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Vol 2, No 21
29 May 2000
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Facing down Shooting-up
Slovenia fights back on its drugs problem
Brian J Požun

Slovenia is facing major problems with drugs, but unlike with most of its other social ills, Slovene society is taking an active role and fighting back.

With a total population of around 2 million, the fact that even about 6000 people are being treated for drug-related problems in Slovenia represents a large problem. Trends show that figure to be rising, especially among young people. And apart from those with addictions, the number of those who experiment with drugs is also rising. In the coastal city of Koper the average age of drug users was 27 just five years ago. Today it is 21. The drugs themselves are changing as well. In the past, the most common in Slovenia was heroin. Today, there is much more variety, and cocaine and ecstasy have become widespread.

Just in the medium-sized city of Krško, over the course of the past three years approximately seven kilograms of heroin have been confiscated, 15 kg of marijuana, 1000 tablets of ecstasy and 30 Indian hemp plants. More than 50 people have been arrested on charges of suspicion of selling drugs. The situation in larger cities like Ljubljana, Maribor, Koper and Celje is far worse.

Before 1989, Slovenia had little experience in dealing with the problems associated with illegal substances. To be sure, drugs were there, but nothing was being done to prevent their usage or to help those already affected. Since that time, however, drugs have entered public discussion in a way few social problems have in this country. The media pays a great deal of attention to the problem of drugs, and more and more projects, meetings, publications and governmental and non-governmental bodies are concerning themselves with illegal substances and the issues and problems surrounding them.

Two weeks ago, the daily newspaper Večer published comments by Dr Vito Flaker of the Ljubljana School for Social Work in which he strongly supported legalizing drugs. He said that the government's current policies are unrealistic and that the goal of a society completely free of drugs is not possible. He supported his argument with the example of America's failed experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s. To Flaker, stigmatizing and criminalizing a great number of predominately young people only makes the problem of drug use worse. But is legalizing drug use really the answer?

What is being done?

The Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Addiction is a major presence in the field of helping those addicted to drugs. The Center runs a successful methadone treatment program for heroin addicts. The number of people treated jumped from 530 in 1995 to 1100 in 1999. The Center is responding admirably, having added five more locations in the past five years. There are currently 14 locations across the country. In the past five years, the Center has treated almost 4000 people for drug addiction. The head of the Center's coordination center, Andrej Kastelic, told the daily Večer that the Center takes in about one third of Slovenia's drug users.

The Center says its busiest locations are Koper, Ljubljana, Maribor and Celje. The Koper site has been in operation for a full ten years, and has treated the most patients. A spokesman for the Center, Jelka Mišigoj Krek, told Večer that in most cases, successful recovery is only a matter of time. Drug addicts who came to the Center ten years ago for treatment today are holding jobs, starting families and finishing their education.

In order to promote awareness about drugs and the problems connected with drug use, the Center has started publishing a magazine called Odvisnosti (Dependencies). The magazine is published in a bilingual Slovene-English format to make it more accessible to foreigners who want to familiarize themselves with the work being done in Slovenia to combat drug abuse. The first issue of Odvisnosti came out just two weeks ago, on 18 May.

For all of its successes, the Center faces a major hurdle - funding. While the number of patients has steadily increased over the years, the level of funding the Center receives remains insufficient. Last year, the Center's budget was SIT 206 million (roughly USD one million). Treatment for the average patient costs about SIT 88,000 (USD 450). The Center would like to open clinics in places where it has no other presence, such as Koroška, Bela Krajina, Izola and Ptuj. It would also like to work on improving cooperation with schools and improving its capacity to deal with groups in particularly precarious positions, for example, women (and especially pregnant women), children and those in prison. But first, additional funds must be found.

Recent developments

The Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Addiction is concerned that the age of drug users is falling. Five years ago, the average age of patients at the Center's Koper location was 27 but today it is 21, and among women it is 20. The Center's concern is a common one. In just the past few weeks, there have been numerous events around the country that have focused on drugs, and especially on drug use among young people. In the city of Celje , a conference of school doctors was devoted to discussions of drug use among school children at the end of April. The school doctors have initiated a program that will establish firm links both among themselves as well as with educational institutions and local communities. Earlier this month, Maribor hosted a conference that also focused attention on young people and drug use, as did the town of Slovenske Konjice.

Research conducted among Celje school children presented at the conference showed shocking results. Of 916 students surveyed, 23 percent have tried marijuana, 3 percent have used LSD, 2.8 percent have used ecstasy, 2.1 percent have used anabolic steroids and 1.7 percent have used heroin. The students surveyed said that they got drugs from friends, and almost all believe that getting hold of drugs is not a difficult task. The survey also showed that the students were more familiar with the risks connected with drugs than those connected with alcohol or tobacco.

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Drug use in Celje is a major problem. The Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Addiction there has registered over 350 people with drug problems in the past five years. Last year, their methadone treatment program included over one hundred people. It currently includes about 80, which does not represent a significant drop.

The Celje Institute for Health and Apoteka pri Teatru run a needle exchange, and since October 1998 over 10,000 clean needles have been exchanged for used ones. When the 3000 needles that have been sold in Celje drug stores are added to that figure, it shows that roughly 13,000 needles have been used by drug addicts in 1999, which is 2000 more than the year before.

The city of Maribor hosted a three-day conference starting on 18 May that was called "Minors and Drug Abuse." It was organized by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Work, Family and Social Affairs, the Bureau of Drugs and two local non-governmental organizations that work with drug-related healthcare issues.

At the conference, Maribor mayor Boris Sovič said that even though the worst had bypassed Maribor, there was a significant rise in drug addictions especially between 1995 and 1997, and the threat has not ended. Sovič told conference participants that he felt that addiction is a byproduct of an unhealthy lifestyle, and the effects of family-related stress on adolescents. He also sharply criticized the current state of drug legislation, calling it a "catastrophe."

Peter Stefanoski of the Ministry of Work, Family and Social Affairs also addressed the conference. He discussed the work of the Ministry with regard to drugs, saying that the Ministry supports 35 health programs funded by about SIT 140 million (USD 70,000). Of those 35 programs, however, about two-thirds are of an experimental nature, and this is a problem. Stefanoski called for more active participation on the part of civil society institutions to ensure that the problem of drug use will continue to get attention.

The day before the Maribor conference started, the town of Slovenske Konjice hosted a roundtable discussion called "Youth and Drugs." The roundtable was organized by the Local Action Group of Slovenske Konjice. The general consensus at the event was that the town has been lucky, in that hard drugs are not yet widespread there, even though alcohol and marijuana are.

Dr Nuša Juršič of the Institute for Health in Celje started the discussion by saying that she believed one major reason for drug use among young people was the fact that they simply have too much free time and nothing constructive to do with it. Slovenske Konjice mayor Janez Jazbec agreed. He said that activities must be provided to the young and that he would morally and financially support such projects.

The school of life

One interesting development in dealing with the problem of drugs is the "School of Life," a sort of commune where drug addicts can live and be rehabilitated. This fall, Slovenia will get its third School of Life, at Razbor pod Lisco. The commune will be housed in the 120-year old building of the town's former elementary school. The building will be renovated with funds collected by Caritas, the communities of Loka pri Zidanem Mostu and Sevnica, and by the Rotary Club and Lions Club.

The town's mayor, Karel Gržan, fully supports the establishment of the commune. By fall, he expects SIT 20 million (USD 100,000) to be invested in the project and that the commune will be able to take on the about a dozen residents. There are 230 similar communes around the world, and statistics show that about ten percent of drug users end up living in the communes. After living in the commune for three years, statistics show that approximately 80 percent of recovered drug users are able to successfully return to a normal life.

International help

Over the past few years, Slovenia has actively participated in international initiatives that work with the problem of drugs. Slovenia has benefited from the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), which works in Central and Eastern Europe to increase cross-border cooperation and harmonization of drug control capacities.

From February to October 1999, together with the EU's PHARE program, UNDCP operated a drug law enforcement program for South Eastern Europe in which Slovenia participated. In fact, Slovenia was the only one of the 13 states participating that undertook two projects, one aimed at drug prevention on the local level and another aimed at alleviating the damage caused by drug abuse. UNDCP also conducted a program for the four Višegrad States and Slovenia to improve methods of training dogs to sniff out drugs.

In April, Slovenia launched a one-year national drug program again in cooperation with the PHARE program, and also the Copernicus initiative. The program aims at preventing drug use at the local level. It is expected that the program will be succeeded next year with a more structured national initiative.

Beyond promoting drug prevention, the program aims to promote safe drug use. It will pay special attention to collection and analysis of statistics, especially on the quality of life of those who use drugs. Thus far, there is a dearth of data on problems drug users face vis-á-vis housing, employment, and so on. The program also takes into account the sociological aspects of drug use.

Dr Tanja Rever of Ljubljana University's Faculty of Social Sciences believes this is a significant step forward. The daily newspaper Dnevnik quoted her as saying: "Aside from the medical, legal and criminal discussions, there is now a new need for sociological research about the problem of drugs." She continued, saying that "if in the '70s we said drugs were creative, in the '90s we can say they are recreational."

Drug use is a major problem in Slovenia, but if nothing else the country is aware of it. Slovene society is normally reluctant to openly discuss its problems (See articles "Suicidal Tendancies" and "Are Skinheads Just a Symptom of the Larger Problem"), and so the amount of public dialogue about drugs stands as testament to the severity of the problem. The level of attention devoted to drugs far surpasses that devoted to most other just-as-pressing social concerns. With national programs in place, the active participation of civil society and international assistance, the country is taking substantive action to deal with the difficulties it faces with regard to drugs. This sets a major precedent that will represent a big advantage when the time comes for to finally address many of the other issues that affect Slovene society.

Brian J Požun, 27 May 2000

Moving on:


Slovene Weekly
United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention
United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Narcotic Drugs: Report on the Activities Funded by the Fund of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme During the Biennium 1998-1999 (E/CN.7/1999/22)


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