Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Romanian Youth Fall Prey to Heroin
Unshaven and bleary-eyed, 24-year-old Laurentiu can be found most days begging at Bucharest's central railway station. He's been doing so for almost two years now, and all the money he scavenges is spent on maintaining his drug addiction.
"I started smoking hashish when I was 20, along with many of my friends," he said. In time, he graduated onto harder drugs culminating in heroin, which he injects.
In the last few years, there's been a dramatic increase in drug addiction, as the post-communist state experienced severe economic and social decline. In a recent survey conducted by the health ministry in major cities across Romania, ten per cent of those young people interviewed admitted to having experimented with heroin.
"Drug use among 15- and 16-year-olds has increased by about 200 per cent over the last three years, the authorities seem unable to tackle the drugs scourge," said Dr Adrian Streinu-Cercel, who coordinated the survey.
Laurientiu was taken to hospital by his mother after he started stealing from her in order to buy drugs. He has been admitted to a rehabilitation centre eleven times, but never stayed the course of treatment. Now he has been rejected by his family and is back on the street. "Of course I want to kick my habit, because I know where it leads," he said. "I've watched three friends die of overdoses, but what can I do?"
Last October, the authorities launched a national anti-drug programme to try and counter the scourge, which has been indirectly bolstered by other effects of the economic crisis. A severe cutback in government-funded social programmes, such as sports and cultural centres left many unemployed young people hanging around on the streets at exactly the same time that drugs were flooding into the country.
In Bucharest, heroin can be easily obtained in clubs, bars or wherever young people gather in any number. With a street price of five dollars a dose, it is also relatively affordable, making it the narcotic of choice for more and more drugs users. Police data shows that 44 tonnes of heroin were seized in the first nine months of last year, an extraordinary increase since 2000, when a mere 37 kilos of the drug were intercepted.
"Romania has become both a transit centre and a destination for heroin and hashish smuggled from Turkey and Central Asian republics," said secretary of state at the interior ministry, Brigadier General Pavel Abraham. Synthetic drugs, mainly intended for Western Europe, have also been coming from laboratories in neighbouring Hungary and Bulgaria.
In the past decade, police have captured only 1,200 smugglers, a small number considering the volume of drugs entering the country. "It's very difficult to catch people when we have no witness protection measures and the law does not allow police to work under cover," said Abraham.
Supply is certainly a problem, but experts say the government could be doing more to stem demand. "The authorities tend to look at drug abuse as a criminal issue," said Dr Lucian Suditu, a Bucharest-based specialist in narcotics addiction. "People believe that because drugs are used for pleasure, that addiction is not really an illness. They view it more as a perversion, for which people deserve the consequences."
Even health officials prefer to treat the physical symptoms of drug abuse without addressing the deeper social and psychological roots of the problem, he continued. "The government must spearhead a radical change in our approach to drug use. They should be educating children in schools and helping the affected families. Only then will law enforcement have any hope of success."
Constantin Radu is a journalist with daily newspaper Realitatea Romaneasca
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