On a cold, rainy night in Peshawar, an earthy aroma wafts out of a boy’s hostel room. Inside, the room is full of smoke and dimly lit. A classical Pashto song is softly playing in the background, while a heater in the corner of the room provides warmth to the six young men who sit in a circle without sweaters or jackets. They are sitting around a newspaper on which lie scattered cigarettes and a little black packet of charas (hashish).

Each of them take a puff or two of the lit cigarette that is being passed around, while they converse as though they are intoxicated. As they smoke, they also sip hot tea. These young men, aged roughly from 19 to 26 years, belong to different districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Most of them have been friends for some six years now, since they all came from their villages to study in Peshawar.

Two of them, Fazal* and Shehzad*, are from Swat; Rafaqat* is from Karak, Arshad* from Mardan, Hamza* from Swabi and Hussain* from Charsadda. Shehzad, 26, is doing his house job at one of the largest hospitals of KP, Rafaqat and Hamza have done their Masters in philosophy and the rest are engineers working at a private firm. They meet almost every night to smoke up.

When the lockdown was imposed, they were all forced to go home and Shehzad lost his smoking company. In Hussain’s village, charas was not easily available and he couldn’t find friends to smoke up with. He also worried somebody would discover him smoking and tell his family. To deal with this problem, he would often go towards the mountains or the riverside, so that he could smoke up in peace. He was relieved when the lockdown eased up and he could come back to Peshawar.

Like other businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic has also adversely affected the illegal market of charas. Users and sellers of the drug are both worried about their survival. The users who are addicted to hashish are worried about accessing it; the sellers, on the other hand, face a cut in their income. The demand for the drug was significantly reduced since the beginning of the pandemic because people either lost their jobs or suffered pay cuts and therefore couldn’t afford to spend as much on hashish.

“The lockdown has been a terrible time for us,” Shehzad says, as he takes in the last puff of his blunt. Shehzad and his friends normally consume 60 grams of charas each week, which costs them about 3,500 rupees, including delivery charges.

The Covid-19 related lockdowns affected even the illegal trade in and usage of cannabis in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

In Peshawar, charas is easily delivered home. Shehzad calls Wadood*, a taxi driver and charas supplier to bring charas for him to the hostel. Wadood got into the charas supply business to feed his family; he feels no other business can generate as much income easily. His kids go to school, his mother is sick and her treatment would be impossible for Wadood without this supply work.

But such is the vicious cycle of the drugs business. For the sake of providing sustenance to his own family, a person like Wadood enables addiction for his clients and, thereby, harms them and their families. The majority of charas consumers, he says, are doctors, engineers, students and other salaried-class people from different districts staying in the metropolis for their jobs. Many women from the field of medicine and nursing are also his clients. Information collected from different drug dealers reveals that the majority of the consumers are young people.

Wadood does an average of eight deliveries in a day and charges 1,000 rupees per delivery. When the lockdown was imposed, he would only get one order a day. He says that dealers who normally supplied 10 kg of charas per week had difficulty supplying even one kilo inside the city during the lockdown. The suppliers and sellers not only had difficulty in reaching out to their customers, but blockades placed at the entrance points linking Peshawar to Tirah — from where most of the hash is sourced — made it impossible for them to smuggle charas to the city.

Tirah is known for production of charas, whereas the areas bordering Afghanistan, such as tehsil Jamrud, Bara and Landi Kotal, are also among the well-known areas for the hashish black market in KP.

*Shakir Ullah, who has been associated with the business for the last 28 years, says that, before the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) were absorbed into KP, there were about 800 shops in these districts that supplied charas. But later these shops disappeared because of the assertion of the writ of the government in these areas and stringent rules and regulations.

The police and the Anti-Narcotic Force (ANF) regularly inspect these areas and sometimes raid and arrest people. In the erstwhile Fata, drugs would be displayed and sold openly in the market but, after Fata became part of KP, the police and the ANF tightened the noose around drug dealers. Because of strict government vigilance, drugs are now available in shops only in far-flung villages or sold covertly in some hotels or shops that are book, fruit, or grocery shops.

Interestingly, while many countries around the world have moved towards decriminalisation of cannabis possession and, in some cases, even legalisation — aimed at breaking the links between organised crime and the cannabis trade and because it is considered a ‘soft’ narcotic — these debates seem to have largely passed Pakistan by.

In Pakistan, despite wide usage, hashish remains illegal, which contributes to the way users have to hide and a culture of criminality. This leads to several issues, including a lack of access to health interventions for users. The difficulty of access and the culture of criminality also encourages addicts to experiment with harder and more addictive drugs such as ‘ice’ (crystal methamphetamine) and heroin. The demand for and usage of hard drugs in Peshawar is indeed increasing.

According to the information supplied by the ANF in KP, 327 drugs-related FIRs were registered last year in the province. The force says 262 kg of heroin, 4,074 kg of charas, 405 kg of opium and 31 kg of ‘ice’ were seized in various operations across the province, while 359 people were arrested and 103 vehicles also impounded.

Charas is, in fact, supplied from KP to Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, while Karachi is the top consumer city for the narcotic. “The prices of charas get higher as it moves away from the supply point,” says Shakir Ullah. “People in Punjab and Karachi who have little or no knowledge about charas get adulterated form at a high price,” he says, laughing.

With reference to the prevalence of cannabis in KP, Shakir Ullah adds that the soil of areas bordering KP is suitable for the cultivation of the cannabis plant. Secondly, those who cannot find adequate livelihoods look upon illicit drugs as a lucrative business; the government has hardly invested in any development in the areas bordering KP.

The non-availability of hashish during the pandemic did prove to be beneficial for some young students who Wadood and Shakir Ullah sold to and who were previously addicted to it. Ihtisham* is one such university student from Lower Dir. He was a heavy consumer of charas before lockdown and faced the same predicament as Hussain and his five friends during lockdown. “There was no availability of charas and nowhere to smoke. At first I fretted about it but then I decided to quit altogether.”

But those who remain addicted to the drug, such as Shehzad and his friends, are worried about their deteriorating health, which has made living a normal social life difficult for them. “Stay away from drugs,” warns Shehzad. Whereas selling charas may be a means to make ends meet for Shehzad’s supplier, the consumer is caught in a pitfall. The Covid-19 lockdown has made the 26-year-old doctor realise his casual gatherings to relax with friends at the hostel had pushed him to a serious addiction.

Shakir Ullah is not in the dark about his deceptive trade, either. “If the government would pay attention to the backward areas of KP and provide employment and business opportunities, I would not be working in this business,” claims Shakir Ullah.

**Names changed to protect privacy
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar. He tweets at @Wasim_Chashmato*

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 28th, 2021

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