In cooperation with Dialogs, a Latvian harm reduction NGO, we have produced a movie about drug policies in Latvia – mainly for a Latvian audience, to educate them about why people who use drugs need support and not punishment.
Vjaceslav was once an active drug injector himself – now he is an outreach worker helping people on the street, giving out clean needles and condoms to drug users and sex workers. We escorted him and his team on an outreach trip into the depths of Riga nightlife. He is an excellent social worker, his understanding of the philosophy and practice of harm reduction does not come from books – but from his own experience. It’s visible that he has a trustful relationship with his clients, for whom he is often the only person from the outside world who shows some signs of understanding and empathy.
He works for Dialogs, an NGO providing harm reduction services to people who use drugs in Latvia. In this small Baltic country the prevalence of HIV infections among injecting drug users is high (25%) by European standards. Approximately half of all HIV cases reported between 1987 and 2015 were attributed to injecting drug use. Thanks to the work of Vjaceslav and his colleagues working in harm reduction, there is a decreasing trend in HIV infections.
In most countries we have visited people who use drugs and professionals helping them complained about lack of funding. In many countries, while recovery services and rehabs are relatively well-funded, funding for programs preventing HIV and hepatitis infections and overdose deaths is especially scarce. Latvia was the first country where I heard more complaints about the lack of recovery and social rehabilitation programs than about the lack of harm reduction.
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Only a few organisations provide in-patient treatment for people struggling with drug dependence, and most of these are faith-based. We visited one of them, Brāļu nams (Brothers’ House), in the middle of the Latvian forest, not far from Riga. Here we found a vibrant, self-sufficient, Russian-speaking therapeutic community. Although they have no support from the government (my understanding was that they don’t even apply for funding because of their self-sustaining ethos), their members did not seem to worry about the lack of the comforts of civilisation. When I looked into their eyes I saw the signs of a hard life they have left behind: many of them suffered from traumas and abuse.
These people, who were scapegoated and excluded from society, have finally found meaning in their lives: to belong to a community and be loved for who they are. It reminded me of the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari, which comes to the conclusion that it is not abstinence that is the opposite of addiction, but connection. Indeed, rehabs that claim to be “tough on addicts” do more harm than good – to give a sense of belonging and brotherly/sisterly love is the best way to enable people to recover.
For the same reason, criminalisation does not reduce drug use but makes it more risky and dangerous. We talked to many Latvian people who use drugs who told us stories about how they were bullied by policemen. Harsh drug laws are responsible for deterring people from treatment and care – not from drug use itself.
Peter Sarosi and Istvan Gabor Takacs