Austerity and addiction in Greece

The heartbreaking story of drug addiction in poverty stricken Athens

At Iasonos street in downtown Athens, a popular hangout for drug addicts, Michalis, 27, is looking for his dealer to buy his ‘fix’.

Like most of Athens’ drug users, he is constantly harassed by the police that, since 2013, has multiplied a series of controversial operations aiming to drive drug users and sex workers out of the city centre.

“Police and authorities treat us worse than animals,” he says.

“The police forcibly put people in their van,” adds Spiros, 48, a fellow drug user. “Once we are in the van, they drive us some 20 kilometres out of Athens and leave us there. Sometimes they will just open the doors and kick us out onto the highway. Just like a garbage bag.”

As Greece enters its sixth year of economic hardship, despair is fraying the country’s social fabric under the weight of austerity measures that have cut the income of ordinary Greeks by 40 per cent. In a nation of 11 million, one third of the population is unemployed while some three million people live below the poverty line.

Greece has been forced to reduce its healthcare expenditures below 6 per cent of its gross domestic product, which was worth 249.10 billion in 2012. Public health spending dropped by 25 per cent between 2009 and 2012 and outlays on medicine were cut by one-third between 2010 and 2011 to 3.75 billion euros. While there was no explanation of where the 6 per cent target came from (the average for the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is 9 per cent), Greek health system has cracked under the pressure, leaving thousands of people without access to basic medical care.

Across Greece, the by-products of the politics of poverty are visible: data from the Athens-based University Mental Health Research Institute (EPIPSI) indicate that major depression rates have increased by 50 per cent since 2009, affecting more than 12 per cent of the general population in 2013, while drug use and alcohol abuse has risen dramatically. In 2011-2012 Greece experienced an outbreak in HIV infections amongst injecting drug users with a total increase of 1,500 per cent in new infections. Slashing all safety nets is causing the perfect storm of a public health disaster and young Greeks, marginalised by the highest youth unemployment rate in the European Union – six out of ten are jobless – lead the way. Data from the EPIPSI suggests that rates of drug use among teenagers have increased significantly in the last four years, with one out of seven youngsters reporting drug use.

Until recently, any crisis within the Greek welfare system was absorbed by the families, that were the main provider of care and protection to its members, but the brutal recession has deprived households from this ability.

For Vasilis Gkitakos, director of the Therapy Centre for Dependent Individuals (KETHEA), one of Greece’s largest networks of drug outreach and rehab facilities, unemployment and drug use are the two major threats to the nation’s health.

“As the hope for a better life and the motivation for treatment decreases but poverty rises, drug addicts increasingly tend to refrain from taking measures to protect their health and become more self-destructive,” says Gkitakos. “But the state fails to acknowledge, let alone to respond, to what is a public health disaster.”

Greece’s conservative-dominated government has tried to deal with the problem by imposing even more hardship. Last July, the Greek government agreed – with its foreign creditors – to further reduce spending in the country’s health care, resulting in an additional two billion euros cut.

Reaching those in need, Iordanis, a trained psychologist, has been doing street work in downtown Athens for the past twelve years. Together with Babis and Yorgos, both former drug users, who now work as therapists for KETHEA, they walk the streets handing out ‘kits’, containing clean syringes and other drug preparation equipment, along with condoms, all free of charge. In one night alone, they can see up to fifty people all with serious problems related to drug abuse.

For most of them, Iordanis and his team are their only link to a world outside addiction.

The number of young women that seek the services of the mobile unit has significantly increased since the crisis began. As poverty rises, prostitution – the easiest way to finance the addiction – has skyrocketed in Greece. And shockingly, many of these women when pressed by their clients are consenting to unprotected sex; all for a few euros more.

Tania M., 26, is one of them. In order to gain money for her addiction she had to prostitute herself. She has been sexually assaulted twice, resulting in a broken limb and the loss of four front teeth.

The pattern of her clients is typical – Greek middle-aged men – that demand unprotected sex.

Three months ago, Tania gave birth to a baby boy. She found out that she had contracted HIV when her newborn baby was tested positive. The news of her baby’s health plunged Tania further into addiction.

According to data from the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 86 children have been reported HIV positive compared to 37 in 2011.

Escaping from addiction

When the entrance gate of the women’s detention facility at Eleonas Thivon, 80 km north of Athens, closes, a claustrophobic feeling of uneasiness fills the air. Some 500 women, aged between 16 and 85, are detained there, while 19 toddlers live with their imprisoned mothers. More than half the women have a history of drug abuse.

On the ground floor, the KETHEA EN DRASEI has, since 2008, set up its Therapeutic Community, offering treatment to 70 women with drug abuse problems.

In March 2013, Greece amended its legislative on narcotic drugs. The new law allows milder penalties for users and offers a better framework for in-prison rehabilitation of drug users.

For Yannis Tentis, head of KETHEA EN DRASEI, imprisonment of drug users offers nothing but an alibi to society that the delinquent paid back for their crimes.

“Once the person joins the community, feelings that were frozen by chronic drug abuse emerge. This is when users realise that they may have other options in life than drugs. In the community members are taught to manage their feelings,” Tentis explains.

Asma is a young troubled mother. She was four months pregnant when convicted and her baby boy, today aged two, was born in prison. She suffers from panic attacks and epilepsy. “In prison you are on your own. But when I come to the community, I find a family”.

“Society tends to label drug addicts as cruel offenders. And then incarcerates them in an environment where cruelty and delinquency is a daily routine,” Tentis says. “This just doesn’t work.”

In times of crisis, it is easy to lose sight of how important prevention and therapeutic programs are for the most vulnerable people, until it is too late. Greece’s tragedy has shown that austerity not only will not save a failing economy, but attacks the ultimate source of a nation’s wealth: its people.

* Fragkiska Megaloudi is a freelance human rights journalist.