Drug addiction & govt’s response?

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By Masud Khabeki

According to an estimate around 23 million people over the age of 12 are addicted to some kind of drug around the world, while according to UNODC’s report over 8 million aged between 15 and 64 are regular addicts to heroin as 44 tons of processed heroin is consumed annually in Pakistan. The menace of addiction is affecting the remaining population as they include parents, family members, friends and neighborhood. Curiosity, urge for pleasure, experimentation with narcotics, alcohol as well as smoking, societal isolation, anxiety, stress, peer pressure or bad company, advanced life style, unemployment, too much pocket money by parents as well as dearth of attention and supervision, the wish for social acceptance, boredom, only to feel good, feeble religious belief as well as lot of free time at their disposal, easy availability of drugs at less prices, presence as well as existence of drug dens are most widespread factors, on the other hand, drugs are also utilized to heighten sexual delight, to defeat frustration, tragedies and as pain medication. The individuals who begin smoking as well as drinking alcohol at immature age are much more likely to experiment with illicit drugs than individuals who do not smoke and drink. Loose parenting as well as lack of parental involvement in child’s activities are also among the leading causes for drug addiction among youths and teens.

Since long, the drug abuse remains substantially of plant-based drugs, but in recent years it has been noticed an increase in the abuse of synthetic drugs. Because of high prices and limited availability, abuse of synthetic drugs is currently largely restricted to affluent young people. The trend was noticed in the 2006 National Assessment Report on Problem Drug Use in Pakistan by confirming the fact that the signs of Ecstasy and probably other ATS (amphetamine-type stimulants such as methamphetamine) are making their way into the local drug scene. The use of Ecstasy in parties organized mainly by aged 16 to 25 years, usually belonging to upper or upper middle-class families, is on the increase in major urban centers. Additionally, young people involved in racing cars and motorbikes use Ecstasy to enhance their risk-taking behavior. Furthermore, benzodiazepines are another type of licit substances which are being obtained over the counter through pharmacies and other channels. The most preferred method for use of benzodiazepines is oral intake (75 percent), however up to one quarter reported injecting benzodiazepines. This trend to injecting benzodiazepines is an issue of concern. It is important to control the sale of psychotropic substances through a prescriptions system with appropriate checks and safeguards to detect and prevent misuse of the prescriptions. Apart from measures to control the sale of psychotropic substances, there is a need to train local law enforcement officials to identify these substances and to increase public awareness, especially targeting urban youth through educational programs on the health and social consequences of using ATS and other synthetics.

This trend further complicates the entire drug control strategy where the main focus of the law enforcement agencies has been on illicit substances such as heroin and hashish. Production and trafficking of synthetic drugs – Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS) and benzodiazepines, are at relatively low levels in Pakistan. Ecstasy, the most common form of ATS, is smuggled into Pakistan from various countries. On the other hand, benzodiazepines are either licitly manufactured in Pakistan or imported. The trends in drug abuse lead us to believe that the spectrum of substances available on the drug market has widened considerably in Pakistan. It’s not the opioid market in particular that is becoming more diversified, but the drugs with a combination of internationally controlled substances like heroin, and prescription medicines that are either diverted from the legal market or produced as counterfeit medicines are on the rise. New psychoactive substances (NPS), often known as ‘legal highs’ ‘illegal legals’ or ‘illegal highs’, are substances designed to produce the same, or similar effects, to drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy, but are structurally different enough to avoid being controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.  Again, the Opium production around the world is up, and the cocaine market is thriving. In 2016, global opium production increased by one third compared with the previous year and this was primarily due to higher opium poppy yields in Afghanistan. The expansion of the cocaine market has also grown as from 2013-2015, coca bush cultivation increased by 30 per cent mainly as a result of increased cultivation in Colombia. Following a period of decline, there are signs that cocaine use is increasing in the two largest markets, North America and Europe. Also, there are signs of an increasing market of cocaine in Asia as reflected in an increase in seizures of cocaine in the region.

It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan’s law enforcement officers and their training schools, and educational institutions including colleges and university teachers have historically lacked knowledge about the harmful physiological properties of drugs, or their destructive effects on society as the training schools and academies lacked infrastructures and are without specialized faculties. The problem is further aggravated as Pakistan’s drug treatment capacities are observed with fewer than 100 clinics operating nationwide remained insufficient to meet the growing demand to tackle the problem. Very few public hospitals offer drug treatment services, though Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the first province to take steps to integrate basic addiction counseling into its public health system. Lacking government funding, over 90 percent of Pakistan’s detoxification centers are operated by NGOs. As a result, cost remains the primary obstacle preventing widespread access to treatment, leaving 75 percent of people addicted to opiates without an avenue to seek help. According to the most recent UNODC estimate, fewer than 30,000 drug users received detoxification therapy annually. Due to a lack of institutional capacity to serve women, the majority of drug users receiving treatment are men.

The inaugural Pakistan Drug Demand Reduction Stakeholder Meeting occurred in April 2015, which represented the first effort of its kind to bring together the country’s government and civil society to address substance use prevention and treatment in the country. The government and civil society representatives, alongside of international organizations and the United States met to discuss the current demand reduction system and planned how to strengthen drug treatment and prevention services, staff training, and research and evaluation. Another effort was attempted by the Senate Standing Committee on Interior and Narcotics Control in the same year and revealed that 700 people die every day in the country due to drug-related complications are greater than those by terrorism, the latter kills 39 each day. It is reported that Pakistan had been declared a poppy free country since 2011 while the area under poppy cultivation in the neighboring Afghanistan has increased from 7000 hectors to 225000 hectors. The committee further revealed that officials from 32 countries had been deputed in Pakistan for narcotics control, but no Pakistani official had served abroad except in Iran. According to the committee’s report Anti-narcotics force has only four hospitals for the rehabilitation of addicts in the country. It was further revealed that 106 drug gangs, including 13 international gangs, had been busted this year with drug confiscations amounting to Rs550 million. The most significant effort by the committee was the recommendation to all television channels to devote 0.5 per cent of air time to raise awareness on the devastations of drug addiction.

Recently, a controversy developed due to the statement of ill-informed Interior State Minister and the government tried to defend the statement instead of taking actions about the informed problem which is existed not only in Islamabad but across the country.  Being a student of criminology, I was in anticipation that the present government who always promised and claimed to bring change would come up with some strategy to prevent drug addiction at least in educational institution. As a student I developed expectations from the Health Minister, Minister for Education and obviously the Interior Ministry to present a consolidated strategy to fight this problem which has engulfed our educational institutions not only in Islamabad but across the country. These three ministers could play their role to form a policy to counter not only the present situation but can save the country for-ever. They can introduce a policy by necessitating all the educational institutions to conduct a blood test of each and every person associated including teachers, students, staff members, security guards and vendors etc. This strategy would help to identify people addicted to drugs and at the same time would help to identify the source of drug and drug peddlers. It should be mandatory for everyone to submit blood report every six months as the similar kind of practice is already in vogue for the workers in restaurants to prevent the spread of Hepatitis-C. This would not only help to form a data base for the addicts but would help to mark the hot spots within the cities. Furthermore, every educational institution must be provided with a comprehensive proforma for reporting incidents, suspicious activity within and around their vicinity regarding drug use and drug trafficking. The said proforma must be submitted to ANF, respective Health authorities and Ministry of Education on monthly basis. The addicts, hotspots discovered, the modus operandi of drug peddlers and information gathered during the process would definitely lead the concerned departments to conclude where the real problems exist and help to form the necessary action plan for the future to secure at least the educational institutions and younger generation.

This troika can further work together to set up a medication management structure that could ensure that psychotropic substances and pain medication are accessible to those who require it. Raising understanding among clinicians as well as policy makers, parents, youngsters and teachers on the results of mistreat of prescription drugs need attention. Training of health care professionals on an on-going basis on how to stop, identify as well as manage the non-medical utilization of prescription drugs and concerned consequences. Civic awareness campaigns have to be developed and should run through radio as well as television as the senate committee had already proposed to allow 0.5 % of their air time. This government has the responsibility to formulate a policy to increase leisure facilities for young people not only in big cities but in rural areas of the country as well. The diversionary programs must include more sports facilities, libraries and recreational centers to take the young generation off the curse of drugs. Government should take administrative, lawful and policy measures that put an end to the curse of drug addiction.

Masud Khabeki is adjunct professor criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi.