The Pakistan-Afghan Nexus: The Culture of Drugs Among Pakistan’s Youth
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The Pakistan-Afghan Nexus: The Culture of Drugs Among Pakistan’s Youth

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Along its western front, Pakistan shares a 2250 km long border with the war-torn country of Afghanistan. The fact that the border is porous and poorly managed has contributed to multifarious problems for Pakistan. One major problem that does not usually make headlines is the export of opium to Pakistan, with the drug now making its way deep into Pakistani society.

The statistics of opium production in Afghanistan should be truly worrisome for its southeastern neighbor. According to the latest Afghanistan opium survey, the area under cultivation in 2015 is around 183,000 hectares and potential opium production in Afghanistan amounts to 3,300 tons. If we were to rely on the figures provided by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium production in comparison with 2014 has decreased. Yet the number of poppy-free provinces fell in 2015.

Helmand province, which borders Pakistan, tops the list of poppy producers. It represents 47 percent of the total area under cultivation in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, as The Guardian reports, the Taliban presence in Helmand is returning.

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Implications for Pakistan

On the other side of the border, as it looks, the culture of substance abuse appears to be of grave concern to no one, with the authorities having virtually made peace with the inflow of various forms of drugs. The supply and demand side of this phenomenon makes it a workable business which benefits many and feeds into terror financing and narco-terrorism. It is a massive cross-border drug trade with enormous sums of money involved. For instance, a U.N. report valued 2014’s crop at $22 billion in Afghanistan (or 4 percent of the country’s GDP). Now the business has taken root in Pakistan.

Narcotics control comes under the Ministry of Interior and Narcotics Control. The ministry’s narcotics control division is the policy body and its anti-narcotics force is the law enforcement agency.

According to Pakistan’s Anti Narcotics Force Act 1997, besides maintaining a liaison with international narcotics control authorities and representing Pakistan at conferences and seminars, among other duties, the anti-narcotics force (ANF) is tasked with coordinating the elimination and destruction of poppy cultivation.

As evidenced by the ground realities, however, the ANF has not done anything visibly remarkable on the poppy cultivation (and distribution) front.

Generally, youngsters are more likely to know where they can get, for instance, hashish than they are about the consequences or the state authority that deals with drugs control.

“Policy on drug education, treatment and rehabilitation of narcotics/drugs addicts” is one of the functions of the Narcotics Control Division. However, a lack of awareness and drug education is a major policy implementation lapse today.

An emerging culture of substance abuse, especially among Pakistani youth, is worrisome and dangerous for obvious reasons. According to a 2013 report, Drug Use in Pakistan 2013 (a collaborative research effort between the Ministry of Narcotics Control, Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, and UNODC), “Approximately six per cent of the population, or 6.7 million people had used any controlled substance including misuse of prescription drugs, in the last year” and “Cannabis is the most commonly used drug, with a prevalence of 3.6 per cent of the population, equivalent to four million users nationwide.”

More worrisome is the rapid increase in drug use among college students in the cities, including and not restricted to Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. Peddlers, operating under the noses of local administration, or rather with their alleged blessing, have comfortably carved out markets among adult students residing in hostels. And the practice of substance abuse has become very common (albeit under-reported) among elite students studying in universities in Pakistan’s urban centers. Shrines, private farm houses, cafes in basements and rooftops, rented houses, and bungalows have turned into hotspots for drug use. Above the peddlers sit drug trafficking organizations and gangs that have turned into a powerful mafia. With their links to bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, they are well connected and very powerful. These gangs are wallowing in cash and can quickly turn to narco-terrorism as their safety net.

The availability of a variety of drugs for a large pool of youth paints a very grim picture and partially explains the criminal activities, rapes, street crimes, domestic violence, mental unrestm and fatal health hazards. A press release by the ANF appraising its performance for the year 2014-15 categorized the seized narcotics and precursors into 14 categories: heroin, charas, opium, morphine, cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy tablets, psychotropic tablets, xanax tablets, cannabis, acetic anhydride, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid.

What Should Be Done?

But the odd seizure won’t do much to eliminate drug trafficking. A holistic and meaningful effort in terms of both policy and action is required.

Terrorist activities on both sides of the borders are funded with the money earned from the drug trade. Hence, the vicious chain of drugs, narco-money and narco-terrorism needs to be broken. For a start, effective border management is required to plug the routes drugs take across the border. Intelligence sharing between Pakistan and Afghanistan could be a starting point. And meaningful cooperation among the ministries of interior, counter narcotics forces and border police is required for the long term.

Pakistan has the law, but lacks enforcement, enabling those involved in the drug trade to act with impunity. Guided by a long-term policy and concerted efforts, those elements of the Pakistani establishment and law enforcement agencies who benefit from this trade have to held to account across the board.

The media could play an effective role in drug education and awareness, especially among younger Pakistanis. It should engage with the civil society, government and non-government organizations, doctors and experts to launch an effective anti-drugs campaign through seminars, debates, TV discussions and educational curriculums.

To defeat the lucrative appeal of the business of drugs and drug use, it must be fought from both the demand and supply sides.

It is perhaps worth recalling the 2015 theme of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking: Lets Develop – Our Lives – Our Communities – Our Identities – Without Drugs.

Mahboob Mohsin is a political scientist from LUMS, Pakistan. He is a media professional and works as a research analyst at the country head office of Channel 24 News in Lahore. He was part of the seventh Youth Parliament Pakistan.

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