Drug problems shoot up in EU candidate countries

  • 2001-11-29
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
BRUSSELS - The percentage of people in the Baltic countries who have tried illegal drugs at least once is rising fast. And the region's role in the trafficking and transit of illegal drugs is also a reason for concern.

These trends are highlighted in a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe in the 2001 annual report on the state of drug use in the European Union. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a Lisbon-based EU-funded agency, presented the report at the European Parliament in Brussels on Nov. 20.

The EMCDDA states that the demand for treatment from drug addiction is on the rise right across the region. In Latvia, this number was 1,080 in 1998 and 1,512 in 1999. In Lithuania, the figures rose from 2,862 in 1998 to 3,082 in 1999. Figures for 2000 are not available.

Official Vilnius statistics say, however, that 3,777 people were treated medically in November 2001. The unofficial number of drug addicts in Lithuania ranges from 10,000 to 12,000.

The EMCDDA report gives no statistics about the demand for treatment in Estonia because a national institution for dealing with drugs issues there was created just six months ago, according to Alexis Goosdeel, the center's Belgian representative, who deals with EU candidate countries.

One problem with drug figures is that some countries simply do not release this information locally. Slovenian journalist Brane Piano, who covers drugs and crime issues, explained why.

"I can't receive figures about drug addicts from officials in my country. It is secret information in Slovenia, for some reason. Our politicians don't want to give out negative information to the electorate. They tell these figures only to the EU. I need to go to Brussels to find statistics on drug use in my home country."

Mike Trace, chairman of the EMCDDA management board, added that national drug figures are not 100 percent compatible from country to country.

"The treatment of drug addicts is slightly different in each country. There are various cultural aspects to consider. We have this problem in stats from EU member states, too. There are comparability problems," he said.

Goosdeel added that the center is working closely with Central Europe to standardize the statistics rules.

He emphasized that the European Commission allocated an additional 1 million euros ($870,000) to each candidate country for the purpose of developing a specific drug component in their national Phare programs. Most of these projects will be developed through twinning with EU member states.

Goosdeel said that Germany would be twinned with Estonia, while Sweden would be providing technical assistance for Lithuania. Spain will likely be working with Latvia.

He said that the Baltic states should step up the fight with drug trafficking and production. The major headache for the EU is the "Balkan route," through which heavy drugs are transported into the EU.

The center maintains that illegal laboratories producing amphetamines exist in most Central and Eastern European countries. Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states appear to be major producers.

For example, despite the dismantling of seven laboratories in Poland last year, it is estimated that at least the same number could still be operating.

But the traffic is not all one-way. Worldwide prevalence of ecstasy use has led to its export from the EU to Central Europe. Law enforcement agencies report that a significant proportion of ecstasy used in Central Europe originates in the Netherlands.

One Dutch drug dealer is in a Lithuanian prison for attempting to bring synthetic drugs to Lithuania.

According to data collected by the European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs in 1995 and 1999, lifetime experience of illicit drug use among school children (15 to 16 years old) doubled during the same period right across Central and Eastern Europe except for the Czech Republic, where this prevalence was already quite high and increased one and a half times.

The rise comes mostly from cannabis. As in the EU, this drug is overwhelmingly favored by drug users. However, a significant but smaller rise is noted in the use of drugs like ecstasy, amphetamines and LSD, with prevalence probably much greater than official data suggest.

In Lithuania, in the 1999 school study, lifetime prevalence of any illicit drugs among school children was found to be at 22.7 percent in Vilnius and at 23.9 percent in Klaipeda, while the national average was 15.5 percent. This is slightly less than in Estonia, and a few percentage points less than in Latvia.