Central Europe Review: Please could you tell us a little about how you began to get involved in dealing with the issue of drugs?
Ákos Topolánszky: I came into contact with drugs at a fairly early age, though thankfully not as a user. When I turned 18 I became part of a circle—in those days an illegal circle—of people, who began tackling the problem of drug addicts. This was as a matter of fact the first organisation in Hungary, which severely drug-dependent young people were able to turn to. This was in 1978, in other words very much at the height of Communism.
The reason why it was not possible to deal with the issue legally was that a political ban had been placed on the public depiction of drug addicts and on acknowledging their very existence. There was not really much available by way of information on the subject either. Dozen upon dozen of drug addicts turned up at the organisation in question in those days, which was surprising not just to me as a tender young man of 18, but to everyone because as I mentioned we had no official statistics whatsoever at our disposal.
As gradually became apparent, there was a group of individuals in very serious condition, who propelled themselves into drug addiction and even though they were not that many in number, they took the drugs available to them in those days, including the substances considered to be hard drugs. Unfortunately, many of them died. For me this was the first nudge in the direction of dealing with the drugs issue. We attempted to help them in a variety of ways. It was then that we took young people into hospital with the aim of getting them therapy for the first time. It was for long-term therapy, something which had not existed previously. Until then, the most that would happen was that an addict in danger of losing his life would be admitted to an emergency medical ward for a short spell with "unidentified" problems.
Above and beyond this we began to organise care within the civil sphere as well. As a result, we set up the first civil organisation dealing explicitly with drug addicts and drug users in 1983. Even then the political ban on broaching drugs-related issues was still in force. It was not lifted until 1984. The organisation, which we founded, operated as a branch within the Reformed Church and was called the Kalod Youth Rescue Mission [Kalod Ifjuságot Mentő Misszió] and in 1985 the first drug therapy institute in Hungary was founded under its auspices. Obviously the entire process was in its infancy and developed instinctively rather than deliberately, but we had to react more quickly than our counterparts in Western Europe, who had witnessed the same developments over a longer period of time.
We took the same steps in Hungary with the added obstacle of working in a social environment, which attempted to hamper our efforts at every step of the way and with every possible means. I headed the drug therapy institute for 14 years as well as the first civil sector initiative in Hungary.
I subsequently took the initiative in setting up numerous professional organisations and in certain cases was in charge of them as well. For example I founded the first professional organisation in Hungary dealing with opiate drugs, the Hungarian Narcological Society. I also founded and headed the Association of Hungarian Drug Therapy Institutes, which continues to act as the umbrella organisation for Hungarian drug therapy institutes even today. From 1 January 1999 onwards I have been Deputy Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Youth and Sport where I have been charged with the task of taking care of drug coordination issues.
During and after Communism
What were drug consumption patterns like in Hungary under Communism? What changes have ensued since the collapse of Communism?
In the Communist era drug users belonged to a relatively confined circle within a subculture and were a group, whose membership was clearly identifiable. Here too, however, the fundamental traits of the behaviour patterns and ideologies typical of hard drugs users could be discerned. Alongside these the behaviour patterns of occasional drug users also materialised, but as I say it was confined to a narrow circle.
The really enormous change took place after the collapse of Communism in close connection to and as a logical consequence of the political processes at work themselves. Obviously the opening up of the frontiers did not have purely positive effects. The sad, but unavoidable concomitant of democracy has been that the drug problem has become large-scale. Research reveals that the problem has gone through several phases. The first explosive change occurred in the mid-90s and between 1995 and 1998 drug consumption substantially increased. Between 1995 and 1998 it grew by 250 per cent, which really is a major increase.
It might sound tragic if we were not to add that the starting base was that of a very low penetration of drugs in society. Even today if we look at 16-year-old secondary school pupils—and this is important for purposes of comparison—12 per cent have tried out illegal drugs at least once. This is below the European average. Of the 30 countries taking part in the study Hungary was ranked in 20th place. We can therefore maintain that Hungary suffers from a low-level of contamination in terms of drug use.
This is a state of affairs, however, and not a result by any manner of means. I would also like to add that the recent upsurge in drugs use is beginning to slow down considerably. Indeed according to a study investigating patterns of consumption in Budapest it appears to have ground entirely to a halt. This is of the utmost importance as it could mean that Hungary will not be confronted with the same problems as many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Republic for example. There consumption rates are far higher. Of course in many Western European countries consumption is far higher as well.
An unprepared system
In this context we could perhaps also mention Poland where a high rate of consumption became established even in the days of Communism.
Yes. In Poland the consumption of so-called "compote" was typical. It was a kind of homemade heroin and was very popular. Now the familiar types of drug have made inroads into Poland from the West. There too marihuana consumption is the most widespread of course. Nevertheless the drugs problem amongst the 16-year-old age group I mentioned is far less serious than in the Czech Republic for example, although it is more serious than in Hungary. If memory serves me well it is 18 per cent compared with the 12 per cent figure for Hungary.
Turning back to Hungary, all the syndromes and consumption habits typical of consumption in the West have already become established here. The peculiar feature of the Hungarian situation is that our health care system was entirely unprepared for this explosive growth. Perhaps the dramatic element in this situation is not so much the spread of drugs consumption as the huge gulf, which yawns between the problem of drugs consumption and the state of preparedness and maturity of the care and assistance system called upon to sort it out.
Naturally there is also the question of society's maturity because it is not the primary responsibility of state institutions or official civil sector organisations to reduce the dimensions of the problem, but apart from them there is the matter of society's reactions. How families function, how small communities function and what attitude schools adopt to the problem. As far as these issues are concerned there is still quite a great deal of inexperience and ignorance. We are taking part in this learning curve together.
Are there any peculiarly Hungarian aspects to drug consumption?
The interesting feature is that the consumption habits typical of Western Europe have taken root here as well. Marihuana is the by far most widely consumed drug in Hungary, dominating the scene. Then come amphetamines, speed and the disco-drug type substances. Then LSD and only afterwards do we have the real hard drugs, such as heroine, with cocaine consumed in far smaller quantities.
What I would deem to be peculiarly Hungarian aspects would be the very pronounced growth on the one hand and on the other that this growth in the use of illegal drugs has not led to a reduction in the consumption of legal drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and the most dramatic, abuse of prescription drugs. This means that the illegal drugs represent an extra demand on the part of individuals wishing to have recourse to this type of bogus stress-management solution. In other words, the drug problem has reared its ugly head in Hungary too as an alternative solution.
The other peculiarly Hungarian phenomenon was the consumption of opium tea, which was the typical hard drug of the 1980s. We could say that it is on the retreat "in favour of" heroin if this were not blasphemy. Opium tea was a Hungarian speciality, with poppy stems and heads being boiled, once the seeds have been removed, into a potent and addictive brew. It could be prepared virtually free of charge at home.
Which segments of society are affected by drug consumption in Hungary and why are they in particular affected?
To all practical intents and purposes every social class is affected, although the patterns of consumption differ. In the higher social classes, the more expensive, rarer drugs are obviously over-represented, it is there that cocaine puts in an appearance, but consumption is very limited. I think we can safely maintain, however, that in the case of heroine consumption as well the more privileged classes are over represented. Solvent abuse, the bargain basement form of drug taking, is markedly the preserve of the deprived sections of the population.
First and foremost young people in borstals and young Roma get caught up in it. Turning back to the previous question for a moment I would like to point out that three or four years ago the problem of intravenous heroin use became noticeable amongst young Roma living in the inner city areas of Budapest and that this came as quite a surprise. Previously, they had been almost completely unaffected by it and then it suddenly burst on to the scene. It has led to a particularly difficult situation for them and unfortunately many of them have died subsequently because it is difficult for the institutional system to reach them as they do not feel the institutions address them. This is why we are in the process of establishing a separate programme to support them.
To return to the matter in hand, all of society is affected as marihuana use has spread throughout society as a whole and is on display everywhere.
The forbidden fruit effect
Do romantic notions of "forbidden fruit" and sharing a dangerous pleasure together not serve to sweep more young people into the world of drug users than are deterred by the threat of prison? Would it not be preferable for Hungary to legalise soft drugs thereby following the example of several Western European countries according to which they are sold legally, taxed and monitored in a way similar to the sale of alcoholic drinks and for only hard drugs to be banned?
Soft drugs have not been legalised in any European country at all. They have only been decriminalised. This is an important distinction to draw and it is used by international organisations as well. I am aware of the most recent developments. For example, decriminalisation is taking place in Switzerland at the moment and already became a reality in Italy at an earlier stage. All I can put forward by way of reply to the question is to quote an old saying: "Beware of those, who claim they have found the truth, but follow those, who seek it."
The same applies to the case of drugs as well: it has not really proven possible to come up with a good solution. This is why even within the European Union the only community policy, which cannot be made into a collective policy is drugs policy. This was decided at the Second European Drugs Policy Conference, which met in Brussels in March 2000. It is simply not possible to find a common denominator as drugs policies vary so widely even within the EU itself. One kind of policy yields results in one area of the EU, whilst another is effective in a different area. It is difficult to define the most appropriate policy response.
The special situation faced by Hungary was that the drugs problem really did appear almost out of the blue, it was subject to sudden growth and in virtually every manifestation it has links with organised crime. Hence, the government felt it was necessary to raise the penalties in criminal law, which obviously apply primarily to the dealers. The penalties for dealing in drugs really are severe. The forbidden fruit effect will remain either way, but drugs are a phenomenon society does not encourage. In this sense, the forbidden fruit effect is certainly at work, although the acceptance effect is valid at the same time.
Amongst young people and in the realm of social relations the level of acceptance of drugs consumption is already very high in Hungary, which means that from the point of view of internal acceptance drug consumption is a completely normal phenomenon and therefore the two processes are mutually reinforcing. At the same time, society cannot abdicate responsibility for determining its own values and giving them preference. Clearly criminal law can be effective as a deterrent amongst people who do not use drugs themselves, or who do so occasionally, people who can be influenced by the environment and on whom society's norms can have an effect.
We are currently investigating this theory in the form of a study. Obviously none of this is effective in the case of drug addicts, but there is still a possibility open to the courts to sentence them leniently so that they are not forced into custodial sentences. We always try to understand developments from the point of view of the mechanics of a family. A family has two functions: one is to define certain limits with the aim of allowing the individual member to live life and develop within social norms. This includes everything from the rules of the Highway Code through to how to behave. The second function is to provide nurture and support. To love and to nurture. Both of these functions taken together can have an impact and this is precisely what the government intends to support in its strategic principles.
I am not trotting this out like some testimony to our success, but I am making the point with some delight because it was fantastic to observe how the Parliament adopted the strategic programme with no votes against and two abstentions, which meant that basically everyone rallied around it. The programme is aimed at implementing this approach in practice. Such resounding support on a contentious issue of this kind has not been manifested anywhere else in Europe.
So it is not possible to talk about a panic reaction in the face of a massive problem aimed at preventing further huge growth.
I would not by any stretch of the imagination call it a panic reaction because the question was carefully deliberated on. We approached the issue mainly from the dealing side, but consumption maintains trade. The entire drugs issue was closely interwoven with that of organised crime since every organised crime gang also dabbled in drug dealing at the same time as their other activities. The drugs problem was dealt with as part of the package of measures drafted to combat organised crime. We keep tabs on how effective it is in its current form. If it were not effective we would put forward the appropriate proposals.
Taking account of global trends do you feel that there is a possibility that drugs
In the framework of our national strategy we decided that we would put the brakes on this pronounced growth and begin cutting consumption on a medium-term basis. It is a fairly ambitious programme because it took the countries of the West 20 to 30 years before the possibility of stopping the process became an option and they have not really succeeded in turning the tide. There has, moreover, been a continuous rise in drug consumption. Recently, the Western European average has risen from 16 to 18 per cent. It does not seem inconceivable that we will be able to realise this plan. Several independent surveys have shown that it is probable that drug consumption is not on the increase. At least not every type of drug is being consumed in ever-greater quantities and this is marvellous news.
At the end of the day I believe that drugs consumption in Hungary has peaked, it is beginning to reach its limits and the national strategy affords an excellent opportunity for reversing the trend from now on. In order to achieve this, the principles contained in the strategic programme have to be implemented, particularly those pertaining to society showing solidarity and sticking together.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 19 March 2001
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