Pubdate: Sat, 13 Oct 2001
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2001 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Susan Taylor Martin
Bookmark: (Heroin)


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 

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."

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan accounts for almost 75 
percent of the world's illicit opium production. About half of the 
Afghan heroin stays home or goes to nearby countries, while most of 
the rest is smuggled into Europe and North America.

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 

"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 

A disproportionate number of Pakistan's addicts gravitate to 
Peshawar, whose proximity to the Afghan border makes heroin 
especially cheap and easy to get.

In the early '90s, while a civil war threw Afghanistan into near- 
anarchy, an addict could buy a gram of heroin -- considered a day's 
supply here -- for just 25 rupees, or 40 cents.

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 

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.
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