PM to tackle alarming drug addiction rates among students

Following alarming data released by Pakistan’s anti-narcotics agency on drug addiction among university and college students, and critics saying that little has been done to curb drug abuse on campuses, Prime Minister Imran Khan this week announced the setting up of a special council with representatives from various ministries, including education and health.

The inter-ministerial council announced on 7 December will devise and implement a strategy to curb illegal drug use at educational institutions, Khan said in an address at the head office of the Anti-Narcotics Force in the city of Rawalpindi, noting that seven million young people in the country had fallen prey to drug addiction.

“This synthetic drug called ice (crystal methamphetamine) has penetrated schools and colleges. Drugs destroy children’s character, discipline, health and their future,” Khan said, referring to an assessment from the inspector-general of Islamabad police to the prime minister that the ‘ice’ use by students was alarming.

Khan said the relevant ministries would meet “to formulate a policy in view of the growing trend of drug abuse at educational institutions. We have to save our next generations from the shackles of drug abuse,” he said.

Pointing to stepped up measures, Federal Minister for Narcotics Control Azam Khan Swati told University World News this week before moving to another post in a cabinet reshuffle announced on 11 December: “Besides other law-enforcing actions at national level, we have increased coordination with the universities and will work with the Higher Education Commission to eradicate the menace of illicit drugs at the campuses. We are regularly conducting police raids at localities near universities to disrupt and curb the supply chain.”

Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi last month directed all university vice-chancellors to take measures to curb the use of narcotics on campuses and asked the Higher Education Commission to formulate guidelines and policy actions to support universities in tackling drug use among students.

During the meeting with all university vice-chancellors, the Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood, Federal Minister for Narcotics Control Azam Khan Swati, Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen M Mazari, Higher Education Commission Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri and Anti-Narcotics Force Director-General Major General Muhammad Arif Malik, President Alvi said: “Universities must take every step necessary to make their campuses safe from drugs. This is not only a moral imperative. Universities have a legal responsibility to implement all relevant national laws,” the English-language newspaper The Nation reported on 13 November.

Amra Raza, director of the Pakistan Study Centre at Lahore’s Punjab University, told University World News: “It is a significant concern for the government and the administration of universities. Strict watch-and-ward regimes, awareness-raising and curriculum changes should be enforced within campuses of universities, and the government must act to disrupt the easy availability of drugs to students.”

He said that all university students should be screened. “Those found to have a habit of drug use should be referred to rehabilitation centres.”

Recent arrests point to university users

Drug use at universities has been in the limelight since 2018 when it was first revealed in a survey that one in 10 university students was addicted to some form of banned drugs.

In November 2018 two students of Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University were arrested for having 3kg of hashish or marijuana. In a separate raid that same month, three Nigerian nationals were arrested near Quaid-i-Azam University, and narcotics worth PKR8.5 million (US$53,000) were recovered from them. According to police, they were drug peddlers supplying drugs in universities.

Last month the Crime Investigation Agency of the Islamabad Police arrested a drug peddler and recovered over 1kg of marijuana, which, the arrested criminal allegedly confessed, was for supplying Quaid-i-Azam University students.

In February last year, Karachi police busted a gang, arresting six members, and recovered 5kg of hashish and 50 packets of heroin. “This gang provided drugs to students of schools, colleges and universities and children belonging to affluent families in the city,” the superintendent of police said during a press conference, reported Dawn newspaper.

Similar reports of drug peddling in universities in other major cities have also surfaced in the media.

In a stunning revelation while addressing a seminar in 2018 at Rawalpindi’s Arid Agriculture University, Hammad Dogar, director of the Anti-Narcotics Force, said 67% of university students in Pakistan use illicit drugs. Shehryar Khan Afridi, then federal interior minister, cited these figures during a television talk-show, which prompted nationwide criticism of the authenticity of the data.

Vice-chancellor of Quaid-i-Azam University, Muhammad Ali, told University World News: “While there is no denying that drug abuse is rising alarmingly among university students in Pakistan, the numbers quoted are absolutely baseless. Our sociology department conducted a country-level survey last year and found that no more than 2% of university students use illicit drugs.”

Why students take drugs

The most common drugs used by university students are morphine, opium, cocaine, hashish and cannabis and the most common causes of students falling into drug abuse are social or family stress, exam-related anxiety, availability of drugs and the negative influence of drug-using friends or hostel fellows, according to experts.

A research study, “Youth at risk: The alarming issue of drug addiction in academic institutions in Pakistan”, published by ScienceDirect last month, interviewed addicted students at three universities. The authors said: “The results unveil that students consume drugs in universities without much restriction... as academic institutions have not taken serious steps to address the issue on their premises.”

The study recommended that Pakistani authorities develop a comprehensive strategy to address drug addiction in academic institutions.

Another study, “Causes of drug abuse among university students in Pakistan”, published in March this year by the Pakistan Social Sciences Review quarterly journal, looked into the causes behind drug abuse among university students.

It found that the major reasons for drug abuse were peer pressure (96%), educational stress (90%) and inquisitiveness (88%). It put the number of drug addicts in Pakistan at 7.6 million people, mostly young people and university students, of which 78% are male and 22% are female, and said this number is increasing by 40,000 per year.

It noted that students in university accommodation such as hostels and men were more frequent drug-users compared to girls and those in other accommodation.

Academic researchers have been sounding the alarm about rising drug use at universities for some years. A 2012 study, “Influence of drugs on students’ performance: A qualitative study in Pakistan university students”, found that drug use was severely affecting the physical and mental health of university students in Pakistan.

Hassan Bin Usman, lead author of a 2017 paper, “Prevalence and reasons of use of recreational drugs among university/college students of Rawalpindi and Islamabad”, told University World News this week that 90% of addicted students know the hazardous effects on health, education and their career. His study found that 92% of males and 93% of females knew recreational drug use was prohibited on a religious and legal basis.

“It is not lack of awareness that has driven students to drug use but the easy availability of drugs. Strict law enforcement is the solution to curb and eradicate this curse from campuses,” Usman said.