Recreational drug use is common in party settings among Serbian youth– a recent large scale study concluded – bringing further evidence for the need to make party harm reduction services widely available across the country.
The year is 2014. Location: Belgrade. The music is loud, bass thumping, people dancing. Smiling. Having fun.
I spend 15 minutes queuing for the toilet, and at last it’s my turn! I go in, and a few seconds later two young girls burst into my cubicle, announcing, “We really don’t mind if you’re peeing or whatever, we just need a place to snort, like RIGHT NOW!” One takes the baggie of speed, pushing stuff out onto a sticky wet shelf, the other is drawing lines with plastic cards, rolling sniffs from bank notes. For a few seconds, I’m shocked, and then I ask with a smile, if they don’t think it’s maybe better to snort it with a clean piece of paper or a straw. Both look at me as if to say, ‘Who do you think you are’, snort their speed, and walk out.
People use drugs. No matter what you say or do to prevent it. Young people in a recreational setting use them more frequently and more freely, trying different things, pushing their limits in terms of experimentation.
Risks related to drug use in recreational setting are various and they have to be taken into account. There are different physical injuries that might occur, heatstroke caused by dehydration, sexually-transmitted diseases, bad trips and occasional overdoses.
A recent case of a bartender who fell from a boat-club into the Sava river and drowned should have generated more attention around the issue of young clubbers’ safety in Serbia. This was not an isolated case – recently a guy fell from the wall of the fortress hosting Serbia’s famous Exit Festival. An even more horrifying case was when a few years ago a man fell from the same walls, at the Beer Fest, into a cage with two bears, and got eaten. This was possible, because the biggest festival in the country used to take place at the fortress where the national Zoo is situated.
Does this sound like a bad joke? No, unfortunately that’s the reality. Did these and many other tragedies attract attention to Re Generation’s constant advocacy to start nightlife outreach harm reduction programs? Again, no. It seems as if a good headline in the newspapers is more important than the safety and health of partygoers.
On the bright side, there are a very small number of pilot activities at Serbian festivals this year:
– The Beer Fest offered free transportation from the festival to a few main checkpoints in the city, so that people wouldn’t need to drink and drive.
– The Love Fest provided leaflets, condoms and educational materials, as well as a chill-out space, and that was the only festival that had harm reduction programs implemented.
A good start, but a very small scale of random activities. How can we expect national decision-makers to finance or Serbian society to embrace nightlife outreach harm reduction programs, if we can’t even manage to talk about drug use and health-related risks for recreational users?
Trying to make a short movie that would raise awareness of the need to set up and finance nightlife outreach harm reduction programs, turned out to be an extremely challenging task, because it was very hard to find people to speak up about it, even though the interviewees were DJs who know the clubbing scene in Serbia the best. After numerous appeals, the DJs decided to participate in the video shooting. On the other hand, we never got a chance to speak with any of the festival organisers and club owners. It seems as if drug (and alcohol) use in a recreational setting, and prevention of potential harms, are not up for discussion in Serbia. Otherwise someone would have to be responsible, when unwanted consequences occur due to the lack of safety and health precautions.
When decision-makers were approached on the subject, they said that they needed evidence. This spring, Re Generation conducted an online survey, called “Clubbing and Youth Health”, and more than 3,000 clubbers from all over the country participated. And guess what – it turned out that young people do use various psychoactive substances in a recreational setting, and they lack awareness of the health-related risks of substance use.
Data show that 50% of participants go out to clubs and parties more than three times a week. Among their peers, the most popular psychoactive substance is alcohol (86%), followed by cannabis (66%), speed (32%) and MDMA (29%). Out of all the young people who use drugs, 34% use them mainly at night, and 15% exclusively at weekends. The most common places for drug use are clubs and parties (55%).
Some of the health-related risks of drug use are : that one in ten have taken something without knowing what it was; one in four don’t take care to drink water when they use stimulants at parties; while two out of three use alcohol in combination with stimulants. Out of all the young people snorting psychoactive substances, 52% used someone else’s sniffing tool and 83% used paper money. During sexual intercourse at a party or afterwards, 47% don’t use a condom every time, and only one in ten had attended VCCT (voluntary confidential counselling and testing) within the past year.
This is solid evidence that nightlife outreach programs in Serbia are necessary; the only thing left to do is to wait and see what the decision-makers have to say.
Irena Molnar and Jovana Arsenijević, Re Generation