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Drugs, addicts and dealers: an underworld adapting to a pandemic

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Drugs, addicts and dealers: an underworld adapting to a pandemic
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The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and EUROPOL are warning authorities that the pandemic is having a massive impact on the drug scene in countries across the EU.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned logistics and supply-chains around the world upside down. That also holds true for global smuggling routes. But how are drug dealers and drug addicts reacting to pandemic chaos? I went to Warsaw to investigate.

Warsaw's Praga district

The rundown Praga district in the Polish capital, Warsaw, is a hot spot for drug addicts. Discarded bottles, empty pill packets and used syringes can be found all around abandoned buildings.

The social consequences of the pandemic has forced the NGO, Prekursor, to reorganize their hands-on work. Blood-tests and syringe distribution are now done outside their mobile van. But before, addicts were welcome inside it.

The 'Prekursor' programme
A drug user getting tested outside a medical vanThe 'Prekursor' programme

Malwina is one of the coordinators on the prevention team. She tells Pawel outside and in person that he has tested negative for AIDS, syphilis and hepatitis C. It's good news for Pawel, but a far cry from hearing the results from the privacy of a closed space.

Drug dealers overcome lockdown restrictions

COVID-19 has given a helping hand to darknet deals and home-deliveries of illegal substances. The European Drug Monitoring Centre (EMDCCA) says a heavier police presence on the streets, to enforce lockdown restrictions, is forcing face-to-face deals to be partly replaced by “dead drops”, a system once used by secret agents during the Cold War.

This trend is confirmed to us by Ewa, a former drug addict. Ewa has been through methadone substitution treatment and she also has AIDS. She is still well-connected to the local drug scene. She tells me that “the only thing that has changed is that the drug-dealers do not have direct contact with drug buyers. One guy tells another guy: I put the drugs there or there. They don’t have physical contact, it’s done over the phone. They put the drugs under a brick or into some hole in the wall, in a brick wall, or something similar.”

But finding alternative ways to get drugs to addicts is not the only problem created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Artur's case

I spoke to Artur. He worked as a lorry driver in the 1990's, then he got involved in drugs, dealing and organised crime. He even spent twelve years in prison for kidnapping. Artur was released a few years ago and has since been struggling with a heroine addiction. At the start of 2020 he began substitution treatment. He has been using the services provided by the 'prekursor' drop-in centre for years, exchanging needles when he was using and now for washing, eating a warm meal and drinking tea.

Artur is also homeless, he currently lives in a car that he shares with a friend. The pandemic has made it difficult for him to find work. He told me that the pandemic and the lockdown have been an unexpected motivator for people who use drugs to seek treatment because it is much harder to beg for money or steal from shops when they are closed. He believes that the fear of not being able to get drugs and then suffering withdrawal pain will push more people towards rehabilitation programmes.

Euronews
Artur, a drug substitution treatment patientEuronews

His dream is to get off methadone because he wants to start driving trucks again one day. He says that the drop-in centre used to be a very lively place where addicts would come and go all day. But it has changed significantly during the pandemic. The centre has had to impose group limits to meet sanitary regulations and there cannot be more than four users on the premises at the same time. One person can spend up to one hour a day inside and only visit once a day.

The drop-in-centre is a small flat. It has a TV room, a small office, kitchen, a medical room, a toilet and a bathroom. In order to get access to the drop-in-centre, Euronews promised not to film the outside of the building or publish the location. The organisation that runs it is afraid that neighbours and right-wingers might try to destroy it.

Poland has a long history of neighbours getting rid of similar initiatives and people destroying the places when they find that addicts go there. The flat is legal and funded by the Warsaw municipal office, but they operate as much as they can off the radar.

Therapy for addicts

To help drug addicts stop using heroin, some clinics offer substitution treatments. Before the pandemic, methadone was handed out every day. But now methadone is given in larger quantities to avoid crowds at distribution points. It's a welcome change for the head of the drop-in centre, Aleksandra Stańczak-Wiercioch. In her professional opinion, she believes that "there is a group of people for whom daily visits are harmful because they create a favourable environment for drug dependency, as people are grouped with other drug addicts. Being forced to come here often creates frequent contact with other drug users and those looking to sell drugs. That’s toxic and dangerous for them.”

The Polish Drug Policy Network (PDPN) is pushing for legal solutions to make methadone available at pharmacies. In September 2020 they sent an appeal to the Speaker of the Sejm,Elżbieta Witek, and to the Speaker of the Senate, Tomasz Grodzki. They asked for work on the draft amendment to the Counteracting Drug Addiction Act to immediately resume. Experts at the PDPN say it is a “greatly needed project and its adoption would help to treat people with opioid use disorder on a wider scale and thus contribute to the improvement of public health in Poland”.

Olga's case

Olga in her youth was a regular cannabis user. That lead her down the dangerous path to heroin addiction. After various health concerns and having enough of the illegal practice, she started substitution therapy. She has been on the programme for six years, longer than she originally expected and still depends on methadone substitution. Her dream is to be 100% clean in one to two years and to stop the programme. She told me that she decided to stop on a day when she was outside a prison trying to shout up to her former partner who was being held inside. She is stable now and follows the 2-week methadone hand-out scheme because she can be trusted. But surprisingly, she is against switching from daily to weekly handouts for everyone.

Euronews
Olga, a patient on methadone substitution treatmentEuronews

She told me that "there are quite a few people taking part in the methadone programmes not to get rid of their addictions. For some of them, methadone is not a medicine to replace drugs. They don’t even take it when they get it, they resell it. Due to the pandemic, they are now getting enough methadone for two weeks and they sell it. Everyone knows that with this money they don’t buy something to eat, they buy drugs.”

Job market troubles

The pandemic has caused damage elsewhere too. The hard-hit economy has brutally impacted the labour market, shattering the hopes of those looking for a way out of the vicious circle that is drug addiction and criminality.

Wojtek is a former heroin dealer. All his hard work to leave that life behind him when he left prison has been destroyed by COVID-19. He told me that he managed to find a job and a flat, but pandemic restrictions made him lose both. He says he was faced with "becoming homeless or start stealing again". He believes many others are in this situation and they have to make that difficult choice too. Wojtek is, in usual circumstances, a professional chef. There was a time in his life when he was addicted to drugs and he sold heroin. He is no longer using, but he is still heavily addicted to alcohol, gambling and women. To satisfy those addictions he requires large amounts of money that he earns illegally. He says that "right now it’s easier to be a thief than to have a regular, honest job.”

Police battle to stop drug traffickers

At the headquarters of the Polish Border Guard, the Deputy Director of the Investigative Board, Arkadiusz Olejnik, shows me the ultra-modern drug detection lab.

Euronews
Arkadiusz Olejnik in the drug detection labEuronews

Due to pandemic travel restrictions, fewer vehicles are crossing European borders and drug smugglers are trying to hide their illegal substances in more sophisticated ways. Olejnik tells me "we’ve had more cases where drugs are hidden in car frames. (...) We think that organised criminal groups will try to get back to pre-pandemic levels. They want their profit margins, from this criminal activity, back up again and they will intensify their efforts.”

The first surge of COVID-19 and subsequent travel restrictions reduced for a short period the volume of transborder drug trafficking. But organised crime groups adapted. The battle against the illegal drug trade goes on.