Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 6
2 November 1998

C S A R D A S:
Shooting Down the Dragon

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

"They really are a bunch of hypocrites! When they were students they were not exactly averse to a puff of the weed and now that they are trying to prove something. They get on their high horses and start preaching about danger to society, families being torn apart. Self-righteous doesn't even come close to it!" Thus the lament of a friend in Pest on hearing the news that the government is about to present a bill modifying the criminal statute with the aim of clamping down on drug consumption.

I admit that my timing was not exactly intended to cheer him up: he is planning to build a split level in his already luxurious flat in the city center and was eagerly consulting me about where best to position the skylights to ensure optimum growth opportunities for the cannabis plants he intends to cultivate. I had committed the ultimate sin of "killjoydom." Not that Imre ever intended to become a drugs baron, supplying all and sundry with the fruits of his tender loving care in order to line his pockets on the misery of others...He does not exactly fit the bill of the stock villain, lurking at badly lit street corners or prowling at night spots to lure the vulnerable or gullible into the pitiless web of dependency. At the age of 33, I would describe him as a typical young professional. Indeed our conversations are constantly interrupted by the insistent ringing of his mobile phone, promising offers of work (he is a freelance accountant). He barely has an hour's respite, rushing around wherever and whenever news breaks; he is fit, solvent, mentally agile, in short, the perfect embodiment of the post-transition success-story, an example to aspire to. His job is extremely stressful and sometimes he feels the need to chill out. Here is where the problem starts: laws on drunk driving in Hungary are stringent. If you consume so much as a drop of alcohol you are not allowed to get behind the wheel. If you are caught, retribution is immediate. He cannot risk losing his license for obvious reasons. What alternative does he have? Moral Dilemmas at the End of the Millennium, Volume Three...

The new legislation

The substance of the new legislation may be summarized as follows: the previous distinction (applied in practice) between hard and soft drugs is eliminated; the degree of severity once reserved for drug-dealers is to be extended to drug-users who may be imprisoned for their addiction (consumption of drugs has never been legal in Hungary, but up to now, therapy has been prescribed rather than a spell behind bars) with even occasional recreational use carrying a penalty of up to three years; possession of large quantities can lead to life imprisonment and the amount which may be tolerated for personal use has been drastically reduced; the emphasis in policy has shifted, placing a greater burden of responsibility on the police force, thereby removing the task of solving the problem via the health care sector.

Widespread disapproval

The proposals have caused a widespread outcry amongst members of the public and experts alike. The message is clear: leniency is a thing of the past, prevention is better than cure. Young people are to be deterred from experimenting even at the risk of propelling them into a life of crime by locking them up for a single indiscretion. Concerns have been expressed by the police who doubt that the tougher stance will achieve the hoped-for results, threatening, as it does, to exacerbate overcrowding in prisons. They also feel that it will be difficult to enforce, particularly in light of the fact that there are no specially-trained officers equipped to tackle drug-related crime. Similarly, doctors fear that potential offenders will be more likely to turn to hard drugs on the basis of the "sheep and lamb" principle: if they are caught, they might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb. This scenario is even more likely since offenders are only likely to escape being sent to prison if they can document that they have been actively seeking treatment for their addiction for a period of at least six months prior to conviction. Even judges have raised objections to the bill as it restricts their leeway in exercising discretionary powers: letting a teenager off with a caution is no longer an option. It is the symptoms that are being addressed, distracting attention from the causes.

The drugs phenomenon

It is true that the legislators have overlooked the cultural dimension of the drugs phenomenon. Firstly, there is the issue of legal use of tobacco and alcohol, a backdrop that undermines the credibility of attempts to condemn alternatives such as marijuana which has been proven to be less detrimental in its effects, reducing the argument to sanctimonious claptrap. Secondly, there is no known antidote to the impetuousness of youth. As long as humanity exists, teenagers will continue to rebel, to succumb to peer pressure, to kick over the traces, to try out new experiences. The forbidden fruit will never lose its allure, its frisson of illicit glamour; daring to defy the gray sterility of conventional moral strictures will forever serve as a rite of passage. Failing to recognize this is to lapse into folly rather than into defeatism. Thirdly, we live in a quick fix culture. Restlessness and dissatisfaction are deeply embedded in our complete skepticism and corresponding lack of transcendental comfort. We have witnessed the death of the idea of immortality. Self-fulfillment is our ultimate hope; gratification must be instant; consumption is bliss. Billboards screech at the commuter from the motorway linking Ferihegy Airport to the city center and from every crossroads in every village; new products are marketed to ease our every ailment and pander to our every whim; our core identity is not who we are but what we wear or eat or drive. As a recent article in Nepszabadsag (1/11/98) pointed out, how can we be surprised at young people turning to drugs in an atmosphere where we are ceaselessly bombarded with images that suggest that eating, drinking, ingesting into the body can change our lives and the drab world that surrounds us?

Political motives

For the Fidesz coalition government, there are several political motivations for the current approach. Mr. Viktor Orban and his cabinet have been labeled the "government of children" - a reference to their comparative youth aimed at casting aspersions at their suitability to run the country. I suspect that the hard-line response to drugs-related crime has far less to do with protecting innocent victims of procurement muggings than it has to do with demonstrating an appropriate capacity for resolution in the eyes of skeptical voters. Mr. Orban has taken a leaf out of Tony Blair's book (indeed the two are anxious to capitalize on their youth and dynamism) when it comes to delivering on electoral manifesto promises. Not that Politikerveracht has set in to the extent that it has in EU Member States: the Hungarians cherish a certain hope in change, after the numbing experience of decades of lies and propaganda. The results of the local government elections are confirmation of this will to clean out the old apparatus. Moreover, the platform that Fidesz has been fighting on requires them to get tough: they cannot occupy the moral high ground and claim to be the guardians of the family and the values of the staunch law-abiding citizen and equivocate on the drugs issue. They have nailed their colors to the mast in a way that has put Hungary out of step with her neighbors in the EU, who are increasingly recognizing the merits of a more liberal stance.

All that remains to be seen is whether this unpopular piece of legislation will boost their PR-ratings or whether it will backfire on them, providing grist to the opposition mill.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 2 November 1998


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