The reporters of our Russian language video blog, DUnews, visited Vienna in March to find out what Eastern-European and Central-Asian countries can learn from its advanced urban harm reduction system. Read their report and watch their video!
Vienna is the location of the headquarters of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In addition, Vienna is the third UN residence city, after New York and Geneva. The Vienna International Centre (VIC), UNO-city – contains the offices of the IAEA and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as well as the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). The UN Vienna International Centre, at the Kaisermühlen underground station, is magnificent. It is hard to make an accurate estimate of how many people work there and how many more visit it on a daily basis as guests, visitors and sightseers. From the inside, it resembles an ant-hill: an endless flow of people, with work carrying on in a variety of halls and other rooms.
The annual CND meeting isn’t just speeches and exchange of ideas, but also offers an opportunity to see with your own eyes how, for example, the Vienna police and fire service work, or what harm reduction in Vienna means. This is a tour we had a chance to take, so for several hours DUNews soaked up information in the centre providing integrated support to drug users.
The Vienna Centre for Integrated Support is a big five-storey building in the downtown area, with 270 clients a day receiving services in the drop-in-centre, and 535 clients exchanging 10,000 syringes every day (by the way, you can only get a new syringe if you bring your old one; if you haven’t got an old one, you have to pay, that’s capitalism for you). Here, clients can also see hepatologists, as well as respiratory therapists, gynecologists, cardiologists, and psychiatrists (in Europe, there are no narcologists, the psychiatrist here performs the same functions as narcologists in our hospitals); they can talk to social workers, they can be attended to by nurses specially trained to work with drug users, they can get tested for HIV and hepatitis, eat hot meals, spend a night in a comfortable room, do their laundry, or read books.
If a client is unemployed and homeless, he can enrol in a program which will allow him to find a job and a place to live after receiving care from the local staff for a certain period of time. In fact, employers are just as interested in hiring drug users as the latter are in getting a job.
In Austria, there are about 29,000 drug dependent people. 12,000 of them live in Vienna. 40% of them inject drugs. Over 6,000 are clients of opioid substitution treatment (OST) programs. About 1,000 of the OST program clients are over 50 years of age. The oldest client in the methadone program is 82 years old. For maintenance treatment, Austria uses buprenorphine (oblong pills), methadone (syrup) and slow-release morphine (pills – the locals just call it morphine). The OST program clients don’t have to come in to such centres in order to obtain their therapy. In Austria, any general practitioner can prescribe such medication for up to a month. The cost of medication is covered by insurance, and the cost of a prescription is 6 euro. Patients may get their prescription filled at any pharmacy.
Incidentally, there has been serious talk in Austria recently about implementation of heroin-based substitution treatment.
Apart from this centre, similar services may also be accessed via many other organisations in the city, operating on the streets, in the subway, at railway stations, and in other public places. In Vienna, there is also a laboratory which analyses the content of drugs bought on the street. This service is provided in order to inform drug users about the quality of substances they purchase, allowing them to avoid overdoses or poisoning with potentially dangerous substances.
In Austria, storage and distribution of drugs is an offence; but if policemen identify any such cases, they first of all refer the offender to a medical assistance program, where a special commission decides whether there is a criminal case to answer, or whether this is a purely medical case. In other words, the position of “treatment rather than punishment” is the key trend in Austrian drug policy.
This approach looks humane and realistic. I wish similar methods were also applied in our own countries.
Igor Kouzmenko and Alex Kurmanevsky