As the grip of Communism progressively relaxed, a new menace was added to our traditional Hungarian vice of partiality to the demon drink with the increasing availability of hard and soft drugs. What had once been the illicit pleasure of a few underground practitioners, it now began to catch on amongst curious teenagers and the desperate seeking solace and relief in chemical oblivion.
The government's response was to introduce Draconian laws to combat the evil influence of drugs, although scepticism has been voiced over whether they have indeed achieved the desired result. I approached two experts on drugs and drug-related issues to sound them out on various aspects of the problem in Hungary.
Firstly I spoke to Dr Andrea Pelle of the Executive Committee of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union [Társaság a Szabadságjogokért] (HCLU).
CER: How have drug consumption patterns changed in Hungary between the collapse of Communism and today?
AP: Prior to the 1990s, drug consumption was a sporadic phenomenon, more the characteristic feature of belonging to a particular subculture than anything else. Young people abused prescription drugs or brewed opium teas [adding the poppy heads to boiling water]. Classical drugs, such as cocaine, heroine and amphetamines, likewise only cropped up on a sporadic basis.
From the beginning of the 1990s, however, the situation began to change. The classical drugs began to be available on the drugs market, and from the mid-90s onwards the number of people experimenting with drugs, regular users, addicts and victims of drug abuse related illnesses skyrocketed. Marihuana and amphetamines became the most popular and commonly used, although opiates also gained in popularity with opiate teas losing ground to heroin.
The majority of users, who had previously indulged in opiate teas, now switched to heroin proper, whilst the new experimenters started off on heroin straight away. Proportionately, heroin-users make up a modest number of drug-users as a whole, but they are most at risk of becoming addicts and having their lives ripped apart.
Numbers still up—as is distrust
CER: What is your opinion of the law on drugs introduced in March 1999? Is it useful in terms of repressing the spread and consumption of drugs or does it have a more pernicious effect?
AP: In my opinion, the tightening up of the law from March 1999 onwards is no good to anyone: it has not led to a drop in the number of people taking drugs and the threat of prison does nothing to dissuade youngsters from trying out drugs. They do not have a particularly clear picture of the exact legal consequences of taking drugs, but I still believe that even if they were aware of what awaited them, it would not make much difference in reducing the number of drug-users. The law has not succeeded in preventing the spread of drugs.
New dealers keep on hitting the scene in spite of the fact that if they get caught in the act, they can expect long spells in prison as a result. Criminalisation of drug use has made the work of experts specialising in offering help and advice to addicts difficult. The more heavily drug-use is criminalised, the greater the degree of distrust, the less inclined to dare to seek assistance are those most urgently in need of it.
Consequently, many teachers and parents also feel at a loss as to what to do and so they report their pupils or children to the police. Unfortunately, we have also seen situations in which doctors have notified police about their patients in spite of their oath of professional secrecy. When a doctor betrays a patient's trust in this way, he commits a serious breach of professional rules and ethics.
Punishment is not the way to go
CER: If you were given the opportunity to draft a new law on drugs, how would you modify the current regulations?
AP: It would be expedient for account to be taken of Western experience here in Hungary. Criminal law has not played a role in demand reduction in Western Europe during the last decade. Even in those countries where consumption counts as a crime or where consumption is criminalised via procurement or where the term consumption features in the criminal statute, the laws are not applied to users. They are spared from being taken to court and sentenced.
In Hungary, the legal system and the implementation of law do not give scope for such leniency. The Public Prosecutor does not enjoy the jurisdiction to instruct the local prosecutors or the police to avoid launching legal proceedings against a user for drug consumption. The law has to be amended to allow for such discretionary powers.
Drug consumption is punished by up to two years imprisonment regardless of the type of drug involved. By European standards, this represents a severe penalty, whilst in many of the states of America the penalties for smoking marihuana are less severe. There are some states, for example, where a fine is the norm. I am convinced that many young lives will be ruined by the current Hungarian law and the intended aim will not be attained either. The question is whether the decision-makers believed that the law would actually prevent the spread of drug consumption.
CER: What are the aims of the HCLU and what does it do in the realm of providing assistance for drug users?
AP: The organisation defends rights linked to the private sphere and contributes to improving the law. We keep close tabs on legislation in Hungary, paying particular attention to data protection and patients' rights, to name but two examples. We also deal with special topics such as abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. Alongside these, we also have a drugs policy programme where we can dispense legal advice in specific cases for drug users and provide them with a defence lawyer in court cases where they are being prosecuted for consumption of drugs. We express our opinion about legislation in publications and studies, and draft reports cataloguing our experiences.
Down to the roots
Then I had the pleasure of interviewing a professional with vast hands-on experience of counting the cost and picking up the pieces after addiction had ensued.
CER: Please could you introduce yourself and say a few words about why you became involved in sorting out drugs-related problems.
SB: My name is Mrs Sándor Bereczki [although Sándor, Alexander, is a male name, women may traditionally choose to be referred to by their husband's name in Hungary] and I have been involved in caring for addicts since 1967.
Originally, I looked after alcoholics rather than drug addicts. Alcoholism continues to be the biggest dependency problem in Hungary; the number of alcoholics in society is somewhere approaching one million, which represents ten per cent of the population as a whole. I do not know whether the problem has assumed such unbelievable proportions elsewhere in Europe.
In the 1970s, solvent abuse first reared its ugly head followed by abuse of prescription drugs. Hard drugs in the classical sense of the term only erupted on to the scene as of the end of the 1980s. From 1988 onwards, I was in charge of a so-called tea house [a meeting place where alcohol, cigarettes and drugs of any kind were banned] where some 8000 addicts gathered over a two-year period.
This is an accurate statistic, as representatives of the Sociological Institute visited us to carry out a survey whilst obviously respecting the anonymity of our clients. In 1991, we began working at the Philanthropist Foundation [Emberbarát Alapítvány], which concentrates on the rehabilitation of drug addicts. At the present juncture I am the secretary of this private foundation.
CER: Which groups within society are primarily affected by drug consumption and why are they in particular susceptible?
SB: In Hungary, the numbers of divorces and broken homes are very high. Almost one third of Hungarian children are brought up by single parents. These children are far more sensitive and have to face more conflicts than children from average nuclear families and are therefore more vulnerable, at greater risk of succumbing to the temptation of surrogate substances such as drugs in attempting to resolve the conflicts.
The other major group is children of alcoholics. As a general rule, they do not become alcoholics themselves, but turn to narcotics. The third large group consists of young people, who have neither a home of their own nor a job. Many of them are undereducated and do not nurture the slightest hope of obtaining either a dwelling or a job and so begin taking refuge from the crisis in drugs.
The road back to life
CER: What successes have you scored in your rehabilitation centre?
SB: Our centre works in two areas, rehabilitation and re-socialisation. Rehabilitation starts once the patient has been detoxified, has undergone the screening test and resolved to complete the 18-month programme. During treatment, the patients are confined to the institution and are gradually reintroduced to the world of work.
The rehabilitated former addict is eased back into the routine of being employed, with working hours stepped up from four to six and finally to eight a day. Most of them work at the bakery supported by the Foundation. At the same time, we can award them with a certificate as an attestation of their skills in the bakery trade, since they usually do not have any skills or trade on arrival.
During the 18-month programme, we try to lead them back into a normal life. Once they leave us, we continue to maintain contact with them. We know for a fact that 41 per cent of the patients we have treated during the last decade have fully integrated back into society with families, working and living either in rented accommodation or their own flats. This is a very good proportion.
Unfortunately, some 25 per cent of them have relapsed and continue to take drugs whilst we have lost sight of the remainder, many of whom have died either as a result of drug abuse or of overdoses.
At the end of the rehabilitation phase, many make use of the temporary accommodation also maintained by the Foundation. This solution is available to all those who have no home or often even a family of their own and would have nowhere to go. They are allowed to stay as long as they need to. We only stipulate two conditions: that they should have a job and that they should be completely abstinent.
The Foundation is the largest rehabilitation institute in Hungary today. We have 55 beds at our disposal, which constitutes one third of the total number of beds available throughout the entire country! A mere drop in the ocean compared with the size of the problem!
A private battle?
CER: Could the state not take your experience as a starting point in formulating its policy in the fight against drug addiction?
SB: This is one of our greatest regrets. To all practical intents and purposes, there is no state-sponsored drug rehabilitation in Hungary. As a general rule, it is left to private foundations and church-funded charities to tackle the problem.
Every single year we have to negotiate with the Sickness Insurance Fund Administration to collect the state support we are entitled to for keeping up 35 beds! We have to re-negotiate every year without exception, because we are not able to conclude a long-term contract. We never know from one year to the next whether we will be able to continue providing this service, because we never know in advance if we will go on receiving the support.
As a matter of fact, we are not permitted to spend the financial support on expanding or investing further in our activities. We are only allowed to use it to cover our running costs, such as medicines, meals, heating and lighting. We have to foot the bill for maintaining the remaining 20 beds entirely by ourselves. Unfortunately, we failed in our recent endeavour to obtain support from the EU when we submitted an application for funding together with a Spanish and an Italian organisation.
Although the support was approved by the EU, we failed to raise the ten million forints we were expected to contribute ourselves and so we had to forego the EU aid. This is absolutely typical of the kind of difficulty we encounter in carrying out our work.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 16 February 2001
For further information concerning the HCLU, consult their English-language web site
The Philanthropist Foundation (in Hungarian)
An interactive exhibition highlighting the role of the family in prevention is open to the public in Budapest in the eighth district, Ludovika tér 6, until 31 May.
- Read Gusztáv Kosztolányi's ebook on the great Hungarian oil scandals
- Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Hungary through CER
- Return to CER front page