Irena Molnar is a Serbian youth activist, working on promoting harm reduction and safer nightlife programs in South-Eastern Europe. Please read our interview and learn about her insights on regional developments!
Drugreporter: How long have you been working on drug policy and what brought you to this field?
Irena Molnar: It is really hard to be precise in specifying the moment I began “working on” drug policy, but I have been involved since I guess 2009/2010. At the time I was a social ethnology and anthropology student, at the University of Belgrade. I had already been a party goer for about 10 years and my close friends at the time were working in NGO Veza, where I also volunteered briefly in a nightlife outreach program at local events. When the nightlife outreach program stopped operating, we started thinking about opening a spin off organisation spurred on by the lack of specific programs and services. In the spring of 2010 my best friend at the time and I were attending the notorious “Time Warp” festival in Manheim, Germany. I remember we saw “The Project Alice” on site and the instant thought was “This is definitely what I want to do in our country for our party community”.
The experiences of my fellow founders in harm reduction organisation, academic knowledge of some of us for forming a multidisciplinary team, and experiences gained in running other CSO organisations resulted in the founding of an organisation that planned to carry out services and programs of selective prevention which include the most vulnerable ones, such as young people, and especially young people at increased risk. The main goal was (and still is) to improve public health, as well as social and health care of young psychoactive substance users and other marginalised groups. So, Re Generation was born in winter 2010/2011, and definitely was a space that supported my interests as well as created a sole basis for my future interest in research and activism, that consequently led to where I am today.
I continued my academic education in political science, in the area of South East European studies and EU integration in Athens, Greece. Soon after, got engaged with Youth Organisations for Drug Action in Europe, one thing led to another, I returned back from Greece to Serbia, and got a job in Drug Policy Network South East Europe, where I blossomed professionally thanks to my director – for whose immense support I am extremely grateful – and since then I have been mostly focussed on the developments in the region, specifically regarding the accession period of Western Balkan countries to the EU and what that means for development of policy and practice, but still keeping my personal focus on youth in recreational and party settings.
One of your main field of interest is harm reduction at electronic parties and festivals. What are the main risks and challenges party going young people face in the region?
A lack of shared, honest information in recreational settings is definitely something that is common to all party goers in the region. One of the biggest challenges, or the biggest challenge, is having basic harm reduction measures implemented in party settings and on festival sites. Except Slovenia, none of the countries of SEE has regularly implemented services in recreational settings. That means that, for example, Greece as a main holiday and summer destination, with Athens that never sleeps, is left without any service created for young people that will address their needs and at least give them honest and true information on the risks of substance use and unsafe sexual practices. Then there is Romania, which is flourishing with festivals of electronic music, but os also without any service directed towards youth in risky and recreational settings. However, despite some conversations about what should be implemented and where starting this summer, I am not aware that anything actually happened. Croatia on the other hand has a very supportive base for the implementation of such measures, also by the Government bodies, but they lack youth NGOs.
The most common discussion right now is around drug testing/pill checking services on festival sites, which I support, and really am a fan of. But, it is hard to imagine implementation of that kind of service, when we are in the situation that even the basic harm reduction measures on site, like sharing sniffs, or information about drugs, could be seen as facilitation of the drug use, based on the Serbian Criminal Law, article 247. The situation is not that bad, though. Government bodies in Serbia working in the drugs field are aware of that problem, and also about the need to have harm reduction and even drug checking services in party settings, but it is still a long road to having it actually implemented and somehow regulated. Serbia, as well as the other countries in West Balkan, is trying to develop an Early Warning System, as one of the preconditions to joining the EU and fulfilling obligations in the Chapter 24 of Aqui Communitaire. I personally have divided opinions on that protocol, since without having a service on the ground collecting data and giving feedback on potential harms to potential users, nothing is really early, and it does not warn anybody in time. It is just an administrative protocol of nation states that will as a result have more substances on their list of illicit and controlled substances.
A few years ago 3 out of 4 needle and syringe programs were shut down in Serbia. Can you explain why and how this could happen?
Serbia was not eligible for funding from the Global Fund since 2014, when they stopped their 10 years of assistance. That happened because of the lack of a transition plan for the Global Fund’s withdrawal, and the lack of an efficient institutional framework for coordinating the transition to domestic financing for prevention of HIV and AIDS. HIV prevention – especially among key populations – is low priority for the government and no alternative mechanisms exist to ensure sustainable funding for NGOs. That is why 3 out of 4 NGOs that were providing services such as needle and syringe programs closed.
Are there negotiations with the government and the Global Fund to secure funding for harm reduction?
It’s a long and complicated process. Based on the Global Fund Board’s decision in November 2016, Serbia has been allocated approximately 1 million Euros for HIV and for building resilient and sustainable systems for health between 2017 and 2018. This allocation amount is dependent on meeting co-financing requirements, and one quarter of Serbia’s allocation will be made available upon additional co-financing commitments. At the meetings of the Regional Coordinating Mechanism (RCM) in Skopje key activities and stakeholders were identified that will possibly implement a multi-country grant and opportunities for the RCM. The Committee on Health and Family of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia organised consultations on re-establishing “Coordination Mechanisms” (Consultation Coordination of Mechanisms – CCM), the official body of the Republic of Serbia for cooperation with the Global Fund. CCM is being re-established and these days the official Government decision of approval is to be taken, in order to make CCM the official operating body. The project that will possibly be implemented is currently being written and we are not aware of its exact activities, but we are hoping that information on this Global Fund funded project are going to be available to everyone soon.
What are the main trends in harm reduction in other countries of the region?
Harm reduction trends in the region are mostly focussed on policies and programs aimed at reducing health-related opiate use without insisting on total abstinence, such as needle exchange programs. Though most of the countries are struggling with funding for such programs the treatment is still available in all countries of the region, though with slightly different entering policies. What is common is that policies are fixed on a drug-free approach. Emergence of NPS as well as an increase in stimulant use and problems related to it are what the region is experiencing as well. Fluctuating trends in substance use are pushing policy makers to adjust and expand harm reduction strategies to include an ever widening approach to criminal justice, policing, public health, and human rights. Another trend is the expanded definition and construction of harm reduction in order to meet the challenges posed by changing trends in drug availability and use, particularly regarding NPS.
We saw some promising changes with regard to medical marijuana regulation in the region – but does it mean that patients will soon have legal access to cannabis?
Medical cannabis can be purchased legally in Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia, but not in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Montenegro. Though that doesn’t mean legal access to the plant itself, it means that certain products derived from cannabis can be purchased in pharmacies. The biggest challenge for Croatia was the importation of cannabis since they don’t have producers of cannabis in the country. Earlier this year, the first consignment from Canadian manufacturers has been completed and successfully introduced in pharmacies. It was expected that the demand for the drug would be higher, but the demand was down. That primarily has to do with pricing, since the current price of cannabis products in pharmacies is expensive, and it can easily be concluded that cannabis treatment is still financially inaccessible.
On the other hand, only a few countries in the world have the legal right to grow and export medical cannabis, and now Macedonia is one of them and this makes it a new destination for this fast growing industry. I think that two companies have so far gained the license to make cannabis products, but I guess soon it will be a lot more. Things are not so bright for Serbia. Even though the Minister of Health publicly promised in 2015 that the law will be adopted so patients can have available treatment based on cannabis, there is no sign that things are going forward. The Ministry of Health still claims that cannabis oil cannot be seen as a medicine. On the other hand, the commission recommended that it be allowed to use cannabis-based medicines – two preparations containing synthetic cannabinoids were approved.
You are a member of our global video network. Do you have any current filming plans?
One activity we (Re Generation) are really happy doing is filming. At the moment we are discussing and brainstorming topics. It would be nice if for a change we film something that is not necessarily presenting a bad situation, crisis, or lack of this and that, though that is always the easiest one, at least in our country. I cannot say more for now, but definitely expect a proposal for this year’s edition soon.
Sometimes it can be very depressing to work for a cause that generates so much opposition. What do you do to prevent burn out? What keeps you motivated?
So, drug policy/harm reduction is not my only work. I am also a museum professional, having gained my curatorship diploma a year ago. I am involved in work on projects promoting heritage, art, culture among others, on different scales to different audiences. That keeps me balanced though it is a lot of work in the sense of time management in between one and the other. I also have something called museum of the week, where I visit museums on a weekly basis, or one museum. I use it to get back to my senses, to get inspired, and to have some rest from my daily routine. I also travel a lot, mostly for work, but those times I am alone in roaming without Wi-Fi I cherish the most because that’s the only time I am actually alone with myself and a book, possibly. I am trying to be in nature as much as I can, and camping is my really big passion but it’s not always possible to go and shut down communication with the rest of the world. And, I party. I party a lot, staying connected to the community and the culture that got me interested in drug policy. Every party/festival boosts my motivation to stay strong in what we do, and it is amazing data collection fieldwork.