Drugs driving capital’s highflyers?

Published April 6, 2015
Widespread drug usage at private parties forces ANF to change tactics APP/File
Widespread drug usage at private parties forces ANF to change tactics APP/File

ISLAMABAD: “Ecstasy, known as ‘E’ or ‘X’ on the party scene, is basically MDMA. It’s what you take when you wanna dance. One hit will make the most shy people hit the dance floor like maniacs,” says SK, a foreign-educated Peshawar girl, who works as an executive in Islamabad.

“But ecstasy can tire you out and give you a bad hangover, but that’s where coke comes in,” she adds.

Snow, chitta, devil’s dandruff; cocaine has many street names. “It is a stimulant, a pick-me-up. It kills any hangover and changes you right up. A lot of smart and active people use it; from New York to London and everywhere in between, it’s indispensible to the high-power lifestyle,” she says.

But this prescription doesn’t come cheap, nor can everyone afford it. One ecstasy pill costs anywhere between Rs1,500 to Rs3,500 on the market, and a gram of cocaine can set the user back a good Rs10,000 to Rs14,000.

The effects of ecstasy, or “the trip” – as users of the drug describe their experiences – only last a couple of hours and people usually take more to heighten the effect or stretch their trips.

“Cocaine is different; it gives the user short bursts of great physical and mental energy. You get wired, you feel like you’re on top of the world. But just like that, seconds later, it’s gone and you need more,” a cocaine user told Dawn. The lows of such recreational drug use, known as downers, take their toll on the user.

The party isn’t complete without cigarettes, hash or marijuana joints and alcohol.

Widespread drug usage at private parties forces ANF to change tactics

“Joints are like appetisers; their aroma set the mood. If you smell someone smoking up, you can be sure that there is good conversation to be found,” SK says.

She tells Dawn she has a stash of ecstasy pills that she brought over from Europe and covers her expenses by selling them at parties.

“I only deal in the high-end stuff, you know, and the occasional user can even have half a pill without freaking out,” she says. “But I don’t deal in coke – that’s illegal and dangerous.”

One might think that this culture of partying, dancing and drug-use only exists in the movies, but a counterculture is growing quickly in Pakistan.

“Young professionals and entrepreneurs have a lot of disposable income now. It’s kind of a status symbol; your choice of drug reflects how much money you have,” says SA, an entrepreneur based in the federal capital.

He also points towards the shrinking public space for recreation. “There are hardly any plays or concerts. No public place is completely safe and there’s no place for me to take my fiancé or wife, let alone a girlfriend. So, people did what they needed to do; go deeper underground,” he says, painting a bleak picture of the Islamabad social scene.

“This is nonsense – we used to have ‘raves’ in the mid 2000s where we could dance all night long. Now, the social scene is more about GTs – get-togethers – which are far more personal and quieter,” SK says.

“It is this cosiness that has led to increasing drug use at these places, because the people in attendance usually all know and trust each other,” he explains.

The twin cities were once a hub of social activities. Gigs and concerts featuring internationally-renowned artists were held regularly, and a budding amateur theatre scene made Islamabad a vibrant city in the mid- and late-2000s. But the threat of terrorism and all the baggage that came with it only served to close down what was already a very guarded city. Public events became few and far between and social circles contracted further.

“Drugs have been around for a long time, but they were never enjoyed in such quantities by so many people. It was always a private affair, something to keep from others. But now, things are opening up,” said M, who prides himself in having tried a wide variety of intoxicating substances.

Social media and advances in telecommunications have helped create a thriving secret society of drug users. Parties are never advertised publicly. Whatsapp and Facebook groups ensure that only those who are invited can attend.

“These GTs are also relatively safe environments for those who are experimenting with drugs, because they can always refer to other people who have more experience with them and so they know what to expect. This is not something you can ask anyone, and a lot of people are even shy of googling such things,” M says.

Tightening the noose

This growing community of drug users has hitherto resisted all attempts at infiltration from law enforcement agencies. The Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), which has traditionally dealt with the movement of drugs across national borders, has now been forced to turn their gaze inwards.

“These drug users are not like the addicts on the streets; they are well-to-do, bright and attractive young people,” said ANF DG Maj-Gen Khawar Hanif told Dawn.

“Since most ecstasy and cocaine users are to be found amongst the privileged classes, the authorities currently have very limited intelligence resources in their supply chain.”

Since they are highly profitable commodities, some users even smuggle in small quantities to finance their habits.

“Most cocaine mules are African nationals but owing to the growing market for such drugs in Pakistan, people of other nationalities have been recently arrested as well,” an ANF official told Dawn.

But Narcotics Control Secretary Mohammad Akbar Khan Hoti told Dawn that they were tightening the noose. The ANF has changed tact and now all the international flights landing in Pakistan are checked to counter the inflow of drugs into the country. In the past, only the outward trafficking of drugs such as heroin, hashish and opium was monitored.

“Traditionally law enforcement agencies, including customs, were preoccupied with the outflow of drugs from the country, but we have recently made several raids on retailer in areas that are usually the domain of local police,” said Maj-Gen Hanif said.

Rehabilitate who?

But what is even more surprising is that there is little or no information available about cocaine users in Pakistan, even with the authorities.

“This is because the number of patients who seek treatment for cocaine addiction is negligible,” said Farman Ali, project manager of the state-owned Modern Addiction, Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre (MATRC) in Islamabad.

Heroin abusers make up most of the patients that come into rehab, followed by marijuana users and alcoholics.

However, a limited number of cocaine abusers have been treated at MATRC Karachi, and officials believe that its forbiddingly high price keeps most people from becoming addicted.

There are also no details on drug users who are being treated for addiction.

Apart from three MATRC units, one each in Islamabad, Karachi and Quetta, there are numerous drug rehabilitation centres across the country – but they are all registered as NGOs and are not being regulated by any department or government agency.


With the advent of these high-value upmarket drugs, there is also a significant trend towards adulteration. Since cocaine and ecstasy are very highly priced, drug dealers often water-down their product, and locally manufactured pills are also available in the black market.

Though Dr Ali says there are no proven side effects of consuming impure or locally manufactured drugs, officials say this impression stems from the authorities’ ignorance of the effects of spurious drugs.

“There is no drug-testing facility in the country and nobody knows what kind of chemicals are being used as additives. Some may well be harmless, but other chemical compounds that are used as additives can prove fatal,” he said.

The only barometer of drug ‘quality’ is the user and only they can tell whether the drug is ‘good quality’ or not, he said.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2015

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