Even though cannabis is illegal in Pakistan, its port city, Karachi ranked second in the list of the most marijuana consuming cities in the world. On the face of it this ranking seems absurd, Pakistan is a deeply conservative islamic country where even alcohol is forbidden due to religious statutes so logically it follows that cannabis is banned for the same reasons. Yet, if we delve into the history of cannabis in Pakistan we can see that its illegality is a relatively new phenomenon, when compared to its medical, spiritual and recreational use in the region.
Pakistan banned cannabis in the early 1980s— the U.S was fighting its wars against the Russians and drugs, and the Zia administration opted to join them in both those endeavours. However, despite the ban the drug has remained popular to this day. There are a few reasons for this. One, is that the plant is native to this region so it grows wildly in many places, especially up north. The soil, climate and general terrain are very conducive to growing cannabis. Garda, which is the purest form of Pakistan’s drug of choice, hash, is also grown in the country’s northern areas. The second reason is that hash has long been associated with the Qalandari Sufi tradition in Pakistan. Sufis, fakirs and Hindu holy men in this region have been using hash or bhang (different varieties of drugs made from the cannabis plant) in their spiritual practices for centuries. The Qalandari order used hash to access a higher state of consciousness in order to commune with God. For them it was instrumental in helping them dissolve their ties to their ego and worldly concerns, so that they could solely devote themselves to the worship of God. The smell of hash still lingers in the air of many major Sufi shrines, like Sehwan Sharif and the Shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi.
Cannabis and its derivatives are not explicitly prohibited in the Quran or mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.UH). The Quran only bans ‘Khamr’ which has been interpreted to mean wine and intoxicants similar to it, hash however is difficult to compare directly to alcohol as the effects of the two differ significantly. Alcohol tends to lower inhibitions, cloud judgement and render one insensate after a certain point. Whereas, the effects of hash tend to vary, somewhat, from person to person but generally it has a more sedative effect and does not induce the boisterous behaviour that alcohol does. Very few scholars have permitted the use of hash recreationally. However, many have allowed for it to be used medically or in life saving conditions. This stems from the fact that there is a history of its medicinal use in the Muslim world, it was used to treat various ailments from epilepsy to gonorrhoea. So hash, while (prohibitively) frowned upon, isn’t forbidden in the same way alcohol is.
Most people in Pakistan have come into contact with hash at one point or another. If you don’t smoke it then you definitely know someone who does. It’s safe to say that a sizeable majority of the nation uses hash. And, the Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) despite its seizure rate has been ineffectual to stop the spread of hash. In fact the Control of Narcotic Substances Act, 1997 is severely misused by the ANF and other law enforcement agencies. Under the CNSA, possession, trafficking, selling, cultivating and even managing a cartel all carry the death penalty. The law doesn’t have the apparatus required to differentiate between the culpability of a low level drug mule from that of a cartel leader. Also, sentencing is based on the quantity of drugs seized and not the class of drug, thus the vast majority of those convicted and languishing on death row, are simple drug carrier not actual drug kingpins. The law does not take into account mitigating factors such as coercion, extreme poverty, prior offences or the class of drug so the majority of death sentences being handed out are for cannabis possession as opposed to something more serious like supplying heroin. The CNSA also subverts the traditional innocent until proven guilty principle and requires the accused to be treated as guilty until proven innocent, therefore police and ANF officials often use this law to settle personal vendettas.
So, if present anti drug legislation is useless to stop the use of hash and is being actively abused for personal scores, then it stands to reason that it must be reexamined. If the government chooses to take cannabis out of its banned schedule of drugs then it could both regulate and control the market, which could be a massive source of tax revenue and also an avenue to limit access to it. Since many countries around the world have, either in part or fully, legalised the use of cannabis it has become a highly valuable industry. The global cannabis market is worth $340 billion, and Pakistan has the capacity to easily grow and export it as well. Capturing even a small share of this market would provide a significant boost to our exports, which is something the government clearly recognises since it has recently moved to allow the industrial production of hemp (a phenotype of the cannabis plant).
Portugal struggled to control addiction amongst its people until it decriminalised all drugs in 2001, and since then their opioid crisis stabilised and the rate of drug related crime and incarceration also decreased. This is not to say that they have solved their drug related problems completely, only that the situation has improved. If Pakistan, in a less radical, move decriminalised just cannabis it could not only benefit economically but it could also decrease the amount of people addicted to hard drugs like heroin by presenting them with a less harmful, cheaper and, most importantly, legal alternative (akin to nicotine patches in place of cigarettes). Besides, if the government controlled the supply of hash then it could implement quality control, which would significantly reduce its negative side effects. Pure hash can be potentially harmful in the long term, but what’s more harmful than that is the majority of hash currently circulating on the market. Most of what can be found readily and cheaply is mixed with low doses of more addictive and harmful substances. And, using that can lead to depression, mood disorders and increase the risk of developing schizophrenia. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of both the people and the State if hash was legalised, as the State could turn a profit while ensuring that its populace doesn’t harm themselves in pursuit of this particular pastime. But, is it likely that hash will get legalised? And, the answer to that is a resounding no. In such a religious society no government will want to risk being seen as promoters of debauchery and indecency. One brave soul did try to petition the Supreme Court to legalise bhang, in 2016, but the petition was thrown out of court. But not to be deterred he tried again and petitioned the Sindh High Court, in 2019, and apparently the case seems to be pending still.