In September 2012, former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's son, Ali Musa, was arrested for allegedly pressuring officials, with help from the country's health minister, to increase ephedrine quotas for two pharmaceutical companies. One of these firms, Berlex Lab International, which was granted a license to produce some 14,300 pounds of ephedrine, claims it sold its tablets to a company called Can Pharmaceutical. But according to an Associated Press report: "[I]nvestigators discovered the address for the company was a residential house in Multan, and nobody answered the door. The owner of the company didn't answer his phone." No wonder that prosecutors speculated that the ephedrine was destined for meth labs in Iran. (Gilani maintains his innocence, and his lawyer claims the accusations were politically motivated.)
Worryingly, the trend appears on the rise. The INCB notes that in 2008, Iranian authorities dismantled two meth labs; in 2010, that number had spiked to 166. That year, Pakistani officials reported four seizures of smuggled ephedrine, totaling 585 pounds, near the border with Iran, as well as more than 14 tons of diverted cold medicine, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Matt Nice, of the INCB's secretariat in Vienna, said that the size of some of the recent seizures of ephedrine originating in Pakistan suggests that a significant portion of legitimate cold medicine gets diverted to the black market. "If the [declared annual requirement] is so high that 500 kilograms can go missing, then that means you have something that's probably already been infiltrated," Nice told me.
A person familiar with the Gilani case, who requested anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation, explained how the scam allegedly worked. "You register yourself as a pharmaceutical company," he said. "Then you register yourself for a chemical like ephedrine. Then you get a quota for ephedrine on an export order, and then you say, 'Can I have this converted to local consumption because my export order has fallen through?' And then I take that, I falsify my distribution documents, and I have it smuggled." At many steps along this path, he said, it's necessary to bribe officials and bureaucrats to sign documents and deflect attention.
Corruption has a long, sordid history in Pakistan, but drugs add an extra layer of societal corrosion. On paper and anecdotally, evidence suggests that the meth trade is already having a deleterious impact on a country that doesn't need any more problems. Drug use, particularly of opiates and cannabis, is already high in Pakistan, with 1 percent of the population using heroin and 4.1 million people thought to be drug-dependent, according to the UNODC. But a 2013 report issued by the UNODC and the Pakistani government notes that a "detectable emergence of methamphetamine use has been found in certain areas of the country.… This finding is noteworthy because it is the first time a study has generated data relating to the use of amphetamine-type stimulants" in Pakistan. Just as the transport of massive amounts of heroin through Pakistan inevitably created a local market, and millions of addicts, the new focus on methamphetamine has led to a metastasizing trade on Karachi's streets.
"Crystaal," as it's pronounced, is everywhere, from the city's upscale neighborhoods to the poorer sections, like Lyari. The crime-ridden south-central district is Karachi's fiercest, a dense network of slums housing some 1 million people. It's basically a no-go zone for law enforcement. Police generally need to ask permission to patrol and must negotiate entrance with the district's crime boss: Uzair Jan Baloch, the head of the now-banned People's Aman Committee, a gang cum political party cum philanthropic organization. When police attempted an operation in Lyari this past April, Baloch's men held them at bay for days under a hail of bullets until the police retreated. In late July, an elite police ranger unit raided Baloch's mansion; he had disappeared into the night.
In Manghopir, a violent, impoverished slum in Karachi's north, the users are easy to spot. "I've seen these guys start banging their heads against a wall; they become out of control. It's like they are numb and don't feel pain," said a community activist who asked to remain nameless due to numerous threats from the Taliban and gangs. "Now heroin is ending and crystal is taking over." A gram of crystal goes for anywhere from 500 to 800 Pakistani rupees -- roughly $5 to $8. That's still more expensive than heroin, but users say the high is more intense. Most of the young men whom the activist sees tweaking in the streets are foot soldiers for Baloch's gangsters: "The gangs hire the kids, get them addicted to crystal, and then make them do crimes when they are high so they have no fear. Then they pay them with more crystal."
JUST TWO WEEKS after Pakistan's general elections this spring, I visited one of Karachi's largest drug-rehabilitation programs, the Drug Free Pakistan Foundation (DFPF), which treats around 4,000 addicts annually. The DFPF's headquarters are on a quiet street in the leafy Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighborhood, a middle-class area ruled by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a secular political party that dominates politics in Karachi. The party's red, white, and green kite-shaped posters and painted slogans still adorned nearly every light pole and wall. Like all the major political parties here, though, it has an armed wing, and like the rest, it profits from an intimate relationship with criminal activities.
Approximately 1.2 million drug addicts, the majority of whom are heroin users, live in the city, said the foundation's director, Farheen Naveed. Beginning in 2010, however, she has seen an influx of meth addicts seeking help at DFPF. As we toured the foundation's headquarters, she noted the uptick. At the end of May, 35 of the 101 patients in DFPF's treatment center in the industrial neighborhood of Landhi were there for meth abuse. "The numbers at the facility today are actually much higher than I was expecting," Naveed said.