Designer Drugs on the Margins of Hungarian Society



How does the use of new psychoactive substances, such as "herbal" or "crystal", affect the Hungarian countryside and cities in 2024? How does Hungarian society treat the users of these drugs? Drug users, ex-dealers, the mayor, helpers and experts answer these questions in a new documentary by Drugreporter.

 Since 2007, we have been creating films about drug policies to humanise this complex phenomenon and to remind the society that people who use drugs – even if they are homeless, smoke synthetic cannabinoids, inject drugs, or are Roma drug users – are not "zombies" or "junkies." They are as valuable as other people, even if they are drug dealers, who serve the unceasing need for drugs other than alcohol.

 We hope that through this film, created over two years and lasting nearly an hour, we will be able to contribute to the understanding and interpretation of designer drug use in Hungary, as well as to the development of appropriate public policy responses. As we have been emphasizing on Drugreporter for 20 years, we are convinced that we must support people who use drugs, not punish them.

The full documentary film

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The trailer

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About the film

The use of the new psychoactive substances (NPS) became widespread in Hungary in the 2010s. Synthetic cannabinoids are the second most tried substance among young people after real cannabis. Still, regular use of these drugs is more prevalent among people of lower social status, who live in rural areas. According to Dr. Levente Móró, a neuroscientist, the problem with synthetic cannabinoids is not the molecule itself, but rather the dose and frequency of use. These drugs are often mixed so strongly that the typical effect will be overdose; we see this on the streets and in public squares.

The biggest problem with the use of "herbal" and "crystal" is seen in segregated areas in Hungary, where mostly Roma people live. Even in wealthier settlements, such as Halmajugra, the use of "crystal", or synthetic cathinone, is already a serious problem, mainly due to the increase in petty theft. According to Dr. Rozália Lakatos, the mayor of the settlement, even though not all new psychoactive substance users are Roma, this is more noticeable among poorer people, so the stigma surrounding drug use impacts Roma people. Meanwhile, affected families feel that they cannot count on any external help and that they do not know whom to turn to.

Over the past 14 years, services helping drug users have been cut down and underfunded by the Hungarian state, drug prevention specialists have been banned from schools, and low-threshold services have ceased or are vegetating. According to sociologist Dr. Róbert Csák, coverage of the care system has become so poor that it is simply impossible to know what is happening to these people. There is hardly any contact with people in rural areas who have drug problems. If they do get into treatment, Dr. János Szemelyácz says, services are currently not differentiated enough to meet the new types of needs.

Two employees of the Laurus association, Helga Horváth and Zalán Honti, are doing heroic work in the segregated district of the Miskolc Iron Factory. They maintain a community space and provide therapeutic help to people living with drug problems. Additionally, they support local children, which they consider one of their most important tasks. They want young people to know that they have someone to turn to when they have problems, and by doing so, they aim to reduce the re-emergence of segregation. Béla Turró, their peer worker, was able to start a new life with the help of Laurus and stop injecting “crystal”. According to Helga's family, the greatest opportunity to break out of the segregation of the ironworks was the emergence of job opportunities provided by factories and the European Union.

According to Judit Szécsi, a social worker and assistant professor at ELTE, without reforming the educational, health care and child protection systems and investing in infrastructural developments, such as transport solutions and repairing roads, they will not be able to deal with problematic new psychoactive drug use in segregated areas.

As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be dealers. In the hope of making quick money, Benjámin Bora from Komló became a dealer from being a Cash-in-Transit security guard. He quickly climbed to the top, earning the price of his car in one evening. However, in order to cope with the constant strain of this work, he got hooked on his own drugs. He got so deep that he even became homeless for a while. Yet, he believes that society is holding up a twisted mirror to us and that the media does not present a realistic picture of drug users. According to him, users of synthetic cathinones do not typically end up in the state synthetic cannabinoid users are often portrayed in the media – lying in an underpass, hunched over, and fainting. The drug can give and take, but he thinks that as an adult, one can decide what they want, and he holds himself responsible for his own fate. When he had enough, he stopped using intravenous drugs on his own and went back to work; still, he lost his family. According to Benjámin, this area should not necessarily be seen as a problem, as some synthetic drugs could be regulated. If you can do it with cannabis, you can do it with these as well.

The primary response of the Hungarian state is criminalisation. The use of drugs is a criminal offence, and the use of NPS is a misdemeanour. However, acknowledging the senseless and excessive nature of imprisonment, the state introduced the institution of ‘diversion treatment’, which one can choose instead of punishment. But this can only be chosen once in two years. However, in the case of designer drugs, since possession of these is "only" a misdemeanour, this is not allowed even once.

Marginalised people who use substances on the streets are more likely to come into the sight of the police, so they will use up the possibility of diversion sooner. Roma drug users often encounter an even more hostile, racist environment. Currently, no data is collected in the judiciary on the proportion of Roma in prisons. This is why it is impossible to see in the statistics how racist the system is and how much Roma are disproportionately prosecuted, even in drug cases.

According to human rights lawyer Dr. Tamás Fazekas, the introduction of diversion would also be justified in the case of misdemeanours, but he considers the decriminalisation of all consumption the best solution. The money currently spent by the Hungarian state on the senseless persecution of consumers could be used to help vulnerable groups who are currently most affected by problems related to the use of NPS.

The film was produced by the Rights Reporter Foundation - Drugreporter in 2024. The reporters were Péter Sárosi and István Gábor Takács, while the camera, editing and directing were the work of István Gábor Takács. Many thanks to Róbert Bordás for the Budapest footage, Bagázs for the segregation videos, Mária Takács for the recording of the forum discussion and the Herbál Figyelő Instagram page for the pictures of people who use drugs.

What are the New Psychoactive Substances?

According to the EMCDDA, the term new psychoactive substances covers a broad range of substance types that are not controlled by international drug control agreements, although some of them may be subject to national regulatory measures. Generally, NPS refers to two large groups of substances, synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids (or synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonist, SCRA). Synthetic cathinones are stimulant-type substances, while SCRAs are similar molecules to THC, though their effects might be substantially different.

 In some contexts, synthetic opiates (e.g., fentanyl) are also categorised as NPS, but in this article, we only talk about the first two groups under NPS, as synthetic opiates are rarely used in Hungary.

Dr. Róbert Csák: Facts on New Psychoactive Substances in Hungary - Literature Review

In the European context, new psychoactive substance (NPS) use was a concern among marginalised, vulnerable or socially disadvantaged groups, including homeless people, unemployed people, prison populations and people with mental health problems.[1–3] In the past, synthetic cannabinoid use in high risk drug-using populations has been reported in two-thirds of the countries reporting to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), while problematic use of synthetic cathinones has been reported in half of the countries.[1] However, more recently, synthetic cannabinoids appeared more frequently as replacement or adulterants sprayed on herbal cannabis or other THC products.[4]

In contrast, NPS use in Hungary is still a great concern, posing substantial burden to the most marginalised and vulnerable populations both in cities and in villages.[5–11] NPS use first appeared in Hungary in 2010, and rapidly transformed the drug market. Once NPS became available in the drug market, people who inject drugs (PWID) transitioned to NPS injecting from traditional substances.[12,13] The percentage of heroin users started to drop and gradually, amphetamines were replaced by NPS as well.[12,14] Transitioning to NPS increased the health risks of PWIDs, as NPS use have been associated with a higher number of daily injecting episodes. Meanwhile, reduced government funds and political attacks decreased the availability of harm reduction services in the country.[15] This created an environment where the most marginalised and vulnerable subpopulation of people who use drugs (PWUD) faced significant risks without any prospect of meaningful support from the social or health services.

In the past decade, NPS use has become a widespread phenomenon among marginalised communities in Hungary.[5–7,11] Furthermore, traditionally, substance use was considered an urban phenomenon. Since 2010, when NPS became widely available in the Hungarian drug market, a growing number of reports in grey literature and anecdotal information among professionals have become available on NPS use among previously unaffected groups: people living in rural and socioeconomically deprived communities. The situation is unfavourable to PWUD in general, but even more so for PWUD living in rural areas. People have limited access to the labour market, most of the services of the social and health welfare system are not available locally, and the public transport system is inadequate. Substance use-related services are situated in the major cities and are practically inaccessible for those who live in villages. The distribution of the healthcare system is also unequal, for example, general practitioners are typically available for only a few hours a week in small villages. The coverage of the social welfare system shows a similar pattern; basic services are usually available locally, but services capable of addressing more complex issues are available only in the cities.

Research conducted to explore NPS use in marginalised communities brought to attention a few characteristics of the phenomenon. First of all, it is important to add that NSP use is not the biggest substance use problem in those communities. Tobacco, alcohol, tranquilizers (benzodiazepines) without prescription or alcohol and tranquilizers together are far more widely used in these communities.[5,9] A study exploring substance use in segregated communities in villages found that three quarters of the respondents drank alcohol in the last month, half of them used tranquilizers, while one fifth used synthetic cannabinoids and less than one sixth of the respondents used synthetic cathinones.[9] When we consider NPS use, reports showed that NPS use is prevalent in every region of the country. Though prevalence rates or the most frequently used substances could differ from community to community, NPS use can be found in most cities and villages. However, the injection of NPS seems to be more frequent in cities compared to villages.

According to the researchers, people living in marginalised communities in villages can access NPS easily.[5,9] Sometimes, they have an easier access to NPS than to alcohol or tranquilizers. NPS users mostly buy the drugs from friends or well-known dealers, typically locally, but NPS users living in villages sometimes have to travel to the closest city. Traditional substances, like cannabis or amphetamines are the least accessible substances in these communities, showing how deeply NPS could penetrate communities where illegal substances were not common before. Price can be a factor too: one cigarette with synthetic cannabinoid could cost the same as a can of beer, while the level of intoxication one can achieve is greater with a synthetic cannabinoid cigarette, which can knock you out completely. Interviews conducted with NPS users showed that using alone is the most common form. NPS use most frequently happens alone; users hide in abandoned houses and buildings.[7] People also use it together in small groups, hidden and away from the public eye. Substance use in public places is only occasional and, although it occurs in larger groups and in public settings, it was found to be the least common. The reason behind this is the strong stigmatisation of substance use in those communities, with the strongest stigma linked to use through injection.

Asking for help and accessing drug related services could be a serious problem as the coverage of such services is inadequate in the country. NPS users living in villages are in the worst situation, as specialised drug related services are practically unavailable there. Asking for help is hard in itself, and finding a service in a foreign city is an even more complicated task. The cost of transportation is a huge barrier, and they usually can’t afford to travel regularly to another city. Research data on access to services showed a similar picture, where the main contact with the social welfare and health care system for NPS users in villages was the general practitioner.[6] Although we are talking about one of the most vulnerable populations, the majority did not report meeting with a social worker over the past year. Marginalised people who live in cities and use NPS are in a slightly brighter position. They are usually in contact with two or three services, one of them being a shelter or similar service for people experiencing homelessness.[10] The other is usually a substance-use related service – most commonly a harm reduction service or other low threshold service for people who use drugs.

It is important to highlight that respondents frequently reported distrust in the social care system (and in all forms of service in general).[6] And this distrust is not unfounded. The stigmatisation of people who use drugs in Hungarian society is very high, which, together with the criminalisation of substance use makes risky to openly admit substance use, even while seeking help. When asked about whom they can trust if they need advice or help regarding their substance use habits, interviewed marginalised people who use NPS usually chose their family in the first place.[6] The majority of the respondents said that they can fully trust their family with substance use related issues. General practitioners were the second after family, but only half of the respondents felt that they can trust their general practitioner. Friends who do not use any substances and employees of the local social service were among the least trusted people.

When we consider the motives in these communities to use NPSs, research on the subject consistently highlights the role of structural causes behind substance use. Though individual frustrations, lack of problem-solving strategies, lack of coping with tragedies and traumas can all play a role, the main causes of drug use in these marginalised communities (cities and villages alike) are clearly social exclusion, poverty, deprivation and hopelessness, the lack of prospect for a job, appropriate housing and so on. Substance use is part of a coping strategy and a means of escaping from reality, from psychological problems, poverty and misery and of coping with the stress of fighting for survival.[7]

NPS use among marginalised people is a very complex problem, involving both legal and illegal substances, and characterised by a combination of stigma and disadvantages due to their substance use and their social status. Those who live in rural communities live in socioeconomically deprived areas where they do not have proper access to the health and social welfare system, do not have access to substance use-related services, but can access NPS and tranquilisers. Outside their communities, marginalised PWUD would face stigma and social exclusion because of their substance use, often experiencing inappropriate or even inhumane treatment at social or health services. When designing possible interventions to address this issue, it is crucial to take into account the perspective of people who are confronted on a daily basis with the difficulties and hopelessness of their lives, in which substance use can be functional as a rational strategy that could help them survive in everyday situations that are shaped by an uncertain future. Using NPS in a socioeconomically deprived community is a position where physical, economic, social and policy disadvantages are intertwined, and interventions addressing addiction and substance use alone might not be effective. Addressing inadequate coverage of health and social services, introducing mobile harm reduction services, outreach programs and peer-based interventions could improve the situation. However, without social policy and labour market instruments that can improve the opportunities of people living in the segregated communities, these interventions alone will not be sufficient.


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Supported by

Supported by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).