It’s 2:30 am and the party is still going strong. Several young, well dressed couples sit around one of the many tables that surround the dance floor. On the surface of the table, amid an array of glasses are three bottles of Black Label, of which only one is now half-full. A girl in a short red dress leans towards her boyfriend who is wearing an Armani suit and slurs: “Honey, I think I’m a little too drunk…”
Equally inebriated, he smiles back at her, having understood the underlying message. He fumbles through his pockets, fishes out his Blackberry and in a drunken haze, scrolls down to a particular message.
It reads: “Hey guys, pure Bolivian stuff available now. No yellow crap but pure white rock. Only Rs10,000 per gram. If you buy 10 grams, it’s for Rs8,000 – call quickly.”
He makes the call and half an hour later a black Honda Civic pulls up to the gate. A middle-aged man in a white shalwar kameez walks in. Money is exchanged and the man hands over a tiny plastic bag filled with white powder.
Soon, the couple are in the bathroom at the party. She waits eagerly as he crushes the powder with his credit card, chopping it into lines and then licking the edges of the card clean. She rolls a crisp thousand rupee note into a tube, bends over the line and inhales deeply. Then he takes his turn and soon, they are back at the party revitalised and full of energy. At least until the cocaine wears off.
This is a small picture of Pakistan’s booming cocaine scene, and it’s something that was unthinkable just over a decade ago.
Up until the early 1990s the drugs available to Pakistan’s elite were the same that everyone else used: hash, opium and heroin. Cocaine was something most people had only seen in movies like Al Pacino’s Scarface. But something started to change around 1995, when a whole generation of those who had gone to college in the West started to return. Many had become accustomed to a new lifestyle revolving around bar-hopping, clubbing and raving and they brought with them tales of a whole new range of recreational drugs. And some of them brought back the drugs as well.
Thirty-two-year-old Omer, who has been using cocaine for 15 years now, was a witness to those times. Wearing a red Chicago Bulls shirt and cap, he speaks with a slight American accent, “I remember in the late 1990s, I used to buy an ecstasy tab for Rs4,500 and cocaine was available in Karachi for around Rs18,000 per gram. I come from a family of industrialists so money was never a problem.”
Omer now runs a leather factory in SITE and says it has never been as easy and cheap to get cocaine as it is today. “Although,” he adds, “the quality was much better in those days.”
It’s easy to understand why prices and quality were higher in the past. Cocaine was not commercially available in Pakistan, and be it Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad, the only suppliers were students coming back from the holidays, who would slip past a lax customs desk with ease. One of those students was 28-year-old Taimur, who flew back and forth from Nottingham University in the UK at least once a year.
“In 1995 the average price for seven grams of cocaine in London was approximately 500 pounds or Rs40,000. At the same time, a gram sold in Karachi was never its full weight – at most it would be sold as 0.7 of a gram. This way I was able to make 10 grams out of the seven I brought back, and without the need of stepping on it, I was able to sell it for Rs180,000 – making a profit of Rs140,000, for doing almost nothing.”
But what about the danger of smuggling a class A drug over international borders? “I never felt any danger,” says Omer with a smile. “In 1995 Heathrow never checked anyone and as seven grams is not a huge amount, I could easily hide it in my socks or underwear. This was before 9/11 and it’s not like you had to take your shoes off at the security check. I used to calmly walk through the metal detectors smiling at the customs officials. Even though I come from a wealthy background, I did not want to spend my parents’ money on drugs, and this seemed the most logical way to earn my drug money. Once I was back in Karachi, all I had to do was make 10 grams out of seven; I could keep some for myself and make money on top of that. All of my customers were friends.”
So year after year, college kids came back with their stashes, and cocaine became more and more popular. But it was only available in limited quantities and was very expensive.
Today, it’s a completely different story. Walk into just about any high-class party and you’ll see queues of men and women with their rolled up noted and little plastic baggies waiting for the toilets to open up so they can have their sniff. Many times, lines are being chopped and snorted right out in the open without any shame or fear. Supply is plentiful and everyone has a dealer on speed dial. If anyone still chooses to do his coke in quiet corners, it is more from fear of having to share rather than from fear of being caught. This new drug culture has spawned its own language: while cocaine is called ‘Charlie’, ‘yayo’ or ‘blow’ in the West, here it is called ‘safaid’, ‘chitta’ or simply ‘samaan’. The paraphernalia is also distinct – to cope with humidity that makes the powder damp, the coke is placed on heated plates to dry it out.
But it wasn’t until 2002 that the first official coke dealer finally came into existence. His name here onwards will be referred to as Mr X and I have been in touch with him for a couple of years. This wasn’t a part-time dealer with a few dozen grams, but someone who could supply as much as you wanted, whenever you wanted it. Compared to today’s coke dealers, Mr X still functioned on a small scale and only a few foreign returns had access to him and they decided once again to profit by buying from him, mixing it and selling it forward.
One of those grads was Malick, an anorexic looking young man with several tattoos on his arms. He twitches as he speaks and it is clear that Malick has perhaps used a bit too much of the drug himself. Pulling out a little digital scale, he shows me how to ‘step’ on the coke. He puts one gram of cocaine powder on the scales and adds 0.6 grams of baking soda to it. He then splits the pile into two weighing about 0.8 grams and puts them into little packets each. The little that remains gets snorted up with relish.
Wiping the sweat off his forehead he says, “So a full gram of cocaine would be bought for Rs10,000 and, after buying it, I would add 0.6 grams of baking soda or glucose to it. This way, I could sell it as two grams, with a 100% profit.”
Simple mathematics. Of course, while Malick used baking soda, other dealers use a variety of mixers, ranging from the harmless to the dangerous. Crushed Ritalin and caffeine pills, glucose powder, baby laxative and a variety of numbing agents including novocaine and a powdered horse tranquiliser called Ketamine or ‘Special K’ are often used to increase the quantity and even simulate the effects of ‘pure’ cocaine in order to fool the unwary buyer.
With the dawn of the new millennium, cocaine was truly king.
“In 2002, in areas such as KDA and DHA,” says Malick wistfully, “I was selling 50-60 grams in a month, my cell phone was ringing all the time and I was making a lot of money while my own cocaine was free. I wish things were the same now.”
Up until then, Malick and many others like him bought cocaine from Mr X and cut it before selling it, making a tidy profit. But the good days were about to come to an end.
Cocaine prices in the UK, which had, until then, been one of the main sources of supply, dropped but the rupee to pound conversion in 2005 was approximately double of what it had been in 1995. A gram of cocaine now cost Rs10,000 in Karachi, almost as much as the purchase price in the UK. This meant that there was no real profit to be had in bringing it to Pakistan in small quantities.
Now a slightly overweight man of 46, with a small white beard, Mr X is heavily in debt thanks to his own uncontrollable drug habit. He says the ‘higher authorities’ in the drug business took note of the rising popularity of coke and ecstasy and decided they wanted a slice of this new and lucrative pie. Pakistan’s drug lords began to introduce coke and ecstasy on a larger scale by directly importing them from the West. Its supply was increased drastically and by 2006, small dealers like Mr X gave way to a nexus of dealers all over the city. No longer was cocaine exclusive to a few people who would step on it and sell it, instead the dealers in their Honda Civics and freshly pressed clothes, were in touch with everyone. Their phone numbers spread like wildfire and cocaine could now be delivered anywhere, at any time. And there was literally no limit to the quantity they could supply.
“People started getting larger shipments directly from South America and organised a nexus of dealers according to the areas in Karachi. The same was done in Lahore,” says Muhammad, who has been dealing coke for the last four years and is one of the few dealers who don’t get high on their own supply. “We were each selling more than 50 grams over the weekend . . . and still are.”
“The main source of cocaine in Pakistan today is South America,” confirms Shoaib Siddiqui, Director General Excise and Taxation. “Initially shipments were being sent by air but as you know from recent news items, the largest cocaine bust in Asia was from a ship coming in from South America. The customs and the Coast Guards are fully aware of this growing business and teams are conducting operations to curtail it.”
Collector of customs, Fatah Mohammad Sheikh, corroborates that the supply route is now directly from South America, pointing to the seizure of 225 kilos of cocaine at Karachi port in October last year. So why is it that apart from a scantily reported seizure, cocaine hardly makes it into the news? Siddiqui has an explanation: “Yes, I do feel the use of cocaine is growing but it is difficult to crack down on once it arrives on land. Once the cocaine is here, it is usually distributed amongst the affluent classes; it is in homes, and not on the streets. We do not have any recent cases in the cities where we have busted cocaine. Our teams are aware that the problem is increasing but compared to other drugs, it’s use is extremely limited, hence it is much more difficult to crack down on. Apart from that, the techniques used for smuggling are also sophisticated.”
Another senior customs official said, on the condition of anonymity, that officials know exactly who the dealers are, but that it is the police that needs to catch them.
Police officials, on the other hand, seem blissfully unaware of the scope of the problem, and even those who know about it dismiss it as a minor issue, saying that they have graver problems to deal with. Certainly, not a single cocaine-related arrest has been made in the city of Karachi, or any other city to the best of my knowledge.
These are some of the reasons cocaine use in Pakistan stays under the radar: it is exclusively the domain of the rich and powerful and it is not (as yet) a visible social problem like heroin. But there may well be another reason. Take the October seizure of 225 kilos; if that cocaine had been directly sold onto the streets, its value would be a staggering Rs2.25 bn. And this was only one shipment; it’s anyone’s guess as to how many have slipped through. That much money buys a great deal of silence.
The big fish and the users remain unknown and untouchable, but the ranks of the dealers see a great deal of attrition. Mr X, whose glory days are now far behind him, explains why: “While we are dealing and making money, we think it will last forever. Inevitably, we start using our own product and given how addictive it is, we get hooked. And it’s downhill from there.” As he speaks, Mr X puts a gram of coke into a spoon and mixes it with ammonia nitrate, and heats it over an open flame. He is now making freebase cocaine, erroneously called crack in Pakistan, a more concentrated form of the drug.
“This is the trap we fall into, we keep the good stuff for ourselves and since it just doesn’t get us as high as before, we make crack out of it, which is a very expensive habit.” By now the mixture in the spoon has evaporated, leaving behind concentrated powder. “We start using more and more,” he says, “we start mixing the drug with various additives to make money and save the best for ourselves. This is why you usually get substandard coke in the city, and there are many others like me.”
He puts the remaining powder in a pipe, inhales and lets out a cloud of smoke, his eyes glazing over. He’s no longer a dealer, but he’s certainly an addict – and has borrowed heavily to support his habit.
His story is an increasingly common one, and mirrors the effects of the drug itself. A fantastic initial high and euphoria, followed by a crash, desperation and anxiety: this is the price the cocaine habit exacts from those who are habitual users of this drug.
“I regret it every time I do it,” says Murtaza who has been doing coke for over seven years. “The first 15 minutes are great but then it’s just a nightmare. I feel irritated, struggle to talk, lose my confidence and feel it’s been a waste of money. I still do it because all my friends do it.”
Doctors agree that cocaine, when abused, will eventually lead to irritation and aggression while the initial euphoria fades with every use. The body begins to develop immunity, and users start to increase their dosage to chase an increasingly elusive high. Given the amount of adulteration that takes place, some run the risk of serious neural damage: hands shake, jaws clench and teeth grind uncontrollably.
Even quitting has its own risks: Dr Saleem Azam, founder and president of the Pakistan society has been treating addicts of all stripes for years. He says, “The negative consequences of withdrawal from cocaine use involve anxiety, sleeplessness, loss of concentration, and many other psychological issues. Treatment can be given through anti-anxiety pills and tranquilisers.”
That said, he claims that only one patient has ever contacted him for treatment for cocaine addiction, but with increased use, that number is bound to increase, as will the number of people who suffer in silence.
As for the couple at the party, they are talkative, sociable, stimulated and on top of their game at the party ... for about 15 minutes. Then the euphoria ends. As the effects of the drug start to wear off, He grinds and gnashes his teeth, moving his jaw from left to right. The girl takes another trip to the bathroom – this time to splash cold water on her nose, to prevent a bleed from the snorting. Already, both are craving another couple of lines. Like it or not, believe it or not, cocaine has captured the imagination and the market, and it’s only going to get bigger. But where will we be when the high wears off?
Freebase [freee-bays]: The process of making freebase cocaine, the purest form of cocaine, is by heating cocaine to produce vapors for inhalation. When you create freebase you neutralize the hydrochloride (HCI), leaving you with pure cocaine.
The practice of smoking cocaine is colloquially referred to as “freebasing.”
Crack [krak]: Crack Cocaine, the street name given to a freebase form of cocaine, has been processed from the powdered cocaine hydrochloride form to a smokable substance. Crack is typically 2 parts cocaine, 1 part baking soda and a little water heated gently to form crystals.
The term “crack” refers to the crackling sound heard when the mixture is smoked.
Stepping [step-ping]: Using a wide variety of ingredients to dilute or cut the cocaine is known as ‘stepping’ on the cocaine.
Wired [wiird]: State of being high on large amounts of cocaine
Speedball [speed-bawl]: Injection of a heroin and cocaine mixture
Nasal insufflations force cocaine to shoot up into the sinus cavity at 100 MPH, causing the mucus membrane to tear. Upon absorbing the cocaine the membrane passes it on to the small capillaries which constrict, depriving the tissue of blood and oxygen.
Cocaine reaches the heart when the capillaries enter bigger veins and arteries.
Cocaine is then distributed throughout the body and the brain via the heart.
A euphoric effect is then produced by the brain by activating the nerve cells that release dopamine.
How it hooks you:
Cocaine addiction is a mainly psychological dependency on the regular use of cocaine. This may result in physiological damage, lethargy, psychosis, depression and fatal overdose.
Too much of a ‘good’ thing:
Upon overdose victims suffer convulsions, heart failure, or the depression of vital brain centers controlling respiration, usually with fatal results.
Warning signs a person is using cocaine:
rapid or irregular heartbeat
frequent mood swings
increased weight loss because of suppressed appetite
How it’s taken:
The principal methods of doing cocaine are by snorting, smoking, injecting or swallowing
Many users rub the powder along the gum line, or onto a cigarette filter which is then smoked. This numbs the gums and teeth.
Coca leaves are typically mixed with lime and chewed into a wad that is retained in the mouth between gum and cheek.
Insufflations: Nasal insufflations, colloquially known as “snorting,” “sniffing,” or “blowing,” is the most common method of ingestion.
Inhalation: Smoking is one of the several means cocaine is administered. It is smoked by inhaling the vapor by sublimating solid cocaine by heating.
Top Cocaine producers in the world:
Cocaine is primarily produced in Columbia, Peru and Bolivia South America. The above figures are from 2008.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 18th, 2011.