UNODC says cannabis dependency is unusually high in Pakistan

In March 2013 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its report on drug use in Pakistan. It underlines the issues that the country faces from its high levels of opiate use. One million people use heroin or opium, and around 420,000 people inject drugs, the highest number recorded to date in Pakistan. Almost three quarters of opiate-injecting drug users share injecting equipment, which means that HIV is a growing and very serious problem. The UNODC estimates that there are over 4 million drug dependent people, but that treatment is available to less than 30,000 of them.

The report also talks about cannabis use, the most commonly used drug, with 4 million people using it at least once a year. And shockingly the UNODC says, “Approximately 68 per cent of last-year users from the household survey qualify for dependence, based on IDC-10 drug dependence criteria.” In the rest of the world, about 1 in 10 cannabis users are dependent on the drug, and about 50% of people who consume it on a daily basis are dependent. So it would be very surprising if the UNODC was right that cannabis dependency is unusually and extremely prevalent. The International Classification of Diseases criteria that UNODC uses tries to define dependence in a precise way, but nevertheless it can be hard to distinguish between impaired control and the desire to simply consume a lot.

Cannabis is an important part of Pakistan’s culture. The country has been strongly influenced by the Sufis, a sect of Islam which focuses on attaining mystical experiences of Allah. One of the ways they do this is spinning on the spot for long periods of time, hence why one Sufi order is known to the West as the Whirling Dervishes. Another way that many Sufis try to help themselves appreciate the nature of the divine is by smoking or eating hashish.

Cannabis is a familiar smell in and around holy places. “When I’m high, I feel as though I can feel Allah's blessing on me,” says one cannabis dealer, “It's hard to explain, but the words of my prayer take on a completely different meaning." But centuries ago its use spread into the secular realm too, and for many people, young and old, smoking hashish with friends after work is the done thing.

Pakistan is not exactly a liberal paradise. It is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of gender equality, and alcohol is forbidden. Cannabis was made illegal in the 80s under General Zia-ul-Haq, who was supposedly bowing to pressure from President Reagan. However the police rarely go after cannabis users, dealers or growers, even though selling it could in theory lead to life imprisonment. If the police catch you, a bribe will usually let you off the hook. One officer has claimed that he can triple his monthly salary in two hours at a shrine in Karachi.

This means that, although ubiquitous, culturally acceptable and de facto legal, cannabis is usually hidden from view. Taxi drivers often have a supply in their glove compartment, which they try to sell to their passengers during their journey. 

Of course a major reason why it is commonplace and not tabooed is the fact that cannabis is native to the foothills of the Himalayas. Chitral, a town in the north of Pakistan, is particularly famous for its hash. Their speciality is ‘gardaa’ – the hash is rolled into a ball, wrapped in goatskin and allowed to mature. If there is a spate of raids by the police, they can simply hide the hash in the goatskin and let it become even more potent.   

When the UNODC claims that 68% of people who have used cannabis in the last year are dependent on it, they are clearly misinterpreting its widespread spiritual and recreational use. Not only are they ignoring its importance to Pakistan’s culture, they also obviously have very bad criteria for drug dependency. The United Nations’ own website says that acceptance and recognition of cultural diversity is necessary for peace and development. Its Office for Drugs and Crime needs to catch up.

Thanks to Global Post and CBS News for their fascinating article ‘In Conservative Pakistan Everyone Must Get Stoned