Valentin Simionov, Romanian Harm Reduction Network
Three or four years ago the first sites selling "ethnobotanical" products have appeared in Romania, recommending synthetic drugs as room aromatizers, bath salts or more recently,as fertilizers. In other countries, the same products were sold as fertilizer or food supplements for pets. Clients were buying them as simple drugs, and using them as such.
Online stores were selling various products based on a mixture of aromatic herbs and a psychotropic substance, usually a synthetic cannabinoid. Bath salts praised for its relaxing properties were sold alongside. Each product composition was described on the package, which also offered some information to the buyer: the substances were not intended for human use and could be used as an aromatizer, like scented sticks, selling to minors was strictly prohibited, the use of products for purposes other than the recommended was not part of seller’s responsibilities. In four years, online selling has become just one method to buy “legal drugs”: adult users could order “ethnobotanical” stuff for home delivery, buy them in so called “dream stores” or “smart shops”, a sort of coffee-shops – Romanian version. The same trend was observed in other EU Member States, especially among Eastern European member states.
Governments have begun to examine the issue when consumption was already a mass phenomenon and media presented the deaths or complications caused by substance abuse. The measures followed official policy on drugs in each state. Romania continued its prohibitionist line, with attempts to criminalize the substances and discourage smart shops clients (aka drug users). The difference between Romania and other countries was that the Romanian government and some politicians have reacted hasty, under the pressure of public opinion (via dramatic/alarmist media reports) rather than based on scientific evidence, risk analysis or as part of an integrated policy that takes into account the consequences of such measures. It has been said that new drug and are a danger to young people, that they are used in schools and colleges, that emergency hospitals are full with minors under the influence of "ethnobotanics" and therefore the policy makers must "do something". And they did: in February 2010, the Government has taken tough measure, banning 27 psychotropic substances and 9 plants and officially putting cross to the legal drug trade. But it wasn’t that simple/easy.
On the other hand, retailers protested, claiming that their products are not intended for human consumption and that this a deal that makes good money for the state budget, especially now, when the state needs every dollar to overcome economic crisis. The deal was estimated at 30 million euro in 2009 (ie EUR 5.7 million from the state budget from VAT only).
In the eyes of government, economic calculation weighed less than a dozen articles covering deaths from new drug overdose, parents against the idea that their children will fall prey to drugs, hidden camera reports that portrayed sellers and talking openly about rolling joints, dosages and effects – it is no longer the case, following media panic, smart drug retailers restricted information to what is written on each product label . "Shocking" news about consumers inflamed the news televisions and tabloids audiences, worried parents saw their worst fears confirmed, young people have become curious to try substances that made so much sensation and were so readily available.
The government ordinance which "solved" the problem of new drugs came in February 2010, after the Parliament approved a similar bill. The only major difference was that the ordinance was more prohibitive, criminalizing 36 plants and psychotropic substances. Very soon, the Government added 8 more substances on the controlled list.
What has been achieved by banning new drugs? We don’t know yet precisely, because the NAA, the institution responsible for coordinating policies, was previously restructured in March 2009 by Minister of interior Dan Nica, as a way of reducing the costs of the Ministry, affected by the economic crisis. NAA was reduced to a simple service under Police authority, and thus its power and importance were diminished. We have only anecdotal information, speculations and press articles: the new drugs were transferred and sold on the black market as they sold very well, but now with no control from the state, without any data on the market size. Mephedrone took its place on the black market and some heroin dealers apparently mixed it with their main product. In March 2010, police arrested dozens of people on drug-related charges. Out of these persons, more than half were users who, if sentenced to prison, will cost more than 550E per month taxpayer money, compared to 140 Euro per month, the equivalent of the cheapest methadone substitution treatment program in private clinics.
Since we are talking about synthetic products that can be easily modified to obtain a new substance with the same effect, new-new drugs have already entered the market, in perfect legality. No problem, replied the state representatives: " whenever there will be new, unbanned substances, we will add them on the list. While many believed we’ll give up, I assure you we will continue to fight those who violate without scruple, and without discriminating, I would say, public health and in particular bring harm to young people "- said Minister of Health, Mr. Attila Cseke (quoted Agerpres).
As a result, the Parliament considered a new draft amending the law on drugs, in order to allow entries to the index of new substances, with a simple decision of the Minister, which opens a new way to abuse – modification of a special law, such as the law on drugs, should be made based on a broad consultative process involving all entities with expertise in the field, not a single ministry or group of experts representing the government sector only. The policy pursued over the past two years shows the inability of the government to manage and understand the nature of the problem.
We can ask what can be done in these conditions. There are at least two possibilities: 1) continuation of the prohibitionist line, with endless new bans on new drugs and the arrest of a growing number of users, maintaining the mafia that controls illegal (ie untaxed) drug market or 2) to understand the phenomenon and to reform the current drug control system: re-organizing the National Anti-drug Agency under the authority of Prime Minister, no longer assimilated to Police, the elimination of penalties for drug users and increased repression over big shot traffickers, which are still a source of corruption and destabilization for our young democracy; development of functional rehabilitation and support services in cooperation with civil society; honest information campaigns about the effects of drugs, so as to reduce the level of unfounded panic – i.e. marijuana does not lead to heroin, drugs are not addictive from the first use, not all drugs kill.
In February 2011, the government initiated a new consultation at ministries level, also involving civil society representatives. According to the prime minister, “Control teams formed by Ministry of the interior, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture and the Office for Consumers Protection representatives will act in Bucharest and in each conty. Their aim will be to control all environments were new drugs are produced, sold, and used. These controls will be initiate by the county prefect. Every month, these teams will report their activities to the Ministry of Interior, which will inform the Prime Minister about the situation on ground.”
However, several local authorities have already initiated measures aimed to ban the new drugs selling and discouraging their use, especially among children and adolescents. A growing number of municipalities are restricting selling licenses criteria in the attempt to shut down smart shops. In some counties, smart shops cannot operate less than 2 km far from schools. Retailers attacked local regulations and several local municipality decisions had to be canceled, following court decision. The main argument against shutting down smart shops is the EU regulation on the free movement of merchandise in the EU territory. Bucharest municipality district 2 is building a database with personal information of drug users, with the intention to monitor their drug use and to announce their families, hoping to discourage drug use. A human rights watchdog organization has denounced this measure as a human rights violation residing in the illegal processing of personal information.
New drugs (or designer drugs) recall an old problem: how can we manage pleasure? By prohibiting or regulating?
Valentin Simionov is Executive Director of the Romanian Harm Reduction Network (RHRN), an association that brings together organizations and professionals reduce the risks associated with drug use. He is also EHRN Steering Committee member.