NEWS

Prevention rather than suppression is the solution to the Greek drug crisis

The war on drugs in Greece faces a constantly shifting battleground, with the country’s situation reminiscent of the lower depths reached by most countries in Europe a decade ago. But unlike the rest of the continent, where the trend is toward stabilization, Greek users are getting younger and the number of drugs is on the rise. Yet the State has only taken a few, hesitant measures. Recently, it shifted its focus to prevention with the National Action Scheme on drugs. But while caring individuals, will to act and knowledge are not in short supply, officials interviewed by Kathimerini stressed that it was time the roots of the problem were dealt with. Three factors Three basic factors causing substance use and abuse are identified by Dr Haralambos Poulopoulos, head of the Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals (KETHEA): «Individual need, substance availability and society. Today, an environment that favors drug use has been formed, mainly influencing young people.» Anna Kokkevi, president of the Organization Against Drugs (OKANA), added: «Children today regard drugs as harmless. They associate them with entertainment. Soft drugs have become the fashion, and have entered youth culture. They are taken with greater ease. Drugs are also more widely available. With the opening of borders, there was an exponential increase in the influx of illegal substances.» Prevention A complex problem cannot be subjected to a one-dimensional solution. «I regard the stress on prevention extremely important, but what do we mean by this term?» said Katerina Matsa, psychiatrist in charge of the rehabilitation unit, 18 Ano. «Prevention does not merely entail setting up detoxification centers, but tackling all the factors which lead to drug dependency. Any action taken must be in accordance with our way of life. And of course, none of that is included in the National Action Scheme.» Unemployment, lack of prospects, alienation, poverty, questioning social norms and values are factors which lead young people to take drugs. OKANA, in collaboration with the Education Ministry, is undertaking information campaigns in schools «so that children are aware of their options,» according to Kokkevi. «Children flounder at the slightest difficulty. A pill is the easy solution to relieve their anxiety. They also consume large quantities of alcohol,» she added. Rehabilitation The care and social rehabilitation of users after a detoxification program form a second tier of prevention. Greece lags significantly behind in this area. «We need to throw our weight behind a policy of treatment and rehabilitation, as opposed to a policy of suppression, since stigmatization marginalizes addicts, thus reducing their chances of rehabilitation,» said the head of KETHEA. «There is a great need for the creation of special programs in detention facilities which will be linked to rehabilitation programs within society,» he added. Society continues to treat former addicts with suspicion. «The reactions to the setting up of treatment centers, such as the Prisoner Rehabilitation Center at Ladadika in Thessaloniki, are typical,» said Poulopoulos. New units The long waiting lists for treatment feed residents’ fears that their area will be degraded. «If there weren’t long waiting lists, the phenomenon of users gathering outside centers in small groups and giving the impression that drug transactions are taking place, would disappear,» said OKANA’s president, Kokkevi. «But people should try to facilitate the setting up of detoxification centers. At this moment in time, there are 2,000 people on waiting lists for programs of treatment with drug substitutes. We should speed up the creation of new units. In this way, there would be a discernible reduction in trafficking. The user is forced to become a dealer in order to secure his dose.» The debate on how to undermine the network of drug dealers includes the question of whether to decriminalize soft drugs. But, according to Anna Kokkevi, decriminalization is already the practice. «In any case, the dealer is subject to penalties, not the user, thus making dealing with his problem easier.» The head of KETHEA asked that users should be dealt with differently. But Poulopoulos warned: «The promotion of a policy of decriminalization should not be linked to the decriminalization of drugs, which would have negative effects on society as a whole. On the other hand, a reduction in sentences, not only for users of soft drugs but for any other substance, helps the development of prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs, since severe penalties marginalize people and cause the problem to become more widespread.» Substitutes According to Kokkevi, treatment with substitutes should be available on the National Health System. Users should be monitored like any other patients with a chronic condition. Respective pilot programs will have started by the end of 2002. «Detoxification centers need to be decongested,» she said. But Katerina Matsa argued that prescribing methadone would burden the already overburdened hospitals. «The psychiatric departments are barely functioning – they can’t deal with the problem of detoxification. Independent bodies need to be set up, while the question of what we should be placing emphasis on in treatment needs to be re-examined. Maintaining people is not curing them.»