Written by Wiqas Ahmad ’17, founder of SSDP Pakistan.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that Pakistan has 6.7 million drug users. More than four million of them are people with a substance use disorder, amongst the highest number for any country in the world. Misuse of cannabis and heroin is so rife that experts say it is cheaper to buy narcotics in Pakistan than food; many users report it costs just 50 cents to get high. Pakistan’s government and law enforcement place blame on the endless flow of narcotics from neighboring Afghanistan. The way you place an order with Pizza Hut for pizza, it’s even easier than that to place an order for drugs. The war-torn country is the source of at least 75 percent of the world’s heroin, according to the UNODC, and much of it is trafficked through Pakistan on its way to lucrative foreign markets. Of the 150 tons of heroin that enters Pakistan each year, 44 tons is consumed locally.
According to a Pakistani Senate Committee led by the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) director, 700 Pakistanis die each day due to drugs — a figure equating to over a quarter of a million people every year. Anti-Narcotics Forces who measure success by the number of death sentences often overstate figures to try to justify their aggressive approach. But the ANF’s specious use of statistics is indicative of a far more serious problem. This problem is created and supported by the donor agencies who have for years encouraged a hardline approach for drug crimes instead of looking to this matter as a health issue. The government Anti Narcotic Force and the donors working on drugs have approached the matter of drug use as a matter of strict law enforcement instead of using a public health and harm reduction approach toward this matter. Due to an aggressive approach led by law enforcement drug offenses will continue to result in increased death sentences and executions. Most of the people who end up on death row are not criminal kingpins like the government claims. Rather they are scapegoats or low-level users who are all easily replaceable in the global drug trade.
The UNODC backs counter-narcotics programs in Pakistan and as a result helps send non-violent offenders, innocents, and juveniles to the gallows, all too often victims of a corrupt and dysfunctional justice system. UNODC support for counter-narcotics programs pours into state drug agencies, unrestricted by conditions to ensure that it does not contribute to serious human rights abuses. According to Khan (Real name not published), “they (Police) come to our places in morning throwing water, dragging us to their police cars, and force upon us cold nights at police stations, many times our friends die there.” He further said, “we want the government to give us treatment for drug misuse and build treatments centers. Nobody wants a miserable life like this to live alone in jail without family, without money. Nobody wants this, and the government should do something for us”.
It’s true that drugs cause real harm around the world, and action needs to be taken to prevent this. But the brutally punitive approach in Pakistan and elsewhere around the world is simply creating more misery and injustice. There should be a scientific way to resolve this problem. The criminal justice-based approach produces more harm to Pakistan drugs users than cures to the problem. There should be reforms to drug policy based on public health policy and initiated through informed debate with public health experts. International organizations and donors should take the lead to ensure that there will be no support for human rights abuses in Pakistan.