2000 km of Baltic drug policies: from Vilnius to Tallinn

15 June 2016

In late spring of 2016, a team of EHRN and DUNews representatives visited six cities in the Baltic States: Vilnius, Kaunas, Visaginas, Riga, Tallinn and Tartu. We covered about 2,000 km and met with community representatives, harm reduction program staff, high-level officials and representatives of the academic community. We wanted to obtain first-hand information about how the Baltic drug policy worked in practice. We wanted to understand how statements made by these countries’ representatives from the rostrum of the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on the world drug problem correspond to the realities of people who use drugs and NGOs that run harm reduction programs.

For example, the Minister of Health of Lithuania stated at the Special Session that his country recognized the effectiveness of harm reduction programs and was ready to promote those programs in the region. However, when we visited the town of Visaginas, situated 140 km away from Vilnius, we learned that funding for the needle exchange program was minimal and usually came with a five-month delay. If the program does not secure permanent funding before December this year, this long-existing program will have to close. An OST program in Visaginas has never opened despite the huge demand for it in the city that holds a "leading" position in the country in terms of its level of drug use.

We learned that in Latvia government support for harm reduction programs was not systemic either. City officials may simply ban syringe exchange, as it has happened in Ventspils; or, as in Jurmala, they may refuse to recognize the problem of drug use to avoid scaring tourists away from the major resort. At the same time, Latvia’s national authorities, including its Interior Ministry, support harm reduction programs, and this is reflected in Latvia’s official position delivered at the Special Session on Drugs. The Interior Ministry also states that it is ready to engage with civil society. However, the ministry is the one to define the scope of this interaction; for instance, the Civil Society Consultative Forum on Drugs was created by the ministry only to address primary prevention issues. The government is not ready yet to discuss issues of drug user decriminalization with civil society. Importantly, Latvia is the only Baltic state where drug use is a criminal offense (after passing an administrative prejudice, or, simply put, "when re-fixing"). However, these offenders have an alternative to do community service in a non-governmental organization working in the field of HIV (during our visit to an NGO, an official from the probation service came to check how convicted drug users carried out their community service duties).

Estonia appears to be a country with the most balanced drug policy in the Baltic region. National legislation allows the use of alternatives to prison for drug offenders, for example, to refer to rehabilitation programs people who committed theft because of drug dependence. The Estonian government is planning to organize a pilot project that will refer people who have committed drug-related offences to harm reduction and treatment programs if they are arrested for the first time, as it is done in Portugal. Representatives of the Ministry of Justice of Estonia are ready for further humanization of their drug policies, yet the law enforcement agencies have traditionally opposed them.

However, when we met with representatives of the Russian-speaking community in North-Eastern Estonia where harm reduction services are quite limited and the drug use problem is much more acute, we realized that in this country there were systemic barriers to human rights and limited social integration options for IDUs. For example, in some cases women who use drugs are deprived of parental rights. Restoring parental rights, even after successful rehabilitation, takes months or even years. In Estonia, legal assistance through harm reduction programs or human rights organizations is not yet available to people who use drugs. The use of drugs without a prescription is punished by the highest fines among all Baltic States or by imprisonment for up to 30 days.

People who use hard drugs in the Baltic States and, indeed, elsewhere in the region are "aging". In Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia and a college city, the drug scene is very different and there is less need for harm reduction services.

In all Baltic States officials are very sensitive to public opinion, especially during election campaigns, and they are very careful when initiating liberal innovations in the field of drug policy that are unpopular in the traditionally conservative societies.

In other words, authorities in these countries still have to work hard to ensure that the statements official representatives of the Baltic States made in New York fully comply with the reality. And we hope that they engage community representatives, because that is the only way to find truly effective solutions to drug policy issues.