Photo by Courtney Pedroza / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Needles: Budapest's fight against drug use

By Karen Loschiavo / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Published July 11, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary — At 3 p.m. on a dreary March day on the streets of Budapest’s Eighth District a bright yellow ambulance parks next to an empty lot across from an abandoned former police headquarters. It’s hard to miss it parked among the dirty, deserted buildings and trash-strewn street.

Alongside, a line forms of eager but patient people. They’re clutching syringes in red, swollen hands. Some come from shelters, some live in the neighborhood, some are homeless but what all of these people have in common is their drug addiction.

The ambulance belongs to Alternatíva Alapítvány, or the Alternatives Foundation, a small needle exchange program based in the Eighth District. The team of five paid staff members and a handful of volunteers are renting the van until May, when their funds for run out. Then they will walk the streets with backpacks stuffed with clean needles.

In the meantime, van serves as a mobile needle exchange, meeting clients who are users of designer drugs, or an ever-changing psychoactive mix of chemicals designed to avoid regulation, on the streets and providing a space for making needle exchanges. The current drug of choice is called “music.”

Alternatíva workers concede the set up is less than ideal, but the small nonprofit can’t afford anything else. It was formed, they say, because the local government is ignoring a growing drug problem and the resulting spread of hepatitis C and HIV.

“They are just ignoring it because they know its an existing problem, and they closed another needle exchange problem in the 13th District last year,” said Rami Gallo, a staff member at Alternatíva.

A view of a busy street in downtown Budapest. (Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

From 2011 to 2014, hepatitis C prevalence rose from 34 percent to 61 percent among people who inject drugs in Budapest, according to medical journal The Lancet.

The denial of a growing hepatitis problem that Alternatíva and other drug prevention programs are seeing is another indication to critics of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party that the country is moving in the wrong direction. It’s a grim outlook fora country known for its ancient healing baths.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development, Hungary is one of the least happy countries in the 34-nation group. Hungarians rated their life satisfaction at 0.6 out of 10 in 2015, while the organization average was 6.6. Hungarian trust in government, while it has risen from 25 percent in 2007, was at 33 percent in 2014, 9 points below the group’s average.

“The gap between the poor and the rich is wider than ever,“ said Maria Findrik, professor of economics at Central European University. “Of course, this leads to certain social tensions. About one-third of the country lives around the minimum living standards.”

In November 2013, the local government of the Eighth District made a decision to exclude a much larger needle exchange, called Kék Pont, due to used needles found in the district, according to Drugreporter. District councilmembers said they believed the program was drawing addicts.

The Eighth District was long considered a gritty, crime-ridden section of the central city but over the last decade it is being rebuilt and reborn.

The council later made a decision to raise the rent for the space Kék Pont was renting from the government, and the program had to close. Alternatíva spun off from Kék Pont, attempting to fill in the void for needle exchanges.

“Now, If someone throws their needle out, there’s a drug addict that picks the needle up,” said Eszter Odor, an Alternatíva volunteer. “But now the government says, ‘The problem is solved because there is no rubbish on the street.’ But they don’t think about why. They said OK, we stopped Kék Pont, the problem is not there.”

In a 2013 interview with news website, Orsolya Ferencz, member of the Eighth District Council said she would support needle exchange locations and safe injection sites in the district if it was a part of the government’s strategy.

“My view is that if the government approves a drug strategy that asks for the districts to establish needle exchange locations, the Eighth District Council will be open to such a suggestion,” she said in the interview posted online. “As a matter of fact, I believe that needle exchange locations should also serve as supervised injection sites, where we may help drug users in a controlled and monitored — albeit anonymous — environment. The Eighth District Council is open to such a suggestion.”

The entrance to the Chain Bridge that crosses the Danube River, connecting the Buda and Pest sides of the city. (Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

However, the government’s strategy has taken a sharp turn in the other direction. Ferencz did not respond to an email inquiry about the stance. Officials from he Fidesz party did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.

Activists say the denial of such problems by Fidesz leadership is not unique to the Eighth District. They say they are used to their government refusing to acknowledge the very problem that they are working to solve.

Hungary passed a law in 2013 targeting homeless people living in certain public spaces. The Fidesz Party is using the state media to help push its agenda, said one homeless housing advocate.

“The media is totally owned by the Fidesz,” said Gazsi Papp, editor of a Hungarian political blog with more than 20,000 daily readers and a homeless housing activist with The City is for All. “And the institutional opposition, they don’t have the media and they are not clever. They are doing really badly in arguments.”

Odor, the Alternatíva volunteer, said the foundation’s perception of national media was negative, with their clients painted as dangers to society.

“They just cause trouble,” she said.

The local director of Transparency International, which fights global corruption, agreed that much of Hungay’s media is heavily influenced by the government.

“The public media is very much controlled by the government,” said Transparency International Hungary’s Executive Director Jozsef Martin. “I would say that it is basically the propaganda of the current government, mainly the public radio and the public television.”

He said the private media is considerably more free than the state media, but there is soft censorship. Some individuals in government have a stake in private media outlets, and there is self-censorship among journalists based in fear of writing against their government.

He said the private media can still criticize the government, but the methods of censorship are more advanced.

As for Papp, his blog and his activism keep him in Hungary. His sister is moving to London, the newest destination growing in popularity for Hungarian emigrants, but he said he can’t leave because he has seen the plight of poor Hungarians who don’t have the luxury of moving.

“I work with lower-class people. So they are in a totally different situation, their perspectives of leaving the country are totally different. They will not leave the country, they can’t leave,” he said.

He said he sees educated young people with a certain amount of privilege leaving the country. They can’t find jobs, even with their degrees. That adds to the feeling of frustration and unhappiness leading many young people to seek opportunites in other countries.

“The rising trend of emigration and its growing intensity in younger age groups are increasingly turning Hungary into an emigration country,” according to a 2015 reporty by Hungarian Demograhic Research Institute.

Odor, who left Hungary to work abroad, is candid about the work Alternatíva does. She knows they’re not serving a popular group.

“We have to make the people see that it is a problem and it is a social problem,” Odor said. “Not just that problem of the addicts, it’s a problem of the society.”

As long as addiction exists, Alternatíva have work to do, with or without state support.

“You cannot stop addiction,” she said. “It’s human behavior, it’s always going to exist.”


Cronkite News is the news division of Arizona PBS. The daily news products are produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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