Kęstutis, who works with the initiative group marginalai.lt and took part in Harm Reduction Conference in Vilnius this month, openly discusses the situation in Lithuania's detention facilities – plagued not only by drug use but also HIV – and why prison authorities are inclined to ignore the problem. Moreover, we talk about the profit margins of dealers, why anti-drug policies fail miserably to achieve their goals, and about the geography of drug trade in Lithuania's towns.
– Tell me about yourself.
– I have been addicted to drugs for 20 years. I've been using opiates, heroin, I tried rehab. I'd been clean for eight months, then relapsed again. And then they started the methadone programme. I've been in the programme for 15 years now. If it weren't for it, I would have died five times.
– What's the situation like in Lithuania, in terms of drug use?
– Drug users live in closed-off groups, it's not that easy to approach them. The main factor that inspired to launch Harm Reduction programme was an outbreak of HIV in Alytus Detention Colony eight years ago. It emerged that a hundred inmates were sharing one needle.
We saw a spread of HIV in Edinburgh, Switzerland, Ukraine, where there's a pandemic. Drugs are plentiful in streets of Lithuania, especially intravenous drugs. It wasn't so before. Today, you can even have an injection of amphetamine. And that's a huge danger.
The official figures do not correspond to reality. If we took a ride across town together and I showed you the trade spots, you wouldn't believe me.
– What are the dominant perceptions of people with drug addiction?
– Even after a person quits using drugs, there still remains the junkie stigma. He often experiences discrimination as a result. A person on drugs is ill. It is illness. Withdrawal is so painful that one cannot go about without a doze.
Drug addicts are surrounded by people like themselves. So they need to either go into long-term rehab, which costs almost 1,000 litas a year, or choose methadone programme and take the synthetic opioid. One must take it once a day. The substance blocks the same receptors as heroin, but it does not induce euphoria and removes withdrawal.
In proper dosage, methadone gives no side effects, a person is neither euphoric nor high. In short, he doesn't need to look for a fix or steal to pay for drugs.
– Is the programme available in Lithuania?
The Lithuanian parliament endorsed the programme thanks to pressure from addicts' mothers, but its funding has been severely reduced recently. Five years ago, there were 400 people in the programme and a long waiting list. Now only 30 people receive methadone and no one new is admitted. There are only 3 spots available in the rehabilitation programme. The situation is tragic.
The society sees drug addiction as an illness. It has its own code. Drug use is an expression of that illness.
– How do harm reduction programme specialists fight HIV and drug use?
– The use of new needles is the most effective way to prevent HIV spreading. There is no alternative. Harm reduction specialists view the fight against drugs from a different perspective.
– How many people in Lithuania have HIV?
– According to the latest data, there are around 560 infected individuals. However, these statistics haven’t changed for several years. In my opinion, the actual number is at least 10 or 15 times larger.
– What makes the illness so wide-spread?
– Drugs with the potential to infect have doubled, after amphetamines came into existence. The head prison wardens do not accept the fact that drugs are being used in jail. However, the situation is different. A rehabilitation center has been opened in Alytus detention colony. Most of the prisoners quickly came to use it. Other local zones had drugs sent over from the rehabilitation center. A single gram of heroin there costs 1500 litas (435 euros), while the street price is 200 litas (58 euros). This is clearly corruption. Those responsible for the prisons ignore the problem that hundreds of people are injecting themselves with a single needle.
– Does this mean that the prison administration is interested covering up for drug suppliers?
– We suggested that prisons be fitted with a machine that registers drug particles in the air. The machine would not stop beeping. The experiment ended with that.
The only heroin-free place is Pravieniškės prison. Nonetheless, this is not due to the efforts of the administration, but because of the inmate “verkhs” (leaders) who would not allow heroin in the prison. Spice and marijuana are smoked there, instead.
The situation in Marijampolė is really bad. I recently met a person who went to prison and was on heroin for 8 years. After being released, he went to the gypsy shanty town . Now he’s signed up to a methadone programme, because he saw that his life was going downhill rapidly.
– Why doesn’t the central government or the prison department react to this?
– The prison department is divided into two halves. The first half is the probation. People working there are mostly civilians. The other half comprises of statutory workers. Statutory relations have formed over a long period of time. Drug price difference in the streets and in prison is astounding. This is one of the reasons why the problem is being hidden.
It’s difficult being in jail. Using heroin allows making the reality more comfortable, wherever you are. You might be sitting next to a garbage container and you would still feel great. Heroin is a perfect drug for prisons. Large quantities of it are used in Marijampolė. Maybe this is because it‘s far away from Vilnius – it‘s more difficult to control everything.
In Rasų prison, drugs, just like phones, are carried over the walls. The higher the level of criminality, the more benefits are reaped by those with access to illegal activities. The more pressure there exists, the higher the price of every dose. The quality of heroin is diminishing, but it is divided into as many doses as there's the demand for. The sum of money paid for each dose only increases.
– Is the state capable of helping a drug user? We hear that the largest institution of this kind in Lithuania is left without funding.
– Vilnius Addiction Centre, which has recently lost it’s financing, is very important to drug addicts. It is the only place in Lithuania offering effective harm reduction. There are mobile needle exchange centers. In some places, there are buses, where drug users can come and exchange their needles. Methadone is also supplied to people, who are antisocial and don’t directly contact the medical staff. It's like insulin for people with diabetes. When you become addicted, you no longer have any other goals. The main priority is getting your next fix. You might be otherwise a responsible parent, but drugs are more important than family and work.
– Are drugs easily available in the capital?
– A while ago, there were many spots in Vilnius where they sold heroin. You could ask taxi drivers to get you some. In the last two years, such spots get closed down quickly. It seems that it benefits the police that drugs are only being sold in a single location – the gypsy shanty town.
Gypsies are selling drugs in almost every house. The police conduct raids; they’ve been fighting this for 15 years, they know it all. It’s impossible not to know, because whenever you go up to one of the houses, there’s a small window in the door, or there’s a crack in one of the windows to exchange money for a dose.
– It benefits the police force that drugs are sold on the outskirts of town? Perhaps this makes it easier to fight with suppliers and their clients?
– I think that the police effectively control the shanty town. There used to be a police post in the area. A friend of mine owed the police 40 litas for letting him enter the area. In order for someone to buy drugs, the officers demanded a payment. When my friend got into debt, the police officers wouldn’t let him pass anymore; he had to go around through the forest.
While I was using myself, my car got stopped as well when I was leaving the shanty town. I got away after paying 50 litas. It’s convenient for the police. Easy money. Plus, it’s easy to enforce the plan. In order to catch a drug addict, you only have to wait for the first bus from the station. Usually officers would simply take away the addicts’ money they brought to buy drugs and let them suffer from withdrawal. What does a drug addict do, when they have no money? They go and steal.
– Lithuania has appeared on the world drug map as one of the manufacturing centres. Is that accurate?
– Grigiškės is the drug lab of Vilnius, because that’s where they make amphetamines. Before, you used to need piles of resources. Now, you only have to synthesize powder from liquid. Spin it in the centrifuge and let it evaporate. The process is very simple. When amphetamines began to be manufactured in Lithuania, this knocked down their prices in Denmark and Norway.
– Where do hard drugs sold in Lithuania come from?
– Heroin travels to Lithuania from Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. But not just from there. Nowadays, cars travel around the world. Macedonia and the Balkans are also known for manufacturing heroin. However, the traditional route is from Kazakhstan. Kazakhs drive a truck-full of heroin into the country and leave with a shipment of cars.
– Who supplies drugs in Lithuania?
– Dealers look for people who can sell. Each house in the shanty town would sell 3 liters of poppy broth per day. That’s 3,000 milliliters. One milliliter fetches 10 litas. That is 30,000 litas daily.
Street dealers have different profit margins. There are those who sell in order to feed their own addiction. They don’t make much. Others work purely for profit. They get a gram of heroin for 160 litas. They divide it into 14 portions for 20 litas each. They sell around 5 grams per day. The daily profit is therefore around 500-600 litas.
The heroin market is controlled by the big crime bosses. Huge sums of money usually pass through their hands, without the knowledge of the Drug Control Department. I have no doubt that those who are involved in this have deals with the police. Where there’s a demand, there’s a supply. Gypsies and street dealers are allowed to go to jail, but the real players are never touched.
– How do you protect young people from drugs?
– In Lithuania, most drug users are Russian-speakers. Young people coming from difficult family backgrounds. Amphetamines are currently easily available in schools. 17-18-year-olds no longer smoke marijuana, they opt for spice, which has a very synthetic effect. If we take a look at Russian-language schools, around one third of the senior students have tried drugs.
I’ve always wanted to walk along Gedimino Avenue with a journalist, so I could point out how many drug users are out there. I have an eye for that kind of thing.
– That means that the system is interested in keeping drug use at the current level?
– Just take a look at how preventative measures are enacted in the country. There’s a lot of funding, but that translates into lofty phrases thrown around that don’t reflect reality. They insist that heroin and marijuana are equally bad. A teenager smokes some marijuana, doesn’t feel any withdrawal symptoms and begins thinking that everything he's heard is nonsense. He decides that he might as well give heroin a try.
At the moment, we've a skewed perspective on drugs. No one’s talking about how alcohol is also a drug. Why isn’t it banned, if its effect is much greater than that of marijuana?
Extazine, marijuana, lizergine – all of these are usually used by people in the creative industries. They organize “trips” during weekends, engage in psychonautics. They’re always at risk of getting charged under an article or other. The punishments for that are strict.
– Are light and heavy drugs equally easy to obtain?
– Amphetamine is sold in Vilnius rather loosely. Those who use it are less likely to be linked to the criminal underworld. The police allow it to be sold more widely. Meanwhile you can only get heroin in the gypsy shanty town.
Kaunas has its own drug scene, with its own drugs that aren’t available even in Vilnius. There’s a pharmaceutical factory “Sanitas” in Kaunas, where they used to produce ephedrine. It’s a stimulating substance which can be used to make ephedron. That’s practically methamphetamine. Though the substance is synthesized for medical purposes, there used to be lots of it sold on the black market. Ephedrine crystals sold for 30 litas per gram. It used to be difficult to find a bottle of potassium permanganate in pharmacies, because it was needed for the formula. After taking a dose, a person wouldn’t sleep for 5-6 days, until they fainted.
A synthetic drug called Fentanyl was popular in Kaunas at one point. If you remember when the Chechens took hostages in a theatre in Russia, you should know that they were being poisoned with Fentanyl gas.
In smaller towns, you have more pharmaceutical drug users, who are dependent on sedatives. Pharmacy products go side by side with drugs. They strengthen, change and help purify the drug.