Chasing the heroin dragon
© St. Petersburg Times,
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Twice in the past 18 years, Mir Khawaja has tried to kick his heroin habit so he can support his wife and four daughters. But the temptations are too great and the heroin too cheap.
Even after the price doubled in the mid '90s, Khawaja could still get his daily fix for just 50 rupees, or about 80 cents. That's because most of Pakistan's heroin comes from a close and steady source -- neighboring Afghanistan, the world's biggest producer of opium poppies.
Drug smuggling is rampant and "you can't stop it," says Sher Naeem, who heads a drug treatment center not far from a railroad embankment where hollowed-eyed addicts congregate.
"Our border is a large border, and people move easily between here and there."
The Taliban, the conservative Muslim rulers of Afghanistan, have condemned drug trafficking as a sin against Islam. Last year, the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, announced a ban on opium growing, and a few poppy fields were plowed under as the cameras rolled.
But there is evidence of renewed production by Afghan farmers, who can make far more money raising poppies than they can cucumbers or cabbages. And the Taliban is thought to be stock-piling a large amount of opium, with the intent of releasing it as needed to get money for weapons and military operations.
"Their highly publicized ban on new poppy production appears in reality to be a coldly calculated ploy to control the world market price for their opium and heroin," said U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of a House committee on drug policy.
The threat of a new wave of heroin rolling out of Afghanistan has caused alarm in Western Europe -- especially Britain, which already has a large addiction problem.
But those in the business of treating Pakistan's addicts are worried, too, for this impoverished nation has far fewer resources than the West.
"We're in a hospital with 900 beds and we only have 12 beds for detoxification," sighs Naeem, whose small center is on the grounds of a huge but run-down facility built decades ago by the British.
As many as 5-million of Pakistan's 140-million people are hooked on heroin, one of the world's highest addiction rates. (By comparison, the United States has twice as many citizens but about 250,000 addicts.)
A disproportionate number of Pakistan's addicts gravitate to Peshawar, whose proximity to the Afghan border makes heroin especially cheap and easy to get.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996 and began to limit production, the supplies dried up somewhat and the price eventually went to about 100 rupees. At the same time, the purity went down.
"The quality is not very good; it's mixed with chemicals and other substances," says Abida Nazir, a clinical psychologist at the drug treatment center. "Our patients tell us they don't get as much pleasure as in the past."
Today, the price in Peshawar remains about 100 rupees while closer to the border a gram can be had for just 50. That's enough of a savings that many addicts, even in their wasted states, take a bus into the semi-autonomous tribal areas where they can buy the stuff cheaper.
So poor are most addicts in Pakistan that they can't even afford syringes. Instead, they inhale the drug in a method they call "chasing the dragon."
Addicts take the silver foil from cigarette packages and burn off the white paper backing. They spread the heroin on top of the foil square and hold a match underneath, heating the drug until it turns into a dark goo, which they inhale through a small straw.
Many of the addicts in Peshawar gather day and night near a railroad overpass painted with a large sign for Coca-Cola and the slogan "Keep your city clean." Although Pakistan has strong penalties for drug trafficking, law enforcement pays almost no attention to low-level dealers and users.
"You see them lying by the roadside," says Naeem, the center's director. "The police don't do a thing."
Only about 1 percent of Pakistan's addicts are female. The fear of disgracing the family in this conservative Muslim society is so great that most women never even try the "soft drugs," marijuana and hashish, although they too are abundant. Among males, however, heroin addiction cuts across all strata. Many men from well-off families begin experimenting in college and get hooked because of the easy availability. Most of those get treatment in private clinics here and abroad.
Naeem's government-run center is for addicts who are much poorer but still receive some support from their families. The center used to supply meals to patients as they went through the 12-day detoxification and counseling program, but money for that dried up six years ago. Now, relatives must agree to furnish a patient's daily meals before he will be admitted.
Among the dozen current patients is 45-year-old Mir Khawaja, who says he started smoking heroin 18 years ago when a friend offered what Khawaja thought was a regular cigarette. He liked the mellow feeling so much he became addicted.
For two years, Khawaja was able to keep his job as a driver. Then just as the babies started coming -- four girls, now ages 4 to 15 -- he turned into a hard-core addict.
Twice, he says, he tried to stop and went straight each time for several months. But on the most recent occasion he got into an argument with his brother, who was supporting Khawaja's entire family, and the stress drove him back on heroin.
Like Khawaja, "most addicts have a lack of education and most are poor," says Nazir, the psychologist who counsels him and others every day. "When they leave here, they go back to the same environment and the same stresses and relapse."
Will Khawaja make it this time? Sunken-cheeked and dead-eyed, he looks none too convincing as he mumbles a familiar Muslim saying.
"Inshallah." God willing.
-- Susan Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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