High in the mountains

Shakil Ahmad Shakil on some common theories about the introduction of drug use to Pakistan’s northern mountains

High in the mountains
During his visit to Gilgit-Baltistan in October 1980, Dr. W.H McGlothlin, an expert working with the United States government looked into the nature of the drug problem in the area. His report, based on the “knowledge of informed persons” of the area, identifies certain pockets of drug users besides a note on the history of opium and cannabis use in the area. His work recommends a long, thorough and meticulous study informed by considerations of history and evolution.

The problem of drug abuse has existed for a fairly long period of time in this region. No authentic record is available about usage of opium and cannabis. So in order to understand local conditions which give rise to drug use, develop a model to explain them and to generally approach this age-old problem, we have to rely to some significant degree on anecdotal and informal traditions of people regarding introduction of drugs to the area. There is no recorded history to show how, when and from where the first seeds of opium or cannabis were brought into this mountainous region.

One story about the introduction of opium to northern Pakistan holds that Chinese traders introduced the habit. Image - 'The Opium Smokers' by Eleanor Moore Robertson, 1935

In any case, in Pakistan we suffer from the general tendency of analysing problems at a superficial level without considering the complex dynamics, socio-economic conditions and cultural variables involved. If and when the state does intervene, planning is conceived and developed on an ad-hoc basis without considering the ground realities and the potential for local people to participate. Political interference further discourages community participation.

Keeping in view the abovementioned problems and the objective of developing a model for undertaking an indepth study of the problem, we have to look at the pattern of discourse and stories from the people of the region regarding the introduction of drugs to the area.

Some people of the area are of the opinion that long ago the pirs, who migrated from Afghanistan and Chitral to the Northern Areas, brought with them the practice of consuming narcotic substances. In the beginning, according to such accounts, these pirs gave people opium and cannabis as medicine to cure cold and other diseases. The ‘simple’ people who were given such treatment thought it was ‘Tiryaaq’ (a cure for all illnesses or an all-purpose medicine) full of magic and started taking it frequently – even in the absence of any disease or cold. The pirs took full advantage of the situation, so the narrative runs, and exploited the people by all possible means. The people not only adored them for providing this novel intoxicant but also served them: offering agricultural crops, goat and sheep, in exchange for their so called blessings – and the gift of opium and cannabis as a benediction!
Some believe that the spread of opium and cannabis consumption was the outcome of workers being drugged by contractors engaged in development projects

According to another version, the upper class of the society used opium and cannabis as intoxicants for pleasure and the common people followed suit – at a very high social cost, all in order to seek access to the company of the social and political elites. One story says that the elder brother of the Raja of Imit was introduced to opium smoking in 1932 by his servant from Badakhshan, the major area for cultivation of opium and cannabis (Indica) in Afghanistan. The last Raja of Imit started opium use in 1940 at the age of 25 years, reportedly for treatment of a skin disorder. This account would strengthen the idea that the ruling class of the time was accustomed to smoking the drug.

According to another story reported to Dr. McGlothlin by the then Raja and Wazir of Imit, some 20 families migrated from Badakhshan to Chitral, Gupis and the Ishkoman valley. They were addicted, and contributed to the rapid spread of opium and cannabis smoking. Opium and cannabis cultivation was also started in the area at this time.

Drug abuse has hit Gilgit-Baltistan hard, much like the rest of Pakistan

Habitual opium usage in the northern mountains is often explained as a means of coping with winter temperatures

There are those who do not at all agree with the above stories. Some say that Chinese traders used to bring in merchandise from China, and that they also brought opium with them. Such a theory would help account for the observation that the style of opium and cannabis smoking in these areas is reminiscent of that which gained notoriety in old China.

Meanwhile, some people believe that the spread of opium and cannabis consumption was the outcome of workers being drugged by the contractors engaged in development projects in the area to control their escape from the rigours of a hard life, under the cover of ‘medicine for cold’. Having, thus gotten addicted, the workers found opium and cannabis to be expensive intoxicants and began to produce them on their return to their homes in Gilgit, Ishkoman, Gupis, Yasin and the Hunza valley. The production of this crop, besides meeting the domestic requirements of these new cultivators, was lucrative enough to provide a good amount of income from a small piece of land with little labour and capital in areas where communication was hard, irrigation facilities inadequate and job opportunities almost non-existent.

Whatever may have been the history or the real cause of the introduction of opium and cannabis to the area, the fact is that there were opium and cannabis vendors in Gilgit prior to the Hadd ban in February 1979 during the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, and that addicts are still found in large numbers.