Romania declares war on drugs after music festival death

MPs seek tougher laws for all drug-related offences while civil society calls for treatment and counselling.

A Romanian special forces unit member stands guard near bags containing part of 2.5 tonnes of cocaine seized in the Black Sea port of Constanta
A Romanian special forces unit member stands guard near bags containing 2.5 tonnes of cocaine seized in the Black Sea port of Constanta [File: Octav Ganea/Inquam Photos via Reuters]

In June, a 25-year-old man overdosed while attending a music festival in Bucharest and was declared dead in an ambulance upon arriving at the Saint Pantelimon hospital.

The news prompted 30 right-wing politicians from the National Liberal Party (PNL) to initiate legislation that will toughening laws for all drug-related crimes, including the criminalisation of cannabis consumption.

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Laurențiu-Dan Leoreanu, a PNL politician, told the Libertatea newspaper that a prison term was the correct measure to curb both the consumption and selling of all kinds of drugs.

A study conducted by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction showed that there was no clear correlation between decreasing penalties and increased consumption.

Mihai Bărbulescu, chief commissioner of the Penitentiary Police and a regional union leader at Cartel ALFA, said that “society feels the need to toughen the punishments for people who commit the crimes of trafficking and drug use, because these facts are considered a risk both for those who commit them, but also for the population in general”.

While only a small number of Romanian people admit to using drugs in the past, more than half of the population considers drugs to be a major problem in the country.

‘Soft to hard’ drugs

There is also a belief in society that the consumption of a soft drug like cannabis can lead to a transition to hard drugs. Academics argue that there is a possibility, but it is very much dependent on socioeconomic conditions, as well as the culture of someone’s location.

Bărbulescu said that neither the use nor the distribution of any type of drugs can ever be justified.

“For a network head, a sanction of five to seven years is very little for the harm they have done,” he said.

“We will find that the negative effect on people is much greater than any other crimes since a dealer and a network head can supply to people large quantities that are consumed by a large segment of society.”

While Bărbulescu focused mostly on the problem of dealing, he said consumption must also be punished.

“Within a society where cancer permeates, we must extirpate and not allow the creation of a phenomenon,” he said.

A view of the outside double barbed wire fence guarding the Jilava Penitentiary, near Bucharest
A view of the outside double barbed-wire fence guarding the Jilava penitentiary near Bucharest [File: Robert Ghement/EPA]

Television channels were inundated in recent weeks with policemen, concerned parents and individuals pointing to a severe drug consumption and trafficking problem in Romania.

Mihaela, a young woman who has witnessed people endangering their lives with drugs, pointed to the reluctance of the government and the police to ask questions.

“They are only concerned with punishing or pointing the finger at someone and calling them a drug addict, a drug trafficker or, simply, a ‘druggie’. No one dares ask why those people have fallen into this trap and what led them to sell drugs on the street,” she said.

Romanian journalists, such as Diana Meseșan and Iulia Roșu from Libertatea or Alex Olaru from the PressOne online publication have been trying to push against a narrative presented by television channels of drugs being a cancer of society.

They have talked to counsellors, psychiatrists and government organisations fighting the drug epidemic and all of them say the state does not do enough for people who consume illicit substances and they are punished rather than being helped.

Problem under control

Bărbulescu argued that “toughening the penalties for consumption doesn’t solve the problem completely, but tries to keep the problem under control. Consumer protection programmes at large are difficult to implement and you have no guarantee that he will stop consuming. In the penitentiary, there are programmes for drug users where you see punctual drug awareness programmes.”

But Mihaela said trying to re-educate someone in prison was not a good way of integrating them back in society and advocated for drug testing centres, as well as programmes designed to help users.

The Romanian Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Association, in an open letter, has also condemned the criminalisation of drug consumption, urging the state to intervene in the problem, fund medical research and aid users outside of prison.

Drug users also say the National Anti-Drug Agency provides little assistance and being called a “druggie” is still surrounded by considerable social stigma.

On the other hand, Bărbulescu and Mircea claim that the agency has had some positive benefits, with information campaigns leading to people abstaining from consuming.

While the legal battle over drug consumption gets under way, drugs remain a taboo in Romanian society and poorly understood by many.

Elsewhere in Europe, Malta fully decriminalised and legalised the consumption of cannabis for personal use at the end of 2021.

Countries such as Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Switzerland have also decriminalised drug consumption in past decades.

Portugal decriminalised the use of drugs in 2001 and contrary to opposition at the time, drug-related deaths and consumption have remained below European levels, and the number of addicts has decreased.

Source: Al Jazeera