Eastern Europe Shooting Up Under a Red Star

  • In Hungary, homeless addicts jam the underground pedestrian passageways of Budapest's Moscow Square, and dealers ply the stairways, offering everything from hashish to morphine-laced pills. In Poland, groups of addicts travel to the outskirts of Warsaw to buy sacks of poppy stalks from farmers, which they use to concoct homemade heroin. And in the Soviet Union, a young man rolls up his sleeve to show television viewers an inner forearm riddled with needle marks.

    For years, East-bloc officials have claimed that drug abuse did not exist in their countries, insisting that addiction was a product of "decadent" capitalism. Not anymore. In a dramatic about-face, Soviet and East European authorities have begun to crack down on drug suppliers, searching for ways to treat addicts and publishing an array of statistics to deter potential users. Reason for the turnabout: narcotics use not only exists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but is growing rapidly in some areas.

    Spurred by Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign for glasnost, a more open airing of social ills, Moscow authorities last week provided a rare glimpse of the extent of the drug problem in the Soviet Union. In an interview published in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, Internal Affairs Minister Alexander Vlasov said 46,000 Soviet citizens have been diagnosed as drug addicts -- a dramatic figure when compared with official estimates just two years ago that only 2,500 such hard-core users existed. Vlasov also revealed the results of operation "Poppy 86," a narcotics crackdown in which more than 4,000 drug dealers were arrested and some 250,000 acres of wild cannabis plants destroyed. Said Vlasov: "The struggle against drug addiction and crime connected with it has become one of the main tasks of the Internal Affairs Ministry."

    Drug abuse in the Soviet Union stems mainly from the use of koknar, or opium made from poppy seeds, and anashi, a substance similar to marijuana, made from the cannabis plant. Both crops grow wild in the country's Central Asian region. Poppies are also cultivated legally, mainly for use in medicines. The Soviet approach to treating abusers of such drugs tends to be punitive. Under a new law, youthful offenders may be incarcerated for up to two years in a police-run "preventive educational treatment center." The job of these institutions, according to a recent article in the Soviet magazine Man and the Law, is to cure and "re-educate" inmates.

    Officials in several East European countries have also begun confronting narcotics use -- and encountering similar problems. As recently as 1980, Poland was the only East-bloc nation in which drug abuse was openly discussed. Today only Bulgaria, Rumania and East Germany remain silent on the issue. In Hungary, experts estimate that between 30,000 and 50,000 people abuse drugs. In Poland, one out of every ten youths is believed to use narcotics at least occasionally. Says Warsaw Sociologist Antoni Bielewicz: "The numbers are staggering, and there is no end in sight."

    Situated between the Middle East and Turkey and lucrative Western markets in Europe and the U.S., the countries of Eastern Europe lie along a prime trafficking route. In Communist Yugoslavia, which is not part of the Soviet bloc, 40% of those convicted of narcotics smuggling are foreigners. In Czechoslovakia, potentially addictive drugs are readily available: more than 90 sedatives and pain killers can be bought without a prescription. Users mix the drugs in water to produce a cocktail called pernaik (literally, gingerbread).

    The drug problem is most serious in Poland. An estimated 200,000 to 600,000 of the country's 37.5 million citizens are hard-drug users and addicts, most of them under 25. Virtually all are hooked on kompot, a form of heroin made by combining household chemicals with poppy stalks. Boiling the mixture produces a brownish liquid that, when injected, produces a potent high.

    Witold, a 26-year-old who lives in Warsaw, began taking kompot six years ago without knowing it was addictive. Having lost his job, he spends most of his time these days using, buying or mixing the stuff, often filling his syringe with a hit from a street peddler (cost: about 35 cents). "Life in Poland these days for young people is so awful," says Witold. "I don't want to be an ordinary man with an ordinary life."

    Belatedly, East European authorities are taking measures to regulate the narcotics flow. Hungary has tightened restrictions governing the distribution of medicines, and Czechoslovakia recently joined in approving a United Nations campaign against drug trafficking. Poland last month declared that it would spend $20 million on combatting drug abuse in 1987, double last year's amount.

    Nongovernmental antidrug initiatives are also surfacing. In Poland, a semiprivate, government-funded organization called Monar sponsored a demonstration against drug use that attracted thousands of young Poles across the country last September. In an effort to discourage farmers from selling poppy stalks, Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church has pasted up posters in dozens of villages proclaiming, THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT NOT KILL. The church is also considering its own sanctions against drug sellers. Says Warsaw's Father Boguslaw Bijak: "There is a strong possibility that people who sell poppy straw will not be given a Christian burial."

    Still, drug abuse remains an intractable problem. As in the West, it is creating other social ills. AIDS transmitted by addicts sharing contaminated needles has begun to surface in these countries. Asked if he is concerned about that disease, Witold, the Polish heroin addict, simply shrugs. "By the time it reaches us," he says, "I will probably already be dead from kompot."