Drug use in Central and Eastern Europe is rising sharply, turning the countries of the region from transit routes into destinations for drug traffickers. Experts say the main cause of concern is the growing number of young people injecting drugs such as heroin, which in some areas, mainly the Baltic states, has led to an increase in the number of HIV infections.
Prague, 14 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The level and patterns of drug use are changing rapidly in Central and Eastern Europe, with a growing number of young people using a wider variety of recreational and hard drugs.
The states of the region, which until recently were perceived as mere transit routes for drug traffic from Asia to Western Europe, are now themselves becoming markets for traffickers, while imported narcotics, mostly heroin, are quickly replacing locally made drugs.
Furthermore, the growing number of injecting drug users has also resulted in more HIV infections in several countries, mainly the Baltic states.
The European Union has acknowledged the gravity of the situation in a report on the state of drug use in the 10 Central and Eastern European candidate countries. The report was published this month by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU's Portugal-based drug agency.
Alexis Goosdeel, the agency's enlargement manager, says the report marks the first time a study has been published that is dedicated specifically to the applicant countries. Goosdeel explained to RFE/RL why such a report is necessary. "There are two reasons to make this report now. The first one is the fact that we observe, on the basis of the data available, of course, that there is an increase over the past four or five years in drug use in the applicant countries in general. We observe also that this increase is both [regarding] what we consider in the EU [to be] older drugs like heroin, which is stabilized in the European Union and which is still on the increase in the applicant countries, and what we can call new drugs, or new synthetic drugs like Ecstasy, amphetamines, and so on."
The report is based on data available from 10 candidate countries -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. It divides drug use into three categories: experimental, recreational, and problem drug use.
The report says that experimental and recreational drug use involving marijuana, as well as synthetic drugs such as Ecstasy or LSD, is on the increase, but is unlikely to lead to addiction. It finds that the use of such drugs is becoming an increasing part of youth culture in EU candidate countries, as well as in EU member states themselves.
The third category -- problem drug use -- refers to stronger, injecting drugs such as heroin and other opiates, which often do result in addiction. The report says that, unlike in EU countries, the number of problem drug users is on the increase in the candidate states. Furthermore, in Central and Eastern Europe, injecting drug use is spreading mainly among young people, while in the EU, problem drug users are aging.
Problem drug users are a very small minority compared with the other two categories, but they face much higher risks, such as infection with HIV.
Heroin remains the most popular drug in this category across the region, with the notable exception of the Czech Republic, where pervitin, a locally made amphetamine, is the prevailing drug.
However, Tomas Zabransky, a senior researcher at the Czech Republic's Institute for Preventive Medicine, told RFE/RL that in his country, the use of heroin is spreading, too.
"What we've seen beginning with 1998 is the spreading of heroin use -- which was until that time concentrated more or less in Prague and northern Bohemia, near the German border -- to all the country, even to the countryside, where until that time the 'pervitin' meta-amphetamine was, without exception, the problem drug number one. So that's the other part of the trend."
Available data on drug use is scarce and uneven, with only five countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia -- having national-level studies indicating drug consumption.
Based on existing figures, problem drug use in countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, or Slovenia affects the same percentage of people as in the EU -- an average of 0.5 percent. But it is considerably larger in the three Baltic countries, amounting to an estimated 1 percent of the population aged 15 to 64.
The report also highlights the much higher risk of HIV infection faced by problem drug users, mainly through contaminated syringes. It says the three Baltic states are among the worst affected, with Estonia seeing "an alarmingly rapid increase" in the number of HIV infections among injecting drug users. It also cites this year's major outbreak of HIV infections in a Lithuanian prison.
Tomas Zabransky says that in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, the number of HIV infections related to intravenous drug users is very low.
"Even in the general population [of the Czech Republic], the prevalence of HIV is pretty low compared to Western Europe, America, or Australia. And even within the drug-using population, from the very beginning of the testing until now, we know about 22 cases of people who were at the same time injecting drug users and HIV positives."
Zabransky also says the small number of drug-related HIV infections is due to successful programs run by nongovernmental organizations under which drug addicts can exchange used syringes for new ones.
Marc Goosdeel of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that, while the report presents an overall image of increasing drug consumption throughout the region, it is not complete. Goosdeel says that monitoring systems, as well as prevention and treatment, are still limited in many countries, due to a lack of money. Goosdeel told RFE/RL, "If you compare the situation in the Czech Republic with some EU countries, from a lot of points of view, the data collection is at the same level, or in some cases even better, than in some EU member states -- while in Bulgaria, Romania, in the Baltic states, they need to invest at the same time in treatment facilities, they need to invest money also for prevention and at the same time they need to invest money in data collection and monitoring. Obviously, they have some difficulties."
The European Union launched a $2 million project in 2000 to help candidate states coordinate their antidrug efforts with the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction and to gather data through a system of national drug information focal points.
Romania is the largest country in southeastern Europe, with some 22 million people, and one of the main routes for drug trafficking from the Balkans to Western Europe. Mihai Anghel, chief of Romania's newly established antidrug brigade, says the project has helped Romania improve its data gathering system.
"[In September 2001,] we established a national drug information focal point that works in direct contact with the antidrugs brigade. It collects data from the organizations involved, such as the Health Ministry, the Education Ministry, our brigade. The data is then centralized and conclusions can be drawn. [For instance,] during the first months of 2002, a total of 3,196 people have been identified as [problem drug] users."
Anghel also says that due to improved coordination both at national and international levels, Romanian authorities have made important heroin seizures. He says that in 2000, Romanian authorities seized a mere 37 kilos of heroin. In the first nine months of this year, that amount rose more than a thousand-fold -- to some 44 tons.
(Elena Nikleva of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service contributed to this report.)