PESHAWAR: Wild eyed and hollow-cheeked, there are seven pale men in a dark room. Subterranean in its gloominess, the room holds them together like siblings in a womb, warm and comforting, its air redolent with the staleness of their breath, the chemical smell of their sweat.
They sit close to each other, momentarily surfacing to reality, to the here and now, responding with some effort when addressed. But they can’t stay on the surface for long, and always want to plunge back again.
Some here are only students. One is a mechanic, another works as a daily-wage labourer. One of them says he is “self-employed”, reluctant to elaborate on his vocation.
From their speech, struggles and stories, one can assume they are more or less from a middle class background.
“I didn’t sleep for five days when I first tried it,” begins Ahmad Khan, 30, sitting in a corner. He speaks with the energy and hyperactivity of one stimulated by crystal methamphetamine, or the “club-drug” meth.
But the gathering in this room is hardly a party—although if it is, the fun never stops for the people who stay, who converge here daily here to inhale “ice.” They describe the pull as "incredible".
“It makes me enjoy life even without sleeping,” Ahmad says.
A 'new heroin'
“The cops are not so familiar with ice yet,” says 25 year old Ijaz Afridi, who quit the drug after seeking rehabilitation at the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar.
He feels the cops’ ignorance makes his town and others a safe haven for drug pushers and consumers. “Dealers in Khyber Agency have hired people in Peshawar to sell their product in mainland Pakistan,” he explains.
Back in the room, the men explain the network to me. 35-year-old Janan Khan, whose gaunt appearance betrays his dependence on the drug, says most dealers are based in Khyber Agency. “They control most of the production and distribution of ice in Peshawar,” he says. Heroin and hash are also produced there, largely consumed locally but also smuggled abroad.
According to Janan, most addicts from Peshawar, Mardan, Nowshera and Charsadda go to Khyber Agency to to get their fix. In Peshawar, the drug sells at anything between Rs1,500 to Rs3,000, Mohammad Ali, another addict says.
But lawmakers and law enforcing agencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are in a fix. Cracking down on drug-peddlers or addlers promoting crystal methamphetamine—or ice, as it is now locally known— is a conundrum. Legally, there is no provision in the law on how to deal with this “new form of heroin.”
It’s a man-made drug, unlike cocaine or hashish which comes from plants. ‘Ice’ is a synthetic chemical made from ephedrine through a chemical process.
It induces long-term exuberance and hyperactivity that medical experts say extract a heavy price by damaging those addicted to it, both physically and psychologically.
The province’s top cop, Inspector General of KP Police Nasir Durrani, says the police will take action against dealers and users of meth after “reviewing the legal position of the drug.”
The high and the crash
The addicts in the cramped room seem aggressive and argumentative. The drug fools its user into believing the brain is working faster. They frequently interrupt one another, not letting anyone finish a sentence.
Jamal, 24, says he feels fresh and energetic when he inhales meth. “The world feels like a burden on my shoulders, but after two puffs, I am relaxed,” he says, smiling and scratching his face.
Itching is a common symptom among meth addicts, but by far one of the least harmful ones. Meth creates a sense of well-being, pushing the user’s body faster and further than it is meant to ago. As the dependency increases, the withdrawal gets worse.
“They experience a severe ‘crash’”, says Dr Mian Mukhtar ul Haq Azeem, describing the physical or mental breakdown that occurs after the drug wears off. Dr Azeem is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Lady Reading Hospital. “Some start to itch because they are convinced there is something crawling under their skin,” he adds.
But there are also wilder forms of delusions. In the beginning, addicts stop eating, lose weight, or complain of disturbing sleep patterns. Hyperactivity, nausea, delusions of power and increased aggressiveness and irritability soon follow. Some users develop schizophrenic disorders and start believing their relatives and family members are their enemies.
“Even those who recover are usually subject to memory gaps and extreme mood swings,” Dr Azeem adds.
A century-old addiction
Meth first came to Peshawar and its suburbs in 2010, says a resident of Khyber Agency who wishes to stay anonymous.
“It comes in the form of crystals,” he explains. “They are usually smoked, snorted or inhaled, or ingested with a beverage.”
Meth addicts believe Hilter administered the drug to his soldiers to increase their stamina during the Second World War. Methamphetamine’s roots trace the drug’s beginnings in 1887-Germany when it was both potent and easy to make.
Some decades later, the crystalline powder was developed in Japan and found to be soluble in water, making it a perfect candidate for injecting.
High doses were given to Japanese Kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions. Once the war ended, meth abuse by injection reached epidemic proportions when supplies stored for military use became available to the Japanese public.
High in demand, high in supply
Afridi, one of the few addicts who has sought treatment for his addiction, says there are at least four to five dealers peddling meth in his town Jamrud alone. “But no one has cared to do anything about them,” he says.
The number could be much higher. According to a local dealer in Khyber Agency—where most addicts come to get their fix—meth can be bought too easily. “More than 400 dealers are associated with business only in Peshawar,” he shares, asking to remain anonymous.
Afridi’s claims support the dealer’s. "The youth, even mature people, are willing to pay a lot of money for ice," Afridi says. "Dealers and manufacturers are making millions of rupees.”
Data made available by the Peshawar Police shows that dealers and users of ice have previously been arrested at two police stations. The police have charged the dealers under Section 9 of the CNSA, and users under Section 9A-CNSA. The Control of Narcotics Substance Act (CNSA) is commonly used to detain dealers and users of hashish, but has no provisions specifically dealing with ice.
Hanif Abbasi, a former member of the National Assembly belonging to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, was indicted in a court case in 2010 for “appropriating and selling” 500kg of ephedrine to narcotics smugglers, but such cases remain largely untracked.
A police official who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media said that most dealers end up getting away with peddling because of a lack of repercussions. “The normal punishment for such criminals is two to three days in prison, with a fine not exceeding Rs500,” he states.
A fatal fixation
Dr. Majid, a medical officer at the drug rehabilitation center at Lady Reading Hospital, explains that abusing ice permanently damages heart and brain blood vessels, causing high blood pressures which can lead to a fatal heart attack or stroke.
Those who sniff meth suffer from liver, kidney and lung damage; those who smoke it suffer from breathing problems, and those who inject it lose weight, experience severe tooth decay, disorientation, apathy, confused exhaustion, strong psychological dependence, psychosis and depression.
However, according to the National Instituteof Drug Abuse, meth use has negative consequences regardless of how it is used. Aside from the increased risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis B and C, which are contracted by sharing contaminated drug injection equipment and through unsafe sex, meth also alters judgment and inhibition. It can lead people to engage in all kinds of risky behaviour.
“Users may also suffer brain damage,” Dr. Azeem agrees. “Including memory loss, and an increasing inability to grasp abstract thoughts.”
Kicking the habit
Janan has tried to kick the habit, but it is no use. “I start all over again after a week,” he says.
Some have sought treatment and survived it. Afridi for example, might have found help at the rehabilitation centre, but with a growing number of addiction cases, Peshawar has neither the “medicine nor means” to root out the problem, says Fida Muhammad, a medical officer posted at the rehabilitation ward.
“There are only eight beds in this centre at the Lady Reading Hospital and 10 in the Khyber Teaching Hospital,” Fida says. “It is not enough.”
Plus, Fida feels a few weeks are not enough to rehabilitate a drug addict. “The rehabilitation process requires at least a year," he recommends. Not all are lucky. Afridi, who made it 12 days without slipping back into use says even he fears a relapse, especially if he buckles under the pressure of financial constraints.
No going back
“Once I tasted ice, I was immediately hooked,” Janan mutters, adding that he has lost his parents, wife, two children, friends, wealth and even his profession to the habit.
The problem is that one starts with a few hits, but loses to the drug. Janan made the mistake of trying a few puffs with his friends. “It destroyed my life,” he admits now. “My family abandoned me and my wife left with the children due to my aggressiveness and addiction.”
He used to be something of a master at baking cakes in the old city. He worked at a bakery in the Ghanj neighbourhood before his meth addiction. Once the drug kicked in, he was forced to quit his job. Unlike him and the other addicts in the room, most ice users are better off and don’t have to worry about money. The largest market is among youth from affluent families, or those living away from homes in hostels. Poor and lower middle class people have only recently caught the habit.
“Middle-class addicts don’t have to bear the drug’s expenses,” Dr Azeem says. “They steal or force their family into fulfilling their demand for money.”
The lack of money adds to any addict’s misery. “I used to earn a handsome amount,” Janan remembers. Now he needs more than Rs20,000 to secure a month’s supply, which amounts to one gram of ice every day. Once when he ran out of money he sold his wife’s jewelery for Rs80,000.
Listening to Janan’s story, another addict in the room shares his own. He works as a driver for a government employee, so wants to remain unnamed. “Once I took Rs300,000 worth of meth in a month,” he says, beating Janan’s record. “I just stayed in a room for a month.”
This piece first appeared in Newslens Pakistan and has been reproduced with permission.