Although Roma people now compose the majority of the clients of many harm reduction services in many countries from the Baltic to the Balkans, racial justice as an issue is very rarely addressed by the harm reduction community in the region.
“What can parents do if their kid is drug dependent?” This question has been asked of me on various occasions. By reporters on the radio, by politicians at parliamentary committee meetings, and by teachers in schools. I have never felt so incapable and helpless to answer this question as when Roma parents asked me in one of the so called segregated settlements (some call them gypsy ghettos) in rural eastern Hungary. We were sitting in a crowded room full of men and women who previously told us that almost half of the teens in their community use synthetic cannabinoid products, dubbed “spice” in Western Europe and sold as “herbal” or “bio” on the Hungarian black market.
These names are misleading: they contain synthetic substances produced in labs in China and India and imported to Europe in powder form through the global online drug market. This powder is dissolved in acidic liquids and then sprayed onto herbs or tobacco. Unlike the natural plant, synthetic cannabinoids have more intense effects on the user and dependence develops easier and faster even among middle class kids – not to mention marginalised young people.
According to some estimations, Roma people compose 6% of the total population in Hungary. A majority of them live in extreme poverty, excluded from society. There are more than 1300 settlements in the country. It’s easy to spot the border between the village and the settlement. The settlement starts where the concrete road, street lighting, and running water ends. Generations live under the same roof, in slummy, ruined houses. Most Roma parents are unemployed, their children go to segregated schools or classes that maintain their exclusion. According to the recent national survey, 21 percent of people living in segregated settlements in Hungary have used synthetic cannabinoids in the previous month, 13 percent have used synthetic, cathinone-type stimulants (similar to mephedrone). This prevalence is far higher than among the general population – and the health and social consequences are also more severe. Because of racial profiling, they are more likely to end up in prison too.
Why do these people use these substances despite the known risks and harms? Look around in one of these settlements and this question will transform into another one: why not? We easily come to the inconvenient conclusion that actually these drugs are the best things in the lives of these people. It is not the substance itself that makes their use “problematic” – demonising these drugs, calling their users “zombies” is not only stigmatising but misleading. Just like middle class kids smoke cannabis, the rich snort cocaine, these Roma teens smoke cheap, easily available and bad quality synthetic drugs. They are seeking the same euphoria – but for them, this is not just experimenting and recreation, but an escape from reality.
As József Rácz, the lead researcher of the national survey put it, there is a strong orientation to the present in these communities. Spending precious resources on the uncertain future, to focus on being healthy, is not economical. Survival dictates that people have to reduce the stress here and now.
While the Hungarian government propaganda spreads fake news about the so called “no-go zones” in Western Europe, and attempts to convince people that Hungary is a safe haven, our country is full of actual no-go zones. Police, ambulance, firefighters rarely enter these ghettos. People living here suffer from multiple and systemic discrimination in the criminal justice, the public health, social care, and public education systems. Young people are even excluded from mainstream forms of recreation. If the colour of your skin is browner than average, you have a good chance of being sent away by the security guards of disco clubs. There is no real chance to get to higher education or get well-paid jobs. There are very few positive Roma role models who live the distant middle class lives portrayed in the television shows. The poor Roma communities are exposed to and exploited by greedy local oligarchs who manipulate and use them in election frauds and as a cheap workforce.
That is why I felt so helpless to answer the questions of concerned parents in this Eastern Hungarian ghetto. If urban middle class parents ask the same question I can advise them to find the nearest family and school-based selective and indicative prevention programs, individual and group counselling, drop-ins and harm reduction initiatives, in-patient detox and therapeutic communities. But none of these services are available for people living in segregated settlements. Families rarely have money to buy a single bus ticket to the nearest town, let alone to regularly attend services there. And even if these kids can be sent to rehabs in a remote place, after they return to the same community, among the same peers, with the same lack of perspectives, they start using drugs again.
Beside lack of access and availability, the drug treatment system in our region was designed and established in the 80s and 90s, mostly for white, urban, middle class, male, heterosexual, cannabis and heroin users. They rarely address the specific needs of vulnerable groups and minorities. There are very few professionals in the health and social care system (there are only 37 child psychiatrists in the whole country!) in general, not to mention peer workers coming from the same communities. There were some conferences addressing drug problems in the settlements recently, but I could hardly see non-white faces among the participants. Without the active and meaningful involvement of the local communities we cannot even understand their problems.
Professionals now recommend that the government create outreach teams (mobile buses with psychologists and social workers) and pay local coordinators, at least in some settlements, to bring help to people where they need it. This is a necessary step but it is only scraping the surface if it is not part of a complex, integrated package. The real solution is not simply to help individuals to recover or reduce harms. Drug related harms are only symptoms here. The real solution is helping the communities to overcome decades, centuries of segregation, poverty, trauma, and pain.
Tons of EU money has been spent on desegregation programs in the past decade, without much progress. Most of this money was swallowed by corrupted national and local elites and used to maintain segregation instead of ending it. Many local stakeholders, politicians, professionals, and public officials are simply not interested in desegregation or even real development. As one local mayor once put it: “why should I pave the road in the settlement, that would just attract the gypsies from other villages to move here”. Despite the rulings of the Strasbourg court, the national government is still embracing the concept of “loving segregation” in schools to keep white votes.
And this is not only a Hungary-specific problem. There are millions of Roma people living in Central Eastern Europe, most of them under very similar circumstances as their Hungarian peers. Wherever we went to film about drugs and harm reduction in this region in recent years, we witnessed rampant drug use among socially excluded Roma communities. Although Roma people now compose the majority of the clients of harm reduction services in most countries from the Baltic to the Balkans, racial justice as an issue is very rarely addressed by the international harm reduction community. Even if these communities are hit the most by austerity measures, the retreat of international donors, and repressive drug policies. It is time to wake up and speak about the colour of drug use in our region.