Combatting Addiction Where Meth Usage is Highest

Scientists aim to develop a substitution therapy for crystal meth addicts

By Jennifer Leevan

Across the Czech Republic police crash into dark and filthy rooms, encountering chemicals and vials, pulling down ratty wall hangings and window covers. “Cooks,” too slow to escape from the authorities, are arrested for manufacturing methamphetamines. With meth usage higher in the Czech Republic than anywhere else in Europe, the authorities are desperate.

The majority of cooks synthesize drugs to make money feeding their own addiction. The Czech government is working to put a stop to production, but funding is difficult. Several Czech scientists are working to find a substitution drug for the sake of the health of Czech citizens.

Recently, the Czech Republic released detailed documentation of the state of drug use in the country. In 2009, there were 752 misdemeanors reported involving the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use and the drugs involved were mostly marijuana or methamphetamines, also called pervitin in the Czech Republic. One major issue that the authorities are dealing with is the often-villainized Vietnamese population, which works together to protect its own, but another is the health aspect. Fortunately, some doctors and scientists are working to help.

The Czech Republic has been battling pervitin misuse for years, but earlier this year, Jindrich Voboril, the national anti-drug coordinator, has made it a personal mission to introduce a substitution therapy to combat addiction to homemade crystal methamphetamine known in the Czech Republic as pervitin, “this is my most important focus now, and I will fight for it over the next three years.”  Voboril wishes to contain the harmful effects of the highly addictive drug, but recent Vietnamese immigrant involvement in producing large quantities of methamphetamines within the Czech borders has caused many problems for him. Voboril’s plan is two-fold. First, Voboril plans to find an adequate substitution drug, and second he hopes to deal with what he and many others see as a growing issue in the Czech Republic: the involvement of the Vietnamese population in drug sale and production.

Prague Wandering Summer 2013 Issue Number 3 Meth

In the Czech Republic, each individual is allowed to carry up to four ecstasy tablets, two grams of crystal meth or one-and-a-half grams of heroin without having to fear criminal charges.
Photo credit: Shutterstock, Peter Kim

While there have been many attempts in the Czech Republic to introduce a substitution therapy program for crystal methamphetamine addicts, until this year, no such program had been put as a high priority on the governmental agenda for the coming legislative term. Vlastimil Necas, the public relations manager for the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, responded to questions about one hopeful program.

“A research project is prepared,” she said excitedly, “but funding for this research is missing. The ministry of health did not support the grant proposal, nor did the Czech Grant Agency.”

The project Ms. Necas is referring to is a new proposal made by the Clinic for Addictology, Medical Faculty of Charles University. Necas suggests that it is disconcerting that this project at the Clinic for Addictology was not picked up.

“There are several clinical studies on use of “methylphenidate” (in US well known as Ritalin) as substituent of meth,” she recounts, “but clinical research has to be done before the implementation of such a treatment for intervention.”

Only three years ago in the United States, legislation was introduced to provide universal access for substance abuse treatment. Scientists in the Czech Republic have seen the data from previous research in other countries; increased sentences for nonviolent meth-related offences does not work. Now, with projects like the one at the Clinic for Addictology at Charles University, there may be hope for a science-based treatment for addicts, provided funding is obtained.

Voboril said at a press conference, that tackling the problem of pervitin has now gained precedence in the fight against drugs. After struggling for fifteen years to make a substitution drug a priority, Voboril is desperate for an answer. In an interview last week he claimed, “I will even use my own budget to get support grants for a pilot study.”

While Europe produces and consumes far less of the drug than North America or East Asia, the production and consumption of hard drugs have increased in the past ten years, especially in the Czech Republic. Along with Portugal, the Czech Republic is considered one of the most liberal countries in the 28-country European Union when it comes to drug liberalization. While the Czech government thoroughly believes in the decriminalization of drugs, it recently has promised to tighten its laws on drug-possession limiting the small amount one may hold for one’s own use. This contradicts legislation passed only four years ago.

Unlike in the United States, most European Union nations view drug use as a public health issue not a criminal issue. In the Czech Republic, each individual is allowed to carry up to four ecstasy tablets, two grams of crystal meth or one-and-a-half grams of heroin without having to fear criminal charges. Dealing drugs is still a criminal offense, but cocaine smugglers and meth labs have been increasing their profits in the Czech Republic for the past several years. According to iDNES.cz, an online Czech news site, in 2011, 192 Vietnamese drug dealers were arrested on account of possession or intent to sell. Michal Hammer, spokesman for the National Drug Squad, said in an interview on iDNES.cz, “their purpose is mainly to profit, drugs are just another commodity like shoes or clothing.” Presently, the law allows possession of up to 2 grams of crystal meth, but the limit is to be reduced to 0.5 grams, which demonstrates the importance of the current situation.

There are an estimated 40,000 problematic drug users in the Czech Republic, 32,000 of which are methamphetamine users. Therefore, pervitin users represent approximately two thirds of all problem drug users in the country, and the drug itself retains its position as the major problem drug. Drug use in the Czech Republic has increased not only because of liberalization and perhaps illegal immigration, but also because of the country’s legacy.

“While Europe produces and consumes far less of the drug than North America or East Asia, the production and consumption of hard drugs have increased in the past ten years, especially in the Czech Republic.”

Researchers believe the number of drug users is high in the Czech Republic because of its history with Communism. Tomas Zabransky, head for research and development at the Centre for Addictology, argues that because the communist regime prevented the importation of all illegal drugs, many drug users began manufacturing their own “homemade” drugs for personal use. When the Iron Curtain fell, however, borders opened along with markets, and drug production became profitable. Methamphetamines became a business and criminal organizations began manufacturing the product for distribution.

Voboril explains the two kinds of distributers and users today, “first there are the users who have the labs for themselves. These people have always been around but now there are Vietnamese producers who export the drug to Germany.”  It is unclear whether or not the Vietnamese make up the majority of drug dealers who are synthesizing methamphetamines in the Czech Republic, but they are a growing concern. Methamphetamine has been popular for decades, but the Vietnamese are reportedly offering “high quality drugs” on the market. Hammer concludes, “it is no longer the yellow powder, as we are used to from home brewing. Methamphetamines being produced now take the form of large white crystals; the drug is very clean.”

At this point, anti-drug coordinators are working alongside the ministries of interior, health, finance and licensing to observe the Vietnamese market. Voboril has voiced his skepticism, “I’ve lived in a communist society, and I don’t know how these things can be done without the knowledge of the Vietnamese government. I don’t believe it.”

Over the years, Voboril suggests that large portions of the Vietnamese society in the Czech Republic have produced illegal drugs and alcohol, but according to him, these past few months have been exceptionally complicated. The Czech government has even reached out to the minister and ambassador of Vietnam in order to help supervise the current situation. There has been no recent talk, however, with regards to the step-by-step process that could eliminate this particular situation.

The threat of increased organized crime in the Czech Republic has driven lawmakers and representatives of the health administration such as Voboril towards action. In an interview with Necas, she said, “The main goal is to keep existing prevention and treatment services alive in the times of budget crisis and public expenditure cut-offs.”

With more than 100 low-threshold services for drug users in the Czech Republic and 18 therapeutic communities as well as aftercare centers for drug addicts available, the foundation is there. Necas is concerned, however, that funding will not come through. The next few months will be a divisive time in Czech history as the government moves to implement stronger deterrents for those who would produce methamphetamines.

With an increasing Vietnamese community, Voboril worries that the issues surrounding the use of methamphetamines will be overshadowed by the stigmas carried by Czechs regarding the immigrant population. The new methodology implemented by Voboril along with Zabransky at the Addictology Faculty of Medicine at Charles University will try and find a substitution drug for those addicted to methamphetamine and the drug enforcement agencies in the Czech Republic plan to increase their monitoring of pervitin purchases.

Jennifer LeeVan is in the NYU Class of 2014, majoring in Broadcast Journalism. Her hometown is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

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Categories: Culture, Summer 2013 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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