It is often said that society must be defended from drug users. But who defends drug users from society? A report from Bucharest, Romania.
Most of the quarter of a century that Robert has spent on this planet, has been spent on the streets. Finding refuge in stairwells, looking for rundown buildings to squat and generally training his body and mind to fall asleep on park benches and other promiscuous places under the clear sky. Homeless people will tell you that survival instincts tend to make that quite hard, but the more you let go of the idea of surviving the easier it gets. The more you let go of your body as a palpable reality, the faster you will stop giving a fuck about anything. Your misery, your dreams, your feelings and your pain.
In his ethnographic work on the homeless of Paris, Les naufragés: Avec les clochards de Paris, Patrick Declerck refers to the bodies on this stage as “empty men and women, stripped of themselves and of their history”. The mind retreats from the corporeal space. The body becomes just an empty vessel, left to bear, and be broken by, whatever suffering is inflicted on it by the unfortunate circumstances it finds itself in. The psyche ignores the flesh, in order to be able to retreat into utter indifference. It becomes ignorant of pain because it does not treat pain as a possibility any more. Would a ghost ever by bothered by a muscle strain? Those homeless people who would not have broken bones treated for days or who would wear their socks for months without taking them off until the band sectioned the skin tissue down to the bone weren’t psychotic, Declerck remarks. They weren’t confusional or schizophrenic-catatonic either. In a way, they simply weren’t there anymore.
I couldn’t tell you if Robert ever reached that phase. If he did, he managed to come back. I couldn’t even tell you his real name, even if he told me that he doesn’t care if I do. I won’t tell you the real names of the other drug users whose stories will be told here. Less than a year ago, when I met him, he seemed to be doing fine. He was being housed by a Christian charity in Bucharest, Romania. He tried to stay clean. He was very articulate and well dressed. He looked just like any average young man you would see passing you by on the sidewalk. He came from a dysfunctional family. Father and mother both alcohol addicts. He chose to leave home when he was thirteen years old, scared and tired of the violence he witnessed each day of his life. He immediately started to inject heroin. He found friends and family in it, he says. Some years later, when new designer drugs appeared that could be bought from head-shops, he moved on to these new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’, as the newspapers called them. He never liked to get high on anything except the substances he could inject. After more than a decade of continuous use and of not having a roof above his head, most of his fears were related to the traumas he had suffered on the streets.
“Shut up, you junky!”
One night in Bucharest, he was waiting for a bus in a relatively central area of the city. He was under the influence, “but not doing anything except waiting for something to get me out of there,” as he recalls. A police patrol car passed through and took him to the precinct. According to Robert, he was beaten from 2:00 to 4:30 in the morning, for no other reason than the agents’ entertainment. He also claims he was stun-gunned and forced to do squats holding a two-meter-wide flagpole on his shoulders. They let him go in the morning without telling him what he'd done to be given that treatment: “I told them that I’m not a bum. I didn’t steal. I didn’t hit anyone in the head. I wasn’t violent. What did I do to deserve this? He (an officer) says: Shut up, you junky!”
Sociologists will say that crime statistics are sometimes manipulated to suit political agendas or just to legitimise the very activity of, and budgets that professional groups like the police benefit from. And that such groups orchestrate moral panics and pick on deviant but often vulnerable individuals because they think that is precisely what they’re expected to do and to be seen doing.
But there is also the darker side of the do-gooder ideology that manifests itself when the do-gooder thinks he or she has the legitimate right to crush the face of evil in whatever form it shows itself and to even take delight in this righteous role. Modern episodes of abuse on defenseless prisoners like the torture at the Abu-Ghraib prison only validate what landmark experiments in social psychology like Stanley Milgrim’s and Phillip Zimbardo’s proved decades ago. That, precisely like Milgrim’s subjects who would inflict electric shocks on protesting victims as long as a person perceived to represent a higher authority told them do so, or as Zimbardo’s students who acted sadistically as prison guards against other students who were cast as inmates, the do-gooder will renounce his or her moral beliefs, or even humanity, to serve the ideology of the higher authority whose representative he believes himself to be. Add to that the “anonymity of a person and anonymity of place”, as Zimbardo emphasized after the Abu-Ghraib photos came out, and a stigmatised, perceived-to-be-parasitic and politically powerless group like that of prisoners, immigrants or injecting drug users, for that matter – and the do-gooders turn into torturers.
A twisted sense of justice
Vlad, an experienced heroin and NPS consumer in his early thirties claims that when he was once stopped and frisked on the street by two police agents, he was aware that he had a syringe on him but that he couldn’t find it, as he had kept it in a chest pocket on the inside of his coat. “That pocket was broken and it had fallen into the lining”, he tells me. He couldn’t find it but one of the police agents could, after making him put his hands on the car and spread his legs: “So you wanted to sting me, he says”. Vlad was then taken to a precinct and from here on his testimonial resembles that of Robert’s. “They know how to hit you… Know what I mean? Fists and kneecaps straight in the leg muscles. Next day I was walking around in circles. So you wanted to sting me, you prick! The hell I did,” he remembers, sketching a somewhat grim smile on his face.
Official statistics released this spring by Romania’s National Anti-Drugs Agency (ANA) showed that over the last decade, the number of people investigated for drug offences in the country has multiplied sevenfold, as around 7,600 persons found themselves in this situation in 2011 and 6,700 in 2012, as compared with a bit more than 1,000 in 2001. However, the number of people brought to trial did not follow the same abrupt increase – it merely doubled from 570 to in 2001 to 1,100 in 2012 – showing that as the market grew more diverse and complex, the police’s and investigators’ appetite for easy busts grew exponentially faster than the actual frequency of drug crimes worthy of the attention of a court of law.
But from a public health perspective, this say-no-to-drugs (and to drug users) approach did not generate the expected results. Harm-reduction services have massively lost funding over recent years, while head-shops selling NPS have redefined the market and consumers’ habits altogether, without any police force being able to do much about it. One in four injecting consumers is now HIV-positive, a dramatic change from 2007, when the first ‘legals’ are said to have entered the market and when only one in ten injecting users would be suffering from AIDS. The high frequency of shooting and increased exposure to infected injecting paraphernalia associated with the new drugs have led to one in three patients diagnosed with HIV last year being an injecting drug user.
But for drug workers like Dan Popescu from the Romanian Association Against AIDS (ARAS), who for almost a decade has been distributing sterile syringes to users in Bucharest, the problem is precisely the way that Romanian society excludes the user and strips him or her of elementary rights – from the right to access to appropriate treatment, to the right to be protected in the face of abuse. He tells me he’s come across numerous cases where some of his clients have been subjected to ‘physical correction’ after being caught sleeping in stairwells during cold seasons, or while going through ‘trips’ and saying something back to the person who engaged them. “What’s dangerous now is that when a member of society who is not a user attacks a user, he or she has a twisted sense of justice and thinks he or she is doing good by beating the crap out of that person, because that person is just a ‘low-life junky’”, he explains. As a consequence of losing international funding, Dan’s NGO is now in the situation of not being able to offer free methadone-substitution treatment to most of the consumers registered in their programs. Given that the country’s health care system is already severely under-financed, the chances of national authorities contributing to fill the gap and address the needs of a quasi-invisible and electorally-insignificant social sector seem quite slim.
“Won’t you die already?”
As an indefinite term homeless addict, Robert best understands the notion of vulnerability described by Dan. He’s been shouted at and attacked by the police, private security agents and ordinary people. Some years ago, while taking refuge for the night in an abandoned building on a construction site destined to be an amusement park, he and other homeless consumers were forced out by the agents of the security firm, charged with spying on the site, and brutally beaten. “They hit me with fists and feet, a guy held me down with my face against the ground and his boot on my back”, he says. As he was also under the influence of the ‘legal high’ he had injected and already in a panicked state of mind, he claims he was left permanently and irreversibly traumatised.
And it is not only Robert who has developed an obsessive anxiety about being harassed by law enforcement. When I interviewed injecting drug users to document the effects of NPS that are largely amphetamine-type stimulants, the one recurring fear that almost all of them shared, and associated with the damaging psychoactive effects of the new drugs, was that of being spied upon, arrested and beaten by the police. A fear that most of them told me slowly grew into paranoia, also fuelled by the extra attention that agents were apparently paying to the new drug phenomenon, spurred on by the growing media scare around it. One of them told me of an injecting spot in the city where, “They let you shoot and get panicked, and then beat the hell out of you and make you write the statements they want you to write”. Another one expressed his view that a drug user is just as much a human being as a police officer is and confessed that he found it sad to be told by one of the latter: “Won’t you die already?”
In this respect, people like Robert, Vlad and others like them are only second-hand citizens. Just a negligible mass whose only purpose should be that of staying out of mainstream society’s sight. As Dan Popescu from ARAS and other drug workers told me, they’re more likely to get an extra beating than to be assisted, if they go to the police to file a complaint against a non-user who has attacked them. Some of the very institutions that should be looking out for them often act incoherently. Programs are initiated mostly on paper and policies are filled with contradictions.
Paradoxes of the system
One case recently came to illustrate the inherent paradoxes in the system. In late March, a former heroin addict who had undergone methadone substitution treatment for more than a decade in one of the National Anti-Drug Agency’s (ANA) centres turned himself into the custody of the police. He wanted to clear what was left of a several months long prison sentence but, while being retained at a preventive arrest centre in Bucharest, he was denied access to the methadone pills that had helped him recover from his addiction. He soon started to experience severe withdrawal symptoms, and when he was visited by the representatives of APADOR-CH, a local human rights NGO, he was already in a critical state of mental and physical health. Their report states that they found him in his cell “lying on the floor, his legs and head shaking convulsively, and holding a bottle of liquid detergent in his left hand”. He claimed he had drunk from the bottle and he literally had to be carried to the medical cabinet by two persons, as he couldn’t walk by himself. He was incoherent at times, confusing persons and entering fits of rage. He sweated abundantly and vomited twice, desperately repeating that he couldn’t take it anymore.
Despite the patient’s lawyer and some civil organisations trying to put pressure on the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police (IGPR) and on ANA, he is still being denied treatment and his condition is deteriorating by the day. The police are still reluctant to permit the administration of what is also a recreational drug sold in the streets, in their arrest centres. The fact that methadone has been used for decades in the treatment of opiate addiction doesn’t make the situation less problematic. From this bureaucratic perspective, total abstinence is preferable to any medically recognised approach.
But what makes the case truly symptomatic for Romania’s drug policy is that both institutions – IGPR (police) and ANA (drug agency) – report to the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. What actually happened was that the former denied the patient treatment offered by the latter. The latter also did not intervene in his interest, adopting a somewhat defensive position and claiming that it can’t express a view on the general question of methadone treatment in detention, and that each case is unique and should be approached individually. In the end, a bureaucratic short circuit in a system that should function uniformly could cost a patient ten years of recovery efforts that paradoxically were financially and logistically supported by the state.
At the time this report is made public, questions addressed to IGPR regarding the implementation of any training programs that might lead to a more humane and rational way of dealing with injecting users on the streets, and any documented cases of police abuse against this risk group, remain unaswered. While progress has undoubtedly been made over recent years towards a better-informed understanding of narcotics-related social problems, the long-debated post-communist transition to a true democracy has generally, over the past two decades, turned such issues as the integration of marginals like drug addicts, into an abstract question. They musn’t be treated like empty vessels or bodies devoid of their history and humanity, but as full emotional and social beings. Humans with a face and a voice.
The author is a freelance journalist and a PhD student in sociology at Lancaster University, UK. He is currently also involved in research on legal highs.