Drug abuse is rapidly growing in Pakistan, especially among youth including those in colleges and universities, resulting in serious social and health implications while almost five per cent of the adult population has already been addicted to drugs across the country keeping Pakistan at the top of the list among the countries which are affected by this scourge.
According to statistics, approximately 0.6 million people are joining club of drug users every year in Pakistan. By 2011, total drug users in the country reached 9.6 million, of which 1.5 million use opium, 750,000 are heroin addicts and 200,000 are drug-injecting users. The sale and consumption of heroin, hashish and garda is increasing with every passing day and is going unchecked even in the federal capital.
“One of every ten students at college or university level is drug addict. In one prominent private university of Karachi, 20 out of 30 (66%) students were using charas. Over 40,000 street children are involved in solvent substance abuse in four major cities of the country. An estimated 40% of Pakistan’s prison population use drugs,” said Head of Community Medicine at CMH Lahore Medical College Professor Dr Muhammad Ashraf Chaudhry while talking to ‘The News’ in connection with World Day against Drug Abuse, which will be observed on June 26 around the globe.
Like a number of other health experts, Dr Ashraf said that the reason behind alarmingly increasing number of drug addicts in Pakistan is that the drug cartels in Pakistan are fully backed and supported by the powerful and the wealthy who have got ample influence.
The United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking falls on June 26 each year to raise awareness of the major problem that illicit drugs represent to the society. The day is supported by individuals, communities and various organizations all over the world to reiterate the commitment to fight against narcotics and create greater awareness among the masses about the menace. Each year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) selects theme for the day and this year it is “Global action for healthy communities without drugs”.
According to estimates, nearly 200 million people are using illicit drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, hallucinogens, opiates and sedative hypnotics worldwide. Drugs kill 200,000 people every year, said Dr Ashraf.
He added that in Pakistan, the drugs of choice are charas (cannabis), the most commonly used substance, sedatives and tranquillisers, heroin, opium, injecting drug use, ecstasy tablets and solvent abuse among street children. “In Pakistan, this problem is increasing because of proximity of production (poppy in Afghanistan) and smuggling and illegal drug trade into Pakistan. The absence of cohesive approach has led to continued drug trafficking and proliferation in Pakistani Society. It is estimated that over 80 tons of opium processed in Pakistan comes from neighbouring countries. Drug production of Pakistan domestic market is estimated at around $1.5 billion,” explained Dr Ashraf.
He said that drugs trafficking once viewed largely as a social and criminal problem, has transformed in recent years into a major threat to the health and security of people and regions. “The 61 billion dollars annual market for Afghan opiates is funding insurgency, international terrorism and wider destabilization.”
To a query, he said that often drug abuse is linked to factors such as risk taking behaviours that may involve experimenting with narcotics, smoking and alcohol, social isolation, stress, anxiety, depression, peer pressure (bad company), modern life style, hippy culture, unemployment, excessive pocket money by parents and lack of supervision and attention, the desire for social acceptance, boredom, curiosity, just to feel good, weak religious belief and a lot of free time at their disposal, easy access to drugs at low prices, existence and presence of drug dens, to heighten sexual pleasure, to overcome frustration/tragedies, use as pain medication and fashion.
He added that young people are more susceptible to drug use. While some of the physical effects of drugs might sound nice, they do not last long. Many people get depressed and start feeling sick. Physical health and sexual health of addicts weaken so rapidly that a young man of thirties looks like an old man of over-sixties. Drug use in general leads to a number of health problems, such as malnutrition, apathy, menstrual irregularities and irregular heart rhythm, said Dr Ashraf.
He said that the drug abuse causes economic breakdown of a family, loss of self-confidence and will to work, loss of job, indulgence in crimes such as theft, and suicidal thoughts. “Drug addicts are also more prone to accidents and are at higher risk of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B & C, and tuberculosis, suicide, overdose deaths and cardiovascular diseases. Married drug addicts have high probability of having mentally retarded and physically handicapped children. Young people who use cannabis are doubling their risk of psychotic symptoms like schizophrenia, hallucinations, hearing voices etc.”
Talking of the symptoms of drug abuse, Dr Ashraf said that parents can recognize their addict children by noting symptoms including deep body emaciation, strong loss of appetite, difficulty in breathing and fatigue, strong nervous disturbance, long home absences, much money demand, telling lie to get money, isolation, remaining away from others, long sleeping time, laziness, pale face, tremors in fingers, constipation, irregularities in work and studies, no interest in every day life, red eyes, slurred speech, circles under the eyes, neglect of personal hygiene and marks and traces of abusing on the body.
“The time parents see the above symptoms in their child, immediately contact the concerned Addiction Treatment Unit for treatment,” he said terming an addict a sick person who needs humanistic treatment. He suggested that no one should be stigmatised against because of his dependence on drugs. “Law enforcement agencies must treat drug users as victims rather than criminals. Drug dependence is a disease, not a crime. The real criminals are the drug traffickers.”
To control the menace, he said that awareness campaigns through mass media, essay contests, lectures and declamation contests in schools, colleges and universities should be run in order to create awareness about the ill effects of drug addiction. He added that provincial education departments should develop a curriculum against drugs for inclusion in textbooks at school, college and university levels. “More recreational facilities should be created to take the youth off the drugs.”
To a query, Dr Ashraf said that researches have proved that people who start smoking cigarettes or drink alcohol at a young age are much more likely to experiment with illegal drugs than people who do not smoke or drink. “Efforts should be made to control tobacco smoking in the country because it is the gateway to drug abuse.” He added that parents should be vigilant and should keep their children busy and motivate them to say their prayers regularly. Religious scholars should be encouraged to take up the issue in their Friday Sermons.
A drug-free life-style and a healthy society is very much a part of the Islamic way of life, he said. He added that the government should solve unemployment problem in the country because economic worries provide a fertile ground for drug addiction.
Talking of the legislation needed, Dr Ashraf said that smuggling routes and its entry into cities have to be blocked. The police have to be taken to task on this corruption. Some new accountability laws have to be made and implemented. The supply line has to be broken. Very tough measures should be taken by the government. “People who are playing with lives of our youth do not deserve any concession. Death sentence like Saudi Arabia must be awarded to drug smugglers in order to control the supply demand of drug abuse in the country.”
He suggested that the government-funded institutes and hospitals should be established for treatment of drug addicts. “Treatment of drug addicts is a weak area and at present there are only three public hospitals in Pakistan for treatment of addicts which need to be increased up to at least one public hospital for treatment of addicts at district level so that addicts can be cured on regular basis,” concluded Dr Ashraf.