Pakistan's first comprehensive survey on drug use, conducted with the help of the U.N.'s anti-narcotics agency, reveals that a substantial portion of the country's population suffers from the devastating consequences of substance use.
U.N. officials say the extensive survey of drug use in Pakistan is the first of its kind in south and west Asia, and provides a baseline for the government to plan effective polices to deal with the growing problem.
The research estimates that nearly six percent - or 6.4 million adult Pakistanis - used drugs in the last 12 months. It says cannabis (marijuana) is the most commonly consumed drug in the country, with four million people users.
Moreover, the report says opium and heroin are used by almost one percent of drug users in Pakistan, and a majority of them are in provinces that border Afghanistan.
Jeremy Douglas, country director for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or UNODC, hailed the survey as a significant step forward in Pakistan's anti-drug efforts.
“Now we can speak with some authority about how many drug users - in, say, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or Baluchistan vis-a-vis Punjab - we can say what types of drugs people [are] using, how they [are] using them, and then we can come up with health-based interventions for the population. So it is really a big milestone for the government,” he said.
Douglas says provincial health and education officials need to address the drug issue if they want to make effective use of the survey findings.
“Because at the moment they don't offer any drug treatment, provincial governments, and because they run the hospitals and the health networks, if there is going to be any success on the health side they have to do it," he said. "And same on education: provinces run education, so they have to pick up and start [to] use provincial campaigns for their schools to educate children not to get into drugs.”
Neighboring Afghanistan produces an estimated two-thirds of the world's supply of illicit opiates, and more than 45 percent of it is trafficked to international markets through Pakistan every year. Local officials blame the illegal trade for the increased levels of opium and heroin use in Pakistan.
The U.N.'s Jeremy Douglas says the international community needs to boost support for Pakistan to better equip and train its counter-narcotics forces to curtail drug trafficking from neighboring Afghanistan. But he says improving coordination among national law-enforcing institutions is even more vital.
"At the moment there is a lot of effort taking place but it is modest effort often, and it is disconnected effort. So if the efforts can be enhanced across the board, then probably there would be a very positive impact on the society,” said Douglas.
The U.N.-sponsored survey estimates that more than 400,000 Pakistanis are injecting drugs, making that population considerably more vulnerable to HIV and other blood-borne diseases. The report also shows an “alarmingly high prevalence in non-medical use of prescription drugs nationwide, particularly among women.”