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Romania Losing Drugs Battle

Efforts to stem a rising tide of young drug abusers have so far proved unsuccessful.
By Traian George

Romania’s economic crisis has contributed to a disturbing rise in teenage drug addicts, alarming local authorities who’ve so far had limited success dealing with the growing problem.


Official statistics suggest the number of drug users has doubled in Romania over the past four years, while the average age of those taking drugs has steadily decreased over that time.


There are some 20,000 registered users of all ages in the capital Bucharest alone, though actual numbers are believed to be far higher.


Officials and youth workers are particularly concerned over a darker and less publicised problem that has emerged as a result - the rising number of young drug users sharing syringes, because they are too poor to buy their own.


Athontas is a Greek student who volunteers with a Bucharest programme that works to reduce risks among drug addicts by giving them sterile syringes and distilled water.


“Usually there are three to four people who belong to a specific group and, because they don’t have enough money, stay together most of the time and share their poor resources in order to get drugs,” he said.


“This situation has a devastating effect as youngsters, most of them living in the suburbs, share syringes and other injecting implements.”


More prosperous drug addicts who want to avoid detection take advantage of the economic difficulties of the young addicts, using them to fetch their drug fixes in exchange for payment in kind.


“Many inject themselves with heroin several times ... depending on the rewards or favours from the wealthy addicts,” said Cosmin Gane, a health educator in Bucharest.


The rise in drug use is one of the many results of the severe economic and social decline that accompanied Romania’s post-communist transition.


Nearly one third of all Romanians live below the poverty line, and the average monthly salary is less than 200 euro.


The economic crisis also meant severe cutbacks in government funded social programmes, like sports and cultural centres, which had previously provided a gathering place for the country's youth. Many young people suddenly found themselves alone on the street, with no jobs and few prospects at the same time the Romanian drug market was exploding.


There are programmes to help the addicts, but many have so far reported only limited success.


“It’s hard to convince them to give us back the used syringes,” said Athontas of his project. “Furthermore, they would rather throw new syringes away than be caught with them in their pocket.


“The youngsters are afraid of the police, and this is obvious, because if we come to the meeting place with a different car, for example, they become suspicious and don’t show up.”


Part of the problem appears to be society’s reluctance to confront the issue of teenage drug abuse.


Average Romanians don’t have much sympathy for drug users, viewing addiction as a condition that strikes only those who deserve it. A report released recently by the National Anti Drug Agency, ANA, found that less than 20 per cent of Romanians believe that the drug users should be tolerated.


“Many Romanians do not want anything to do with people different from themselves,” said Maria Georgescu, president of the Romanian Association Against AIDS, ARAS. “Some resent the time and money spent trying to help stem the tide of the drug addiction phenomenon.”


Law enforcement officers are also reluctant to comment on the issue.


“Research about this kind of group should be conducted by doctors and not by police officers involved in preventing or fighting drugs,” said Petre Craciun, spokesman for the Romanian police.


People working in the drugs-prevention field accuse the government of failing to support anti-addiction programmes and mistakenly viewing the problem of drug abuse as primarily a criminal issue


In Romania, the possession, use and trafficking of drugs, even soft ones, is illegal and punishable by a maximum prison term of 20 years.


“Even health officials prefer to treat the physical symptoms of drug addiction without addressing the patient's deeper social and psychological needs. There aren't enough programmes focusing on understanding the problem in general and what should be done to solve it in particular,” said Lucian Vasilescu, a doctor at a drug treatment hospital in Bucharest.


“You should begin by educating children in schools or by helping families with problems. And only after that you should think about the law enforcement issue of selling drugs.”


Traian George Horia is a journalist with the Cotidianul daily newspaper in Bucharest.


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