Umer Gul could very easily pass for just another addict on the unforgiving streets of Karak in Khyber-Paktunkhwa. Dressed in a filthy shalwar kameez and scratching his nose, he wanders aimlessly. Suddenly, he stops short, stares at nothing in particular then starts mumbling to himself.
Eight years ago he was quite different – a well-dressed, cheerful young man with a bright future ahead of him. But even that sad story is one that a great deal of addicts and their families could identify with.
“Umer used to be a clerk in the army,” says his brother Muhammad Younas. “He would smoke a little hashish now and then with his friends, but I never thought that it was a big deal.”
What’s different about this story is Umer’s choice of drug. According to his family, Umer lost his mental health the day he and his friends smoked a scorpion. Yes, you heard that right – a scorpion. The evil-looking arachnid with pincers and a poisonous sting at the end of its tail.
Umer was never the same again. “He left his job and started indulging in bizarre and unusual habits,” says Younas.
Since the family could not afford to treat him, they let Umer wander around the city. “He is harmless. He spends most of his time aimlessly walking around,” they are quick to point out.
Umer’s family blames the scorpion for robbing their son of his mental health. “Scorpions are highly toxic,” Younas claims. “That is why my brother is like this.”
Umer is not alone. There are numerous others who are involved in this practice, claiming to be on the quest for the ultimate high. But even for the self-styled Nashayee Ustad (Drug Master), Mohammad Tofail, scorpion smoking is something to be wary of. “When I first smoked scorpion mixed with charas (hashish) I had a huge out-of-body experience,” recalls the 47-year-old Tofail. “I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
The experience made him swear off scorpion smoking for good, “My body and mind were over-stimulated. My friends later told me that I spent 60 minutes shouting and crying. I decided that I would never touch the stuff again.”
But exactly how do you smoke scorpions in the first place?
“The process for preparing a scorpion for smoking is quite time-consuming,” Tofail explains. “The dead scorpion must first be put out in the sun to dry for a few days. It is vital that you keep it away from ants and other insects. When the scorpion is dry, it is crushed with tobacco and mixed with hashish; only then can it be smoked.”
By and large, health experts are unaware of this alarming trend, and unsure of its effects on the human body. The exception is Dr Mohammad Shoaib Marwat, Chief Medical Officer at the Karachi Dock Labour Board. Marwat has witnessed scorpion smoking first-hand and believes it is a common practice in many areas of the country. “I have seen numerous people smoking dried scorpions in chillums [a straight conical clay pipe used to smoke tobacco or drugs],” says Marwat. “But I am unsure of its effects on the human body since there has been no relevant research in this matter.” Across the border, India has been experiencing a similar trend. Their choice of poison is the common house gecko, better known as the chipkali. “These lizards are roasted over a flame and then ground into a fine powder. The lizard powder is mixed with opium and used as a drug,” explains Marwat. Many claim that the dried lizard augments the sedating effect of the opium, thus leading to a superior high.
Marwat says that scorpions do not have any of the intoxicating or sedative chemicals that are present in cannabis or hashish. “Scorpion venom contains an acidic fluid which causes irritation when the scorpion bites somebody,” Marwat explained. “If it contained sedatives or anaesthetics, it would sedate the place where it bit rather than causing pain.” The doctor speculated that the scorpion could have some substance in its limbs or abdomen which may have sedative effects but as there was no research or written material on this topic, he could not claim anything. The lack of research also made it impossible to determine if it was indeed smoking dried scorpion that had altered the mental balance of individuals. “We can’t say for sure that a man becomes mentally ill after smoking scorpions. But perhaps scorpion smoking was a trigger for his mental illness. He could have become mentally unstable from excessive smoking of hashish or using other drugs and injections”.
Drug addicts are on a constant quest for the ultimate high. Those who can afford to, consume designer drugs and those who can’t make do with hashish, scorpions and geckos.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 18th, 2011.