Heads you lose

Published November 10, 2011

As if all of a sudden, everyone is interested (more than concerned), about the rising cases of drug intake among the youth in Pakistan. By this I mean kids popping Ecstasy (also called “e”) and snorting cocaine at what are called raves. This also means talking about kids with rather well-to-do dads, along with kids with not-so- well-to-do dads hanging out with the rich brats.

The truth is, the per centage of such disaffected “lafangas” and “lafangees,” is so marginal and minute, one wonders whether to really bother about such an “issue?”

And anyway, in Pakistan, raves, “e”  and all that is really a late hang-over of what was called the “MADchester scene” in Britain in the late 80s, and which by the early “naughties” (the 2000s), turned into a fashionable phenomenon.

In Pakistan, this ‘issue’ can interest the rich purveyors of such a scene on one side, and on the other, the usual reactionary and scandal-baiting reporters of the right-wing vernacular press, but is it really a cause for concern? Certainly not as much as what drugs like heroin have managed to do to millions of young Pakistanis for so many years. Heroin’s many casualties cut across all classes, quite unlike “e” or cocaine.

Ironically, as the rich brats and their fellow hanger-ons gloat about the “e” scene, the right-wing press have spoken more about the dangers and “obscenities” of such scenes (which only affect and attract a handful of Pakistanis), whereas not a word is spoken by these men about real problems affecting a much larger number of young Pakistanis: Heroin trade and addiction.

Just how disconcerting is the problem of drugs in Pakistan? This simple question can be answered with a chronological evolution of the problem.


Heroin was almost unheard of in Pakistan before 1979. According to a 1974 feature in the monthly Herald, throughout the 60s and, especially the 70s, the drug of choice for most young Pakistanis was cannabis (hashish).

A pack of the famous Pak-Afghan ‘Gold stamp’ hashish. It was extremely popular with the youth in the 1970s and was also rumoured to have contained ‘goat’s blood.’

And though, in spite of the fact that alcohol was still legal in the country, there are no reports to be found highlighting any concerning rise in the cases of alcoholism among the youth of the pre-prohibition era (1947-77).

However, one can find reports of concern aired by certain charity, social and religious organisations of the time regarding the rising cases of hashish usage in Karachi and Lahore’s college and university campuses in the 70s, but they are too far and in between. No reports can also be found suggesting that this rise was causing the youth to indulge in criminal activities (such as violence, theft, swindling, etc.), and this is most probably due to the fact that hashish is mostly considered to be habitual drug and not physically addictive like heroin and cocaine.

Another favorite drug of choice among the youth of the time was bhang, a traditional sub-continental hallucinogenic drink, which, though powerful in its effect, is also not addictive.

It is dried marijuana leaves that are crushed and then mixed vigorously with either water, milk or sharbat. Traditionally, it has been a popular drink (especially during the summer season) of farmers in the rural areas of Northern and central India and in Sindh and the Punjab in Pakistan.

A glass of bhang. The most powerful version of the drug is said to have appeared in the interior of the Sindh province in the 1980s and was called ‘Martial La’ (Martial Law) - a tongue-in-cheek name to satirise the repressive Ziaul Haq dictatorship.

The rise of hashish usage in urban Pakistan was also indicative of the trends spawned by the hippie “counterculture” in the West in the 60s, and which had started to arrive in India and Pakistan at the start of the 70s.

According to some young hashish users of the era, before the 70s, hashish was mostly seen as a “laborers’ drug,” mostly used by poor workers arriving in Karachi and Lahore from the country’s backward areas, looking for work.

But gradually the practice of smoking hashish spread among college and university going youth in the 70s.

Much of the drug was being cultivated and made in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Northen Areas.


According to various NGO and government reports published in the early 80s, there were just two reported cases of heroin addiction in Pakistan in 1979.

However, by 1985, Pakistan had one of the largest populations of heroin addicts in the world, at times running a close second to the United States which had the leading ratio of heroin users.

The leading reason behind the alarming rise in Pakistan of heroin usage in the 80s is mainly the influx of Afghan refugees coming in after the start of the Afghan Civil War in 1979 and the subsequent entry of Pakistan as a participant in the war at the behest of the American CIA.

The poppy plant (used in the making of heroin) and the deadly drug were being grown and produced in large quantities in Afghanistan during the 70s as well, but the bulk of the finished product (heroin) was being illegally smuggled to the United States and Europe.

According to some research reports (on the subject of heroin addiction in Pakistan published between 1984 and 1987), the Z A. Bhutto regime (in the 1970s) was well aware of the phenomenon but took extraordinary steps to limit the sale/peddling of heroin within Pakistan.

However, with the start of the Afghan Civil War (from 1979 onwards), two factors perpetuated the spreading of heroin within Pakistan.

(1)  As many poppy farmers in Afghanistan were displaced by the Civil War, they carried their practice into Pakistan’s Northern Areas bordering Afghanistan. Many of their Pakhtun brethren in these areas soon followed suit.

(2)   Since the United States and Pakistan started to fund the Afghan rebels after 1980, much of the war before that was funded by the rebels themselves. Heroin production and smuggling was one of the main ways used by these rebels (called Mujahideen), to acquire weapons to fight Afghan troops and their Soviet backers. Many of the new heroin producers and smugglers started to introduce heroin in Pakistan as well.Interestingly, heroin addiction remained minimal in parts of Afghanistan that were controlled by the Soviet forces.

By 1980, the main cities of Pakistan were suddenly flooded with heroin. Early users report how places from where they used to get their hashish from now had “this strange looking powder.”

These users had no idea what heroin was and thus, were also not aware of the drug’s dangerous and addictive side-effects.

According to them, they were first given packs of heroin free of cost by the peddlers who told them it was “meethi charas” (sweet hashish). Of course, the idea was to get them addicted.

Another reason why so many Pakistanis suddenly fell for heroin was its easy availability in the wake of a strict prohibition of alcohol in 1977.

By the mid-80s, a large number of Pakistanis were also involved in the heroin trade, including various high ranking officials of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88).

By then a whole new generation of young Pakistanis were coming off age and heroin was wrecking grave social and domestic havoc in numerous Pakistani households.

Not only did the drug leave the users psychologically scared, its addictive nature also left them committing crimes like theft to subdue the painful experience of heroin withdrawal.

Heroin addiction was no more the problem of poor people’s sons and daughters only. It had engulfed the young from well-to-do middle and upper class families as well.

A young heroin addict in Karachi.

While going through the many newspaper articles written on the subject in the mid-1980s, one can also notice a sense of conspiracy creeping into the concerned reporters’ minds regarding the sudden plunging of young Pakistanis into the harrowing ways of heroin addiction.

Some journalists and columnists suggested that “just like the American CIA and FBI flooded the streets of San Francisco and New York with heroin in the early 70s to subdue the rebellious, anti-government youth movement in the United States, CIA and Pakistani intelligence agencies were using heroin to curb any anti-Zia rebellion taking shape in Pakistan (and thus the sudden and easy availability of the drug on Pakistani streets).”

It is ironic that even though the newspapers of the era are full of reports of police action against alcohol sellers and “fahashi,” (obscenity), the ‘Islamic’ regime of General Ziaul-Haq seemed never to have apprehended any well-known heroin smuggler/seller.

Also, as can be found in newspaper reports between 1980 and 1988, even though religious parties (most of whom were aligned with Zia’s so-called Islamic maneuvers), were always in the forefront in generating and instigating violent action against ‘obscene women’ and alcohol sellers, I failed to find even a single report in which a religious party was reported to have demanded any action against heroin smugglers and peddlers.

The many heroin detox centers that sprung up in the 1980s, almost all of them were funded and run by local and international NGOs and charities.


The end of the Afghan Civil War did not necessarily mean the end of the heroin menace in Pakistan, which, by 1993 had risen by an alarming 53 per cent compared to 1984’s 7.7 per cent.

Most Afghan refugees who had arrived in the 80s and became extremely rich due to the heroin trade, stayed put, and they, along with their Pakistani contemporaries continued to grow, make and sell heroin here and abroad.

The government, now “democratic” in make up (due to Zia’s assassination in 1988), continued to look the other way, as Pakistani intelligence agencies (in the aftermath of the stoppage of US aid to the mujahideen groups through the ISI) went on to use the heroin trade to finance their ‘strategic assets’ in a new round of Civil War in Afghanistan, this time between various factions of the once united Mujahideen.

As a new generation of young Pakistanis crumbled in the face of another upsurge in the heroin trade and usage, a whole new breed of drug peddlers and traders started to emerge.

Traditional heroin and hashish peddlers and smugglers who were either Afghan refugees or lower middle-class Pakistanis had suddenly become rich in the 80s. This phenomenon was physically reflected in the springing up of large bungalows in the country’s many urban areas, usually with Quranic verses scribbled on the front of the bungalows.

However, in the 1990s, the new peddler usually came from well to do middle-class backgrounds. He did not trade in heroin. Instead, he brought cocaine (first from India) and then the United States and catered excursively to upper and upper middle-class youth.

Even though the drug they were offering was extremely expensive, it was almost as addictive as heroin. This constituted a growing demand for the drug within the class it was serving. However, it was not a problem as such even till the late 90s. Heroin addiction and sale remained to be the bigger issue and problem in this respect.


The rise in demand and the growing circle of cocaine peddlers did bring down the price of the drug, especially when some new peddlers started to also bring in Ecstasy (which had already become the “drug of choice” in the west in the 90s).

Even though this had meant more users and more peddlers (of cocaine and Ecstasy), and subsequent episodes of (cocaine) addiction and (Ecstasy) seizers within the class of users that can afford these drugs, these being smuggled into Pakistan is yet to be treated as a serious happening by the country’s drug enforcement agencies.

After all, cocaine and Ecstasy usage remains to be extremely small compared to the continuing havoc being perpetuated by heroin addiction in this country.

A rave in a rented Karachi warehouse.

However, one must bear in mind that not only was heroin usage and addiction unknown in Pakistan in the 70s, cocaine has almost the same damaging addictive qualities.

The rising number of cocaine peddlers and traders may mean the gradual fall of the drug’s otherwise high prices, and even though it is not made in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, cocaine is being regularly produced (ever since the early 90s), in many coastal areas of India and from where its cheaper version can easily be smuggled in.


Reports used:

•            Five year follow up of 100 heroin addicts in Peshawar: KA Mufti, S Said, S Farooq, A Haroon (2004)

•            Rise in needle sharing among injection drug users in Pakistan during the Afghanista war: SA Strathdee, T Zafar, H Brahmbhatt (2003)

•            The politics and economics of drug production on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border: implications for a globalised world: A Z Asad (2003)

•            Pak-Afghan drug trade in historical perspective: I Haq (1996)

•            Multiple-drug abuse in a youth clinic sample in Pakistan: I. Haq (1990)

•            Drug abuse and prevention programs in 29 countries: RG Smart, GF Murray (1988)


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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