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In the shadows, Pakistan's growing drug culture

A potent drug culture is weaving it's way through the elite circles of Pakistan, despite - or perhaps because of - the strict regulations of the Islamic state. NBC News' Naveen Naqvi reports from Islamabad.
/ Source: NBC News

At least 200 people, most in their twenties or thirties, partied away at a recent warehouse party and danced as a U.K.-based DJ played Danny Howells' album for Global Underground. 

Many stood on high platforms, their hands and eyes raised to the DJ’s booth on a balcony. They wore glow-in-the-dark bracelets, sunglasses, designer sports wear, and canvas shoes.

The scene could have been in London or New York, but this "rave" took place in the industrial area of Karachi, where you could name your poison and have it within minutes. 

Dealers dressed in baseball caps, baggy jeans and loose t-shirts milled around selling ecstasy for as low as $11 and as high as $25 a tab, cocaine for about a $100 a gram, acid for $10 a hit, and fifty grams of hashish for about $15. 

The gathering, one of many in Pakistan's financial capital, demonstrated how the drug culture common to many Western capitals, has made inroads in one of the world's strictest Islamic states.

Upsurge in market
Along the walls of the rave there were lounging areas separated by drapes hanging from the ceiling. You could barely see inside, but you could smell the air thick with hashish. Outside the curtain there was a bar lined with foreign brands of whisky, vodka, gin, wine and beer. 

There was a long line outside the bathroom of people frantically chewing gum, clearing their noses with Vicks inhalers, and pacing as they waited for their turn to go in and snort a line of coke. One of partygoer laughed, saying the bathroom was one of the most popular spots at Karachi parties. 

The rave carried on till well into the next day. By six in the morning, a young married couple was popping more tabs to be ready for the after-hours session.

The party scene has always existed in the elite circles of Pakistan; but drugs have become far more frequent accompaniment over the past five years. 

It began with a few people bringing cocaine from their travels to Europe and America for personal use and small private gatherings in their homes. Teenagers would bring back a few pills in Tylenol bottles when visiting for summer break from college in the United States for their close friends. 

But slowly as the demand grew, many realized that this was a lucrative business. Soon, smugglers of heroin and hash to the West realized there was a sizable side business in supplying cocaine and ecstasy to the domestic market.

Now, there can be up to 500 invitees to a warehouse or beach rave, where security is ironically provided by the police, and guests can include children of elected politicians and politicians themselves.       

Opening up to Western world
Pakistan only recently started opening its doors to the Western world.

Until the early 1990’s the only television channel available to the population of over 150 million was the state-owned Pakistan Television. Now it is possible to view as many as 75 channels from all over the world — from MTV to Fashion TV.

Deepak Perwani, a 30-year-old fashion designer from Karachi, dresses the affluent young men and women who are part of this subculture in a country where the average per-capita income is $470. 

“These rich kids all come with their Seventeen, Cosmo and Vogue magazines, pointing out the skimpiest dresses, and saying this is how they want to look and are willing to spend up to $500 on one outfit to do it,” he said matter-of-factly. 

“The Internet and satellite TV are such powerful mediums that these kids now have the knowledge to dress like and discuss anything an American kid can. All they want is to feel like they are part of the global village. The more you try to stop them, they more they want it,” Perwani said. 

Breaking out from structures of society
Their behavior is taboo in Pakistan, where alcohol is banned and there are few outlets for young people from any stratum of society.

In Karachi, there is only one real mall, just a couple of cinemas that show Hollywood movies, and one modern bowling alley, leaving young people with few places to get entertainment.

Some of these partygoers are as young as 13-years-old and popping ecstasy and snort coke for as long as three consecutive days without any break. They have no education or guidance on the perils of their lifestyle.

Ali Azmat, solo artist and lead vocalist for rock band Junoon, said the lack of alternatives for young people was to blame. 

“Our society is getting diseased because of self-imposed restrictions," he said. "The youth tends to go this way because it is a representation of popular culture in Western society and they have no icons of their own,” Azmat said. “Americans don’t even need to sell it anymore. These kids are hooked, booked and cooked … or baked.”