Politicians spin attacks against methadone, syringe replacement

  • 2005-06-08
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - Several politicians have been drawn into a passionate campaign against the country's methadone program and even its syringe-replacement policy, claiming that they could increase rather than decrease the number of drug addicts in Lithuania.

Some MPs think that giving methadone, an anti-addiction compound, and syringes to addicts worsens their plight. As a result, the parliamentary health committee has suggested terminating the program. The decision came after consideration of the EU's draft action plan on narcotics for 2005 - 2008.

Conservative Antanas Matulas, deputy head of the committee, said implementation of the methadone program in Lithuania has been poorly coordinated and ignores any methodology. He added that it differs from similar programs undertaken in other countries.

"We can even say that some of the drug addicts use the chance to get substitute narcotics for free," Matulas explained.

In other countries, he said, drug users get methadone for two to four weeks, and the doses are constantly reduced. In Lithuania, they use methadone for four to six years, and the doses keep growing.

Only 1.5 percent of addicts from Klaipeda and Vilnius stop using drugs after the program, he added. "So, is it worth it to be spending money for such a poor result?" the lawmaker asked.

The methadone program was launched with EU PHARE assistance 10 years ago and later co-financed by the Open Society Fund. However, many believe the methadone drug prevention program has come to a dead-end.

In the meantime, drug addiction experts claim that the country could face an HIV epidemic if the methadone program is closed down. They also claim that the state should pursue drug dealers instead of battling the sick.

"I believe the drug prevention program is being criticized by politicians after the electorate's support. For some reason, the idea that society can heal itself by secluding vulnerable groups still prevails," said Dainius Puras, a mental health expert at Vilnius University.

This is the second time in two years that politicians have intervened in the country's drug prevention program. Former President Rolandas Paksas was the first. Two years ago he declared a war against drugs and claimed it was his goal to save the young generation.

Contrary to many established human rights norms, his party, the Liberal Democrats, recommended mandatory drug tests at schools.

When controversy over using methadone in rehabilitating drug addicts first began, Health Minister Zilvinas Padaiga suggested that no one should make any categorical conclusions before studying an evaluation by the World Health Organization.

Alas the minister finally received a letter from WHO relaying the organization's concern about the future of the so-called "harm reduction program" in Lithuania.

According to the WHO report, Lithuania is one of the three countries in the world where the methadone program has proved to be effective. The other two countries are Indonesia and Thailand.

Still, MP Ramune Visockyte said that existing programs were wrong and that there were better alternatives than methadone. For example, she suggested establishing rehabilitation communities. At the moment, there are 22 such rehabilitation centers in Lithuania, only two of them belong to the state.

The governmental Drug Prevention Department allocated 11 million litas (3.2 million euros) to health and social institutions to implement anti-drug programs this year.