives to drug overdose, stories of students being caught on campus smoking, snorting and taking pills. It seems as if the young people of the country are being swept into some kind of a drug cyclone that pulls everyone in regardless of their age or gender. Everyone is exposed to it. Everyone has access to some kind of drug.
Perhaps the right question to ask is, why? Why do people of ages 13-24 feel the need to use drugs? Why do they have such easy access to illegal substances despite there being strict restrictions by both the state and educational institutions?
Exposure to drugs starts from an early age. Ali, a student currently in the ninth grade, states “Even in seventh grade I was very curious about what they (drugs) will do to my body and why everyone keeps making such a big deal about them.” However, curiosity is not the only reason behind drug consumption amongst young people. Curiosity, these days, can be satisfied by googling away your questions on an incognito Google chrome tab.
“I was friends with very rich kids who could easily buy drugs and do them with me,” Ali claims that it was his company and easy access to drugs that became the leading causes of his drug use. The amount of pressure put on students due to their surroundings and the ease with which they can access drugs greatly depends on the kind of school they go to.
Growing up in an all-boys school students become accustomed to complex hierarchies and social identities. A boy in his second year of O-levels from an all-boys school in Lahore further explains this, “If you don’t do drugs, at least socially, you are labelled as a nerd or a social outcast. You must do other things like have fun in order to fit in with the majority.”
Drugs have become a way of establishing one’s position in the social hierarchies at schools. The way you are treated by your peers widely depends on how comfortable you are with having fun and that mostly has to do with the consumption of illegal substances. In an all-boys school bullying is a prominent danger and anyone who fails to fit into the standard social mould is at high risk of being bullied. If the majority thinks it’s okay to do drugs then you must think so, too.
In contrast, the pressure in all-girls schools seems to be lesser. However, drug consumption increases as student’s transition from O-levels to A-levels. Anooshe, who is currently doing her A-levels from an all-girls school recounts, “my friends and I had no idea about all this in O-levels. We knew it was a thing but I really think that people in my batch either didn’t care or were not exposed to this.”
However, as time progressed the same students were pulled in by the strong winds of the drug cyclone. Anooshe says, “Now in A-levels students do sneak into the basement during breaks to do drugs. There is more freedom to do so. There is also more pressure to socialise at inter-school events and doing so becomes easier when you do drugs and go to social events.”
In a different city and a different kind of school, Mustafa is also exposed to a similar pattern of drug consumption. Mustafa, now a sophomore in college, looks back at his experience at an elite co-ed school in Karachi, “It starts around tenth grade, before that even cigarettes are a big deal. From then on people start smoking gradually and it gets more common. Access to everything was quite easy since most people have cars and drivers and cash,” he says, adding, “Till the end of O-levels it was mostly people doing it at parties occasionally. It increases in A-levels. People get high a lot more and by the end of those two years for a lot of people it got to the point of getting high every day.”
The graph of drug consumption is a straight one; it keeps going up as time progresses. From first being exposed to drugs at the young age of 13 to 50 per cent of students at elite educational institutions become addicts by the time they reach A-levels. College only accelerates the growth of this unfortunate graph.
A major aspect of the ‘drug scene’ in college is the culture of going to parties that occur almost every weekend. Amna, a 20-year old currently in her freshman year of college, explains, “There are around 50 people in Lahore who host parties for their friends and acquaintances throughout the year. Everyone knows each other. A social circle is formed that thrives on free access to drugs and alcohol. Anyone linked to these people must go to at least one of these parties, otherwise you automatically lose touch and are excluded.”
A smooth system of drug exchange and consumption is formed amongst social circles. “There is also the freedom factor,” says Asia, a student in her junior year of college, “once you’re in college your parents don’t check you anymore and the institution gives you a certain level of independence. Especially, if you live on campus, you have so much free time on your hands you need to do something with it.”
Easy access to drugs, an ample amount of free time and resources, along with an extra helping of peer pressure becomes the ultimate recipe for disaster when it comes to the use of drugs amongst students.
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What’s even more appalling is that most students know all about the health risks and dangers that come with drug consumption, yet they make the choice of consuming and distributing drugs. “Mostly people are aware of the risks, we go to institutions where everyone is well educated, and we study about the risks. It’s just worth it. People who do drugs really believe that you only live once,” says a student from a college in Lahore.
Talking to other students I learnt that there is also a general idea amongst drug users that they know the drug and they know when to stop.
Students are constantly surrounded by an atmosphere that not only makes it completely normal to risk their health in order to consume drugs, but also pressurises them to do so. Everyone wrongly assumes that they are just “trying them out” or doing drugs ‘socially’. However, there is a thin line between addiction and ‘trying out’ that most students tend to tread quite casually under the influence of external factors.
A cure to the drug epidemic needs to be as elaborate as the factors that cause it. While making drugs less accessible will surely help, there needs to be an effort to reduce the very culture of drug consumption that is upheld by peer pressure and an atmosphere that increasingly normalises the use of drugs.