Greece is one of the countries which have been hit hardest by the economic crisis in Europe. According to OKANA (the state-run drug treatment agency), injecting drug use rose sharply, as a consequence of growing existential instability among young people. The official estimate is of 25,000 street drug users, most of them living in Athens. The Greek Drug Users’ Union would argue, however, that the actual number of street drug users, in Athens alone, is around 30,000 or more - people who have never made contact with official services, and whose existence has therefore gone unrecorded. For a long time, policy makers thought they could get eliminate the drug problem by means of police raids and imprisonment, while access to treatment, and to clean needles and syringes, remained much lower than in most cities in Western Europe. As a consequence, people regularly shared needles, leading to Hepatitis C and HIV infections. Between 2006 and 2011, there were a total of nine new HIV infection cases among drug users; but in 2011 alone, 256 new cases were registered!
When the huge HIV epidemic hit the country, there was a gradual realisation of the urgent need for a change of approach: the government invested more money in basic harm reduction practices (street-work, rapid tests, prompt connection with Hospital Infection Units providing treatment) while the epidemic demanded even more effective strategies. Many more clean needles were distributed, and more people were admitted to medical treatment facilities; but no shelter for homeless drug users was ever found - nor was any reduction achieved in the waiting-time for substitution treatment. Harm Reduction could also have been strengthened through the involvement of the many drug users in OST treatment who offered to work on a voluntary basis, but whose services were ultimately rejected. During this difficult time, it was Civil Society, not the government, which championed the cause - pressurising key players, creating initiatives to inform people on the street, and committing itself, without reservation, to a more humane, healthy world.
Photo: Ben art core
In 2013, OKANA opened the first drug consumption room in Athens, where hundreds of drug users per month could avoid infection by injecting in a safe environment, instead of shooting up on the streets. The epidemic is now under control – but there is still much to do. Unfortunately, the drug consumption room was closed as a result of legal problems, and people still have to wait years to get into treatment. Civil society organisations are struggling for more prevention, treatment, and harm reduction, and less stigma, exclusion, criminalisation and punishment!
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