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Fighting against drugs

  • 2000-09-28
  • Darius James Ross & Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The City of Vilnius last week sponsored a two-day international conference entitled "AIDS and Drug Use: Let's Unify our Response." The event brought together experts from Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, the United States as well as hundreds of representatives from many levels of Lithuanian society and government: police and health officials, educators, student leaders and politicians.

The main auditorium at the Vilnius Congress Hall was standing room only for the opening addresses on Sept. 19 - a testament to the importance of these issues in Lithuania today. In most cases, the speeches themselves addressed concrete means of attacking the drug problem.

Kornelijus Platelis, Lithuania's minister of education, spoke about the effect of drug use on schools in the country. "Drugs are affecting mainly our young people. Drugs are openly sold in schools and underage crime is increasing," he said.

Platelis advocated increased policing of drug traffickers and dealers in order to reduce supply as well as working more closely with countries more experienced in fighting drugs such as the United States, Russia and Sweden.

While Lithuania was only a hub for the transportation of narcotics just a few short years ago, it is now a nation of drug producers and users, according to Ceslovas Blazys, minister of the interior.

"We need to attack the problem from both the supply and demand sides," he said. "The police can play only a small role in prevention but their main focus should be reducing supply while people in education as well as parents must be more involved in reducing demand."

Perhaps the strongest address came from Vilnius Mayor Rolandas Paksas. Having quoted the recent statistic that every third boy in Lithuania has tried drugs, he went on to address parents directly. "Even if your son is not a drug user, you cannot be complacent. It means that of his two best friends there is a very good chance that one of them has tried narcotics."

Paksas went on to announce an ambitious agenda for fighting the problem: police on duty at every school, free drug information phone lines, radio and TV clips, drug education posters in night clubs and 150,000 leaflets distributed to teenagers throughout the country's schools.

There are 30,000 officially registered drug addicts in Lithuania, according to statistics presented at the conference. Medics say that the real figure could be five times higher.

Meanwhile, there are 251 HIV cases in Lithuania. Some 60 percent of HIV- infected persons got their disease during drug injections, stated medical experts at the conference.

Lithuania had almost no drug addicts a decade ago. Drug problems accompanied an openness to the West and western lifestyle.

Some politicians have new ideas about fighting drugs, however the Ministry of Health Care is reluctant to adopt radical proposals.

Valdemaras Anuzis, a Klaipeda city council member, says that heroin or methadone addicts should be given drugs, a practice common in some Western countries.

"I'm in favor of giving drugs to those addicts who are 100 percent dependent on drugs. The state should give them this product. They'll get drugs anyway by committing crimes and giving money to drug dealers," Anuzis said.

Such a system exists in Switzerland. It made Switzerland uninteresting for drug traffickers, said Anuzis.

The average drug addict pays 14,000 litas ($3,500) per year to drug dealers, he said.

A Lithuanian door to the West, the port of Klaipeda, has the biggest number of drug addicts in the country. There are 400 drug addicts undergoing treatment in Klaipeda, a town of 202,000. According to Klaipeda medics, the total number of addicts is at least 10 times higher.

The Ministry of Health Care is not enthusiastic about Anuzis' idea.

"The state will not become a drug dealer," said Romualdas Sabaliauskas, director of the ministry's Public Health Department. He spoke in favor of traditional methods of fighting drugs, emphasizing prevention of starting drug use.

In response, the Health Care Ministry started a poster campaign against drugs. Posters with slogans such as "Ne narkotikams" ("No to drugs") are spread throughout the country.

Since Sept. 1, entrance to the country's secondary schools is restricted to keep drug dealers out.

Statistics prove, however, that drugs are still making their way into schools.

Some 21 percent of Lithuania's school-age boys and 9.6 percent of school-age girls experimented with drugs at least once, according to a survey conducted by the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute in 1999.

Politicians have started to pay much more attention to the drug problem after a scandalous incident occurred featuring the teenage daughter of Jurgis Razma, parliamentary chancellor and one of the leaders of the ruling Conservative Party. Police said that she was using heroin in sea-resort Palanga this summer. The public scandal had been raised by the Lithuanian media when one of her friends, a 17-year-old male, overdosed there.