“I started scorpion smoking in the mid-'60s,” recalls 74-year-old Sohbat Khan.

It was during General Ayub Khan’s era, and Khan was only 20 years old. He would frequent the famous Jalil Kabab house in Peshawar, which is how he met the vendor who sold scorpions worth Re 1 or Rs 2 right next to the eatery. The men got their supply from the Matani area, which is rich in scorpions because of its insufferably hot weather.

Khan says he has quit smoking scorpions. His eyes are sunken from years of addiction, and his pale face and hollow cheeks betray a dependence on opium. “Nasha pa nasha khatmege,” he says, smiling – some drugs are beaten by other drugs.

His addiction to opium doesn’t bother him as much. Khan says opium’s affects are far safer than scorpion smoking. He knows his body is too old to bear the high, but there are days he still feels the pull.

Chars aw powder kho asi gup dai,” Khan said in way of explanation – “Hashish and heroin’s so-called relief is nothing in front of scorpion.”

Inhaling the fire

During his years of addiction, Khan remembers madly roaming around his house and village, hunting for scorpions. Often, when the need was too overwhelming and there was no scorpion in sight, he would make his way to Peshawar. “It’s a worst form of addiction,” he says in Pashto.

The arrangements take up a lot of time and energy, explains Sohbat. A dead scorpion is first dried in the sunlight or burnt on coal. The coal is kept on a traditional stove, and the scorpion is allowed to cook until it burns to death.

“I would inhale the smoke coming out of the fire,” Sohbat says, although it is the tail that addicts really want – its poisonous venom makes for dangerous addiction.

In India, where the use is common in a few states, the method is quicker, and more expensive. People holding scorpions in their hands park themselves in specific spots, and addicts come to have a ‘sting of pleasure’. They pay between 100 to 150 Indian rupees for each sting.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some people mix the burnt tail with hashish and tobacco to smoke it in a cigarette. Sohbat’s method varies – he would use a ‘nacha’, which is a small pipe used to inhale drugs.

The high lasts for almost 10 hours. The first six hours are more painful, as the body adjusts to the high. Slowly, Sohbat says, the feeling eases into enjoyment. “Everything appears like it is dancing,” he calls. “The roads, the vehicles, everything in front of me.”

More harmful than other drugs

Experts say that scorpion venom is dangerous for the human brain when inhaled. Among the 1,750 described species of scorpions, 25 are fatal to humans. The rest do not kill when they sting, but according to Dr Azaz Jamal, their venom is far more harmful than other drugs.

“Scorpion smoking causes short and long term memory loss,” says Jamal, who is a medical officer at the Khyber Teaching Hospital. The person addicted to scorpion smoking also develops sleeping and appetite disorders, and starts living in a constant state of delusion.

“Smoking causes hallucination, the state where person have perception of something which is not present,” he explains.

He goes on to explain that there is little research available on scorpion addiction because its users cannot be identified as easily. For one, scorpion smoking is practiced in secret places, and secondly, no data is yet available on an official level. The United Nation Drug’s office has not investigated the addiction in its reports.

Killing scorpions

The menace of scorpion smoking is gaining popularity in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Although there are no exact statistics that reveal the users’ percentage, research has been carried out to find the prevalence of scorpion smoking addiction.

Azeemullah, a former service man at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s narcotics control department, who has travelled around the province for many years, has found addicts in the districts of Bannu, Kohat, Karak, Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Charsadda and Batkhela. He cannot cite numbers, but his results show that the drug is not a rare indulgence.

Azeem comments on the lack of laws for scorpion smoking in Pakistan. “We need laws in place to stop the killing of scorpions,” he says. Azeem adds that scorpions are used in medicines for diseases like cancer and AIDS. Unless their use is regulated, scorpion addiction poses a threat to the availability of scorpions for medical purposes.

This article first appeared on Dawn.com.