Meet drug political activist Peter Sarosi

October 14, 2013

Meet drug political activist Peter Sarosi

“Drug policies based on populism cannot last long . . . It is thanks to needle exchange that a HIV epidemic hasn’t broken out.”

English translation of Tamás Vajna’s interview with Péter Sárosi, drug political activist, appearing in the 5 October 2013 edition of HVG under the title Sárosi Péter: “A populizmuson alapuló drogpolitika nem tartható sokáig.”

Accusations of drug use levelled at public figures to date have remained on the level of rumor.  Do you think that the alleged use of drugs by the vice mayor of Szombathelyi will become a campaign topic?

The whole thing is extremely hypocritical and saddening.  The Socialists are attacking a Fidesz vice mayor with a video recording in which he consumes cocaine.  The press calls him an irresponsible victim of his passions.  In the Baja (bi-election) campaign the other side tried to exploit the Together 2014 activist’s former drug dependency to win votes asking people to fill out questionnaires that implied that Bajnai wants to introduce the street sale of drugs.  Neither one is less base and below the belt than the other.  Even if Vice Mayor Lázáry’s campaign manager was the anti-drug crusader Csaba Hende, who had a large role in the 2004 constitutional court ruling in favor of the strict punishment of drug consumers.  Politicians deal with everything except what is truly important.  Every fourth Hungarian has taken a puff of a marijuana cigarette by the age of 16, and every second one by the age of 18.  The number of problematic illegal drug users exceeds 20,000.  Meanwhile parliament debated last week the new policy that wants to made Hungary completely drug free by 2020. According to rumors Viktor Orbán asked that the document be renamed “anti-drug” and that he himself defined the objective.  I don’t believe that even in the government benches anyone believes this will be successful.  How realistic is it that the present reality would disappear without a trace in seven years?  Whereas the first national drug strategy adopted in 2000 with the complete consensus of parliament was prepared by experts and supported with a substantial amount of money, the current drug policy was prepared with the exclusion of experts and the budgetary sources devoted to it are not even sufficient for the downsizing provisioning system to survive the next years.   Every indicators shows that the drug situation is getting worse.

In keeping with those showing us the way forward the Fidesz mayor of the 8th district of Budapest closed down the Kék Pont (Blue Point) drug ambulance service, claiming all it did was create drug garbage.  In the words of one district council member, if somebody has money for drugs and is willing to go after sterile needles, don’t give him anything for free.

The pharmacies often refuse to serve drug users living in dire poverty, even if they have money for needles.  The exchange program furthermore is more than simply distributing needles.  In addition to preventing the spread of infectious diseases there is a system that looks after drug users.  As opposed to the 15 Ft per gram cocaine purchased by politicians, these people consume cheap, „felütött” designer drugs, easily go to prison and with greater difficulty to treatment, even though it would be more worth it for the taxpayers to spend money on treatment than imprisonment.  Seven out of ten drug users in Budapest’s 8th district are infected with Hepatitis C, and it is only by the grace of God and his exchange needles that a HIV epidemic hasn’t broken out like the one that has existed for a couple of years in Romania.  This is supported by numerous studies.  The 8th district city councilmen however believe this to be the hodgepodge of sociologists, even though the main concept of the EU’s drug policies is that they should be grounded in fact, that its initiatives should be built on social scientific research.

It is also a fact that one finds discarded needles in the parks, building entryways, and stairways.

The open drug scene came first.  Only afterwards arrived help.  Around 3,000 drug addicts live in the 8th district who inject themselves on a daily basis.  The needle exchange ambulance that opened on the corner of Magdolna and Lujza street two years ago was able to achieve a 70% success rate in two years.  Today that has fallen back to 40 per cent because they took away its support.  If the local government truly worried about discarded needles, then why doesn’t it contribute so much as a filler (HUF 0.01) to needle exchange?

Why not push rehabilitation programs?  Politicians claim needle exchange acts as a magnet that draws drug users.

Who contrasts needle exchange with rehabilitation should know that needle exchange is virtually the only link between addicts and those who can help.  This is how most former drug addicts came to detox, rehab, or halfway houses intended to reintegrate them into society.  If they destroy these early steps on the way to recovery then the obstacle will be too high for anyone to seek treatment.  The mayor does the same with drug users as he does with the homeless:  stay out of sight, drive them out of the city, let someone else deal with them.  This is antisocial politics.  Criminologists call this punishment populism.  Driving the homeless out of the downtown doesn’t solve homelessness.  If the 8th district needle exchange program closes in January and drug use is regarded as a question of law enforcement, they will imprison them or send them to other parts of the city.  The persecution will begin as in Switzerland, only to realize many years later that socially excluding drug users is not the solution.

You are referring to the end of the 1980s when during the height of the heroine craze an area of Zürich was officially designated for nearly ten thousand heroin users.  Then they closed the needle park and dispersed the people to a rundown quarter, only to try something radically different later after they reappeared among luxury shops.

In the place of tunnel-vision morality sympathetic pragmatism is characteristic of  Swiss and European drug policies today.  In Zürich, Frankfurt, and Vancouver they realized that it is much better to establish monitored shooting galleries where addicts can consume drugs under the supervision of health authorities.  In fact, they are provided with medicinal heroin.  The statistics kept in order to account to taxpayers show that the number of heroin addicts has not increased but rather decreased, along with the theft, burglary, and robbery that goes with it.  Intravenous drug users have escaped from the underworld spiral, put their everyday lives in order, and in many cases chosen abstinence.  The institution of monitored shooting galleries is now accepted everywhere.  There are even needle exchange programs in the Balkans, Iran, and China.  In Romania they even change needles in the prisons.  The math is the same everywhere:  the annual cost of treating one person with HIV is HUF 5-10 million, whereas a needle costs HUF 23, and the annual cost of needle exchange per client is not more than HUF 30-40 thousand.

The current government says that nobody has the right to destroy their health and in so doing harm society.

It’s disingenuous to raise this issue in a country with over one million alcoholics where (the government) has just permitted the home distillation of spirits.  We celebrate hard liquor with life-affirming propaganda while at the same time we demonize mind-altering drugs that have a less severe effect on health.

Are you referring to the fact that in the USA two southern states have legalized the growth, purchase, and consumption of marijuana products?  If illegal drugs are liberated won’t the world wallow in a cocaine, heroin, and hashish induced high?

Although many question the suitability of marijuana for medicinal purposes, nobody disputes that no lethal dose is known, as opposed to alcohol or nicotine.  The criminal statistics prove that the impact of those under the influence of this drug on street violence or domestic violence and even traffic accidents is negligible.  At the same time it is evident on those states that legalized marijuana use that the law forbids and punishes those who drive while high.  In Portugal where drug use was decriminalized a decade and a half ago, for many years now fewer and fewer 16 year-olds have been trying cannabis.  It’s the same in Holland where first they took grass off the black market, or in the Czech Republic where they liberalized drug laws a few years ago.  I’m not advocating complete legalization but rather state control in a manner that finances itself.  On the other hand it can be clearly shown that wherever drugs are more strictly forbidden, for example Russia, there the drug use gets worse with negative consequences for the community and the individual.   Drug policies based on populism that disregard facts cannot last for long.  Martin Luther King also said that nothing is more dangerous in the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Referenced in this article:

“Sárosi Péter: ‘A populizmuson alapuló drogpolitika nem tartható sokáig.’” hvg, 5 October 2013