THE NUMBER of cannabis users in Slovakia and other countries of central and eastern Europe has gradually reached or even exceeded the number seen in countries of western Europe. This, as well as many other findings related to illicit drug use across Europe, comes from an annual report prepared for the EU and several countries beyond its official borders.
The Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) released its annual report on November 10 simultaneously in all 27 EU member states as well as in Croatia, Turkey and Norway. ECMDDA is an EU agency which monitors drug use in Europe, drug-related problems such as HIV and overdoses, illicit drug markets and the appearance of new drugs as well as national drug policies and laws. The agency also monitors responses being made by member states in the areas of prevention, treatment, harm-reduction and social integration for those using illegal drugs.
The ECMDDA annual report provides an overview of illicit drug use in all the aforementioned countries and is published in 22 languages.
Heroin remains top EU problem
The most serious and largest drug problem in Europe in terms of social costs and ill health is the use of heroine, according to the EMCDDA report.
“This year we report that the heroin problem, which had been decreasing in recent years, is now no longer diminishing,” Deborah Olszewski of EMCDDA said at a press conference in Bratislava which was held upon the release of the Annual Report 2010. “It’s still Europe’s biggest problem and it is stable, but not decreasing anymore. In addition, some of our European neighbours, notably Russia and Ukraine, report very large opiate and injection-drug problems. And this may have an impact in different ways on the countries within the EU and it reminds us that the heroin problem is not a thing of the past.”
According to the report, one in 250 adult Europeans has an opiate problem and there are over 1.35 million heroine and opioid users in the EU and Norway.
The second most-commonly used illicit drug in Europe is cocaine, which has been used by one in 25 European adults in their lifetime and by about 4 million young adults in the last year, most of them in the UK, Spain and Italy.
Slovakia struggles with pervitin
Central and eastern Europe, however, needs to deal with a problem other than cocaine and that is the use of non-cocaine stimulants such as amphetamine and methamphetamine.
Methamphetamine use is largely restricted to the Czech Republic and Slovakia but the drug has become more available in parts of northern Europe, mainly in Norway, Sweden, Latvia and Finland, EMCDDA reported.
Imrich Šteliar, the head of the Slovak National Monitoring Centre for Drugs (NMCD) which represents EMCDDA here, confirmed that cocaine use is a problem hardly noticeable in Slovakia and said that the attention of experts and of those who treat drug users remains focused on amphetamines and methamphetamines.
“We’ve got pervitin here, which is a problem specific for the Czech Republic and Slovakia,” Šteliar said, adding that pervitin is a stimulant drug which was invented in the Czech Republic where its production was launched and that is how it also appeared in Slovakia. According to Šteliar, however, the situation with pervitin is stabilised today and the number of users is no longer rising.
Ľubomír Okruhlica, the chief medical expert of the Health Ministry for drug addiction, noted that the prevalence of methamphetamines had risen in the past in Slovakia due to the fact that these drugs can be produced from some generally-available medicaments prescribed for common colds and the flu.
Slovakia, however, is apparently the only country that monitors what happens with pervitin users after they enter treatment programmes and the monitoring shows that 75 percent of those who attended the programmes abstained from further use in the course of three years.
“Within three years after they start participating in the programme they abstain from the drug with the treatment that we’ve got here,” Okruhlica said, adding that the treatment used to treat pervitin addicts is so-called pure treatment, with no specialised medicaments used. He added that if a specific medicament to treat the addiction existed the results could be even better.
Cannabis on the rise
Cannabis, or marijuana, which still holds the position of the most widely-used illicit drug in Europe and in the world has, according to EMCDDA, grown in popularity in Slovakia and other countries of central and eastern Europe.
The EMCDDA Annual Report 2010 states that the highest levels of cannabis use last year among young adults were in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Estonia.
“Now the levels of prevalence in central and eastern Europe have equalled or exceeded those in western Europe,” Olszewski said.
Alojz Nociar, the national coordinator for drug problems at Slovakia’s Government Office, admits that in Slovakia as well as in the Czech Republic the use of cannabis is still very high, but noted that the data that support this came from population surveys taken in 2007-2008.
“We already have some preliminary data from more recent times, 2009 and also 2010, which so far suggest that the increasing trend has stopped,” Nociar said, adding that this development was mainly recorded among youth from 15 to 19 years of age. “But we need to wait for next year when a large survey will be repeated and then we can say for sure.”
New drugs, new threats
Šteliar said that European statistics might seem threatening but when considered from another perspective it seems that use of illicit drugs is not too high in Slovakia.
“We did a population survey at the end of 2009 in Slovakia which showed that 58 percent of the Slovak population had never used [illicit] drugs in their lifetime,” Šteliar said.
Experts, however, agree that a challenge for the future is responding appropriately to new drugs or so-called designer drugs which appear to be legal and are widely sold via the internet as well as in head shops and in the streets in some countries. These drugs are known as “spice” and “legal highs” as well as ephedrine, which the EMCDDA recommended to add to the list of problematic drugs monitored by the EU.
The detection of the initial appearance and use of new drugs is quite problematic. One of the main tools used to follow trends in the drug market is the European Early Warning System (EEWS) which to date has detected over 100 new substances since 1997. In 2009 there were 24 new psychoactive substances reported by EU member states and 31 new substances have been reported in 2010.
“It’s hard to keep up with the market because the names, the packaging and the advertising are constantly changing,” Olszewski said.
Drugs vs. alcohol
Okruhlica noted that drug usage patterns have changed and the previous increasing trend has stopped. He believes it is mainly because the population of Europe has grown older.
“The regular use of drugs is typical for young people up to age 30,” Okruhlica said. “After that, people use drugs less, even spontaneously, and switch to alcohol. This is a tendency which has been epidemiologically observed.”
According to Okruhlica, it appears that past heroine users mainly tend to switch to alcohol.
Okruhlica said that generally speaking Slovakia has a huge problem with alcoholism and it is primarily alcohol consumption alone rather than alcohol combined with illegal drugs, noting that there are several indicators pointing to a rising problem with alcohol use. First, he said there was a steep increase in alcohol intoxications that were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 2007-2008, involving mainly people between 15 and 30 years old. Secondly, the proportion of the population which has required treatment for cirrhosis of liver has increased, he said, while the third indicator is the increasing number of people who have entered treatment programmes.
Nociar warned that the outlook is not very optimistic within Europe or in Slovakia, particularly when it comes to young people aged 15 and 16 misusing alcohol.
“In the survey that we did in 2010 we also asked about alcohol, and despite the general decrease in the use of illegal drugs, we recorded an increase in the use of alcohol by young people, even some with symptoms of addiction,” Nociar said. “It doesn’t mean they are addicted or are alcoholics but they do have some symptoms.”
Olszewski agreed that surveys on the European level have revealed an increase in the number of students engaging in heavy episodic drinking or so-called binge drinking, meaning that they are drinking large amounts of alcohol during weekends or at parties but not on a daily basis.
“The young people who are doing this have a much higher ratio of drug use than those who aren’t drinking alcohol in that way,” Olszewski noted.
22. Nov 2010 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani