Faizan*, a student at one of Karachi’s leading business schools, began taking drugs soon after joining university. “I was an introvert since my school days and university was, all of a sudden, too many people to handle,” he tells The Express Tribune over a cup of tea at the National Sailing Club.
“Even though securing admission at [university] was like a dream come true for me, I had to deal with several personal and family issues and was already quite depressed,” he admits. “I did not take any drugs besides hashish. I never had the inclination to,” he continues. “Hash provided the necessary relief from all my problems. It was enough for me.”
We order another cup of tea as Faizan begins telling me about the first time he smoked hash. “It was after a concert at my friend’s house,” he says. “The first time was painful and I vomited. I could not handle it and was very scared.”
Despite the initial reaction, Faizan continued taking hash and started using it excessively. “I used to feel as if I was the bomb,” he recalls. “I was taking it to suppress my depressed state, cope with social situations and transform my life.” Faizan felt he was interacting better with peers and had become more active in class. However, his grades continued to suffer.
“I used to smoke alone, eight or nine times every day,” he says. “I would go to Shireen Jinnah Colony to score my hash and then smoke it alone, even on university campus.” Faizan chose to keep his drug addiction very discreet and rarely did in public.
It wasn’t after a considerable amount of time that Faizan realised his social functioning was becoming increasingly dependent on his drug use. “Hash consumption made my brain numb. I always had a poker face, I became a zombie.”
Unfortunately, Faizan’s tale is true of several other university students. “Approximately 20% to 25% of my patients have either taken or are taking drugs as part of their student life,” says Dr Aneel Kumar, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Jinnah Medical and Dental College, Karachi. According to Dr Kumar, the number of students abusing drugs has grown with time. The phenomenon is no longer restricted to male students. There are a considerable number of female students who are abusing drugs, he adds.
Coping mechanism or peer pressure?
Students are more susceptible to drug use as a “coping mechanism”, says Dr Kumar. Sometimes, it is the student’s personality; other times, it is the student’s peers who force him/her to start taking drugs, he adds.
Stressful events in a student’s life push him/her towards finding an escape through drugs. “Many students claim that they started taking drugs to handle growing stress levels,” he says.
However, peer pressure also plays a vital role. “Around 50% of the students who do drugs picked up the habit due to peer pressure, while 20% did it out of curiosity,” says a senior official of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The stigma associated with drugs no longer applies to hashish. It is not even considered a drug anymore,” he says, sharing his sense of disbelief over this perception. Hashish is the most common drug used by students due to its easy accessibility and affordability. “Schools and colleges are the retail end of the drug supply chain; unfortunately, the retail end is increasing due to the lax behaviour of local authorities,” he remarks.
Dr Huma Baqai, a professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), acknowledges the increased drug use among students but lays the responsibility on “increased cash flows with students”. Students at private universities are able to engage in drug use due to greater monetary resources, she feels.
Culprits or victims?
The ANF official refuses, however, to lay the blame of the menace on students. “Unfortunately, many people fail to understand that students are the victims and not the culprits,” he says, urging people to change this perception as it is doing more harm than good. Many students fall prey to drugs and are left helpless, he continues.
Dr Kumar agrees. “Drugs harm students in multiple ways, adversely affecting them biologically, socially and psychologically,” he says. Narrating the case of a patient who was a student, Dr Kumar says his patient, who excessively used cannabis and cocaine, isolated himself, started missing exams and gradually developed psychosis. The chances of schizophrenia are 1% among the general populace but the figure jumps to 3% among cannabis users, he warns.
Performance enhancing or pleasure seeking?
“Hashish followed by ‘powder’ (heroin) are the most commonly used and preferred drugs among students,” says Mobeen* as he takes a slow drag from his cigarette. The retired policeman occasionally deals drugs now and, according to him, over 35% of his clients are students of various socio-economic classes.
The choice of drugs, however, differs among various socio-economic classes. Since drugs like cocaine and other synthetic drugs are relatively expensive, they are used by students from richer classes, says the ANF officer.
Sniffing powder is extremely common but hashish is the most dangerous “because it kills your mind and you don’t even realise it,” Mobeen says. “You can buy any drug and supply it to any part of the city,” he adds, with an air of confidence. He was also quick to dismiss official claims that synthetic drugs, such as crystal meth, are not produced locally.
Doctors divide drug use among students in two categories: those drugs that enhance performance and those that are consumed purely for pleasure. One drug that is used to enhance performance is more commonly known by its market name Ritalin, says Dr Kumar, adding that it is usually used to treat conditions such as Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Such drugs are easily available over the counter without any prescription, he adds.
“Students take heavy doses to increase their concentration, especially during exams, not realising the long-term harms, such as sleep deprivation and agitation,” he says.
However, many students end up abusing illicit narcotics for pleasure. These are more dangerous drugs, such as hashish, heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs, such as ecstasy and crystal meth, says Dr Kumar.
Overcoming the menace
The ANF officer blames the widespread use of these drugs on legal loopholes. “Usually, the laws on narcotics are based in terms of their weight,” he explains. “Even if we confiscate 100 ecstasy tablets, their weight is ‘too less’ [for a significant punishment].”
To counter the prevalence of drug abuse, the ANF is involved in various activities to reduce demand for drugs. It has conducted drug awareness campaigns at universities and colleges, along with organising seminars that shed light on the harmful effects of drug abuse.
Dr Kumar feels the government must make it a priority and promulgate stronger and more effective laws to reduce supply. He believes that family also has an important role to play. It must address any stress that a student faces and ensure that he/she chooses not to rely on drugs. Students need to be taught other ways to cope with stress other than resorting to drugs, he says.
The role of guidance counsellors at universities also becomes very important in such situations. But at times counsellors available at educational institutions do not have the necessary training to deal with the problem of drug use or issues that lead to drug use. “The university psychologist (counsellor) was not very cooperative and, at times, I felt she was not even of little help,” Faizan complains. “She did not do much to help me out of my depressed state.”
Many leading universities, including private ones, do not possess adequate resources to address mental health issues. Instead, many of them prefer to employ coercive mechanisms to deal with drug abuse, failing to address the root cause of the problem in their strategies. Dr Baqai admits IBA has not had any drug awareness campaigns during her time at the institution. “[At present] IBA has one trained psychologist for its entire student population; however, each student is assigned a faculty mentor,” she says.
Dow University of Health Sciences’ (DUHS) Dr Shah Kamal has yet to receive any cases of drug abuse at his campus. “If a certain case is reported, immediate disciplinary action is taken,” he said. DUHS has counsellors who are trained to help students cope with issues, he added.
Aga Khan University (AKU) has a Student Experience Office that houses both counselors and a psychiatrist, pointed out AKU’s public relations officer Fabeha Pervez. Regarding drug usage among medical students, she said the university’s official policies forbid any sort of drug consumption on campus and students may face serious consequences, if found guilty.
As for the city’s public sector varsity, University of Karachi, there has been no case of drug abuse on campus, claimed Ansar Rizvi, who works in the students’ affairs department. The university has zero tolerance for drugs use and those students who are found indulging in such practices are expelled immediately, he said, adding that, if employees are also found providing assistance to students, they also face the same fate.
Despite spiralling into drug abuse in this first year of university, Faizan says he knows better now. By the time summer began after his first year of undergraduate studies, Faizan decided to quit hash, hoping to overcome the withdrawals during university break when he no longer felt the need to consume drugs and keep up with the fast-paced university life. There were some financial and logistical issues that helped him make this decision.
That summer, he started therapy and approached a psychiatrist, who made him realise the state he has pushed himself into. “I understood that I had started living on hash,” he explains with regret. “My depression turned into schizophrenic disorder and this turned the world upside down for me.”
Faizan, who is still under treatment for schizophrenia, claims he has realised his mistake in time and now has complete control over it. “Recently, some friends came to my house and asked me to join them in smoking up but I declined,” he says, as he bids farewell.
*Names withheld to protect identities