Just days after cannabis was legalised in Colorado and Washington states, regulation of weed became a new hot issue in Bulgaria, after two fundamentally different poll results were published.
The National Centre for Public Opinion Research conducted a poll among 1000 adults from 86 communities, concluding that 81% of Bulgarians are opposed to the legalisation of marijuana. The majority of opponents are women over 40 living in the countryside. On the other hand, legalisation of cannabis was only supported by 11% of respondents – predominantly those who were younger, more educated, and wealthier.
At the same time one of the most popular Bulgarian television stations took its own poll, and reached a completely different conclusion. Their figures indicate that 85.65% of those questioned support the legalisation of cannabis.
So, where does the truth lie?
The truth is probably somewhere between what the government and the poll it commissioned claims, and what the tv station's poll indicated, based on the responses of highly educated young citizens. It seems likely that the evidence-based information available online for those who speak foreign languages does not reach the majority of Bulgarian society, and that at the same time, most young active and highly educated people support legalisation.
In terms of the older population, who used to live under communist rule, when Bulgaria didn’t have a 'drug problem', their response is also understandable: With no personal experience to inform their judgement, they connect drugs with crime and see them as a sign of “modern social decline”.
In the middle of the nineties, when heroin arrived in Bulgaria, the booming drug epidemic coincided with the massive spread of the mafia. This led people to the conclusion that drug use and crime go hand in hand. This strong attitude still determines majority public opinion about drugs and addiction.
At the same time the drug issue in Bulgaria is still a taboo. The overwhelming majority of the population take their information from newspapers and television, which tend to only cover the criminal aspect of drug-use; and of course this is a perfect way to strengthen stigma against people using drugs. Furthermore, this approach serves the interests of the mafia on one hand, and the government on the other. It also simplifies life for the authorities, who have adopted a hardline attitude to everything related to UN and European legislation, and strongly support the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The last thing the authorities want, is an informed debate about those documents. As a consequence, government information campaigns about drugs, and the people using them, tend to be uncreative, non-evidence-based, and designed to spread fear.
The NGOs operating in Bulgaria are extremely weak, and are sometimes muzzled by the authorities. There is one pro-marijuana organization, “Promena”, but they do not receive state funds. They exist mainly on the internet, carrying out online campaigns promoting the positive sides of cannabis for medical treatment. Most other NGOs working in the drug sphere are part of a service network funded by the Ministry of Health.
This financial dependence puts them into a position in which questioning the current drug policy regime risks seeing their funding cut by the authorities. This is of course an extremely preposterous way of silencing the NGOs and sweeping fact-based debate on drugs under the carpet.
It is essential to tackle the stigma currently suffered by users, and to deliver a more humane approach. This will only be achieved if there is an honest, open debate on the whole subject – and that debate would in turn require information campaigns led by independent NGOs who are not beholden to the state for their funding.
Yuliya Georgieva / Initiative for Health Foundation