A locally produced pill is fast gaining popularity in Peshawar for a high that apparently surpasses the effect of heroin.
For many years, Ecstasy, which is sold in the form of tablets of various colours and shapes, has been a favorite drug for those who frequent raves. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), it is particularly popular among professional dancers.
“My first experience with the pill was at a dance party three years ago where some lawmakers and officials were invited,” says a dancer in Peshawar. “Now I take it regularly to feel less fatigue.”
The dancer, requesting anonymity, says the withdrawals are difficult. “I get anxious and depressed. I also get headaches. It makes me feel numb. I am trying to quit but I need it for a good dance performance.”
A dealer familiar with the trade says the pills are easy to manufacture and are extremely profitable. “Each pill is produced at a cost of Rs30 and sells for Rs300. Most buyers pay between Rs1,000 and Rs3,000 for a batch,’’ he says.
No one has been charged with production or distribution of Ecstasy at any police station of Peshawar, despite its widespread use
A pharmacist says that Ecstasy pills can be produced in a small room with a machine worth Rs12,000 and the right ingredients “The final product does not even need packing.”
A kilogram of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), the main ingredient, can yield thousands of pills. Many pharmacists are familiar with the manufacturing formula.
“Ecstasy is popular because it is cheap compared to drugs like cocaine,’’ the pharmacist says. Another dealer familiar with the distribution network says it is popular in all major urban centers in the country and the towns surrounding them.
Pharmacist Rashid Ali in Peshawar says the synthetic drugs trade has changed in profound and unpredictable ways. “You can order all types of drugs and their ingredients online,” he says. “Anti-narcotics bodies can’t even identify these pills.”
Rashid Ali says the number of manufacturers of Ecstasy is growing. “I would guess there are more than 100 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,’’ he adds.
Ecstasy manufacturers in the Pakistan buy their ingredients from sellers in China who send them through post or couriers in inconspicuous packing. Ali says they are also easy to transport in luggage from China.
China has long served as the world’s factory for everything cheap – from pens to phones – and so, it seems only fitting that it would do the same for drugs. Local laboratories in China produce chemicals for legitimate pharmaceutical and industrial purposes. It is not difficult for importers in Pakistan to find firms in China who manufacture MDMA, local dealers say. Exporters and their associates in China guarantee delivery in bulk.
Minister for Excise and Taxation Mian Jamshaduddin Kakakhel says a new anti-narcotics law to check the distribution of these substances was under consideration.
“Legislation on synthetic drugs has been proposed and we are looking into it. These things take time.’’
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) Commander Brigadier (R) Mudassir Saeed says many chemicals like ephedrine are used in medicines and licensed pharmaceutical companies import these products.
“However, some people misuse them. We keep a check as much as possible. We have a trained force which can identify these drugs and have laboratories and kits to test them.”
A senior superintendent says police should be empowered under the law to tackle the issue. Under the current law, getting caught with drugs in small quantities is a petty offence. “If we seize such drugs, the user or the seller can easily secure bail from the court and go back to business as usual.”
Currently, no one has been charged with production or distribution of Ecstasy at any police station of Peshawar, despite its widespread use.
A law enforcement agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says it is not easy to detect an Ecstasy supply chain to plan a crackdown, as users are mostly young people from privileged backgrounds and their network relies on strict word-of-mouth communication.
SSP Masood Khalil, a police spokesman, says the department does not have any information on the usage of Ecstasy in Peshawar.
According to an annual report shared by the office of the Inspector General of Police, 34,576 narcotics cases were registered in 2016. In 2017, the number grew to 37,666 – registering a nine percent increase in a year.
As many as 39,497 drugs addicts and dealers were arrested in 2017 – about 110 people each day of the year.
Police also seized huge quantities of hashish, heroin, opium, meth and liquor.
“Clearly drug trade is being tackled in all parts of the province,” the spokesman says.
Flying high and falling down
An effect of the drug is a sense of relief and happiness, irrespective of one’s surroundings. Many people from all age groups take these pills.
A student, who describes himself as “very experienced” in the use of the drug, shares an incident of his accidental overdose.
“I dropped onto my bed, my hair and body dripping with sweat. I felt excruciating pain in my stomach. I thought I was going to die. Thankfully, my friends took me to the hospital.”
Muslim Khan, a consultant psychiatrist at Sarhad Hospital which focuses on mental health, says most Ecstasy users arrive at the hospital restless, agitated and sweating. They are confused and sometimes violent. “A couple of patients have had problems with their breathing,” he says.
Khan says consumption of Ecstasy raises the user’s heart rate and can cause dryness in the mouth, blurred vision, chills, sweating or nausea. Many users commonly speak of depression, confusion and anxiety.
A study conducted by the University of Texas Center for Social Work Research found that the long-term effects of Ecstasy most frequently reported included depression and a reduced ability to concentrate. The researchers also found repeated use of Ecstasy to be associated with sleep, mood and anxiety disturbances, tremors or twitches and memory problems.
Health experts say Ecstasy can cause kidney, liver and brain damage, including long-lasting lesions on brain tissue.
Dr Muslim says withdrawal symptoms include increased cravings, panic attacks, insomnia and in some cases, hallucinations.
Reform through rehabilitation
The approach to rehabilitation in treatment of drug addicts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a lot of room for improvement, says Azazuddin, a planning and development manager at Dost Foundation.
“Lady Reading Hospital is a major government-run rehabilitation center. It has nine beds and a 12-day treatment course. Certified treatment for a drug addict is at least three months. Since addiction is not being treated properly, the ratio of relapse is high,” he said.
Azaz says private treatment is expensive and government rehabilitation centers are ill-equipped and ineffective.
He says Dost Foundation provides free treatment at a 600-bed facility which offers a rehabilitation course for three months.
“We believe that sending drug addicts to jail does not actually decrease drug use. Reform is the best way forward.’’