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Brosse Street Journal » Health:

The Needle and the Damage Done
Even schoolchildren use heavy drugs

By Dato Chaganava
Brosse Street Journal
Monday, April 25 2005
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Government financing of drug treatment programs in Georgia this year has been interrupted.
According to the deputy chief of the public health department, Akaki Gamkrelidze, only 150,000 lari (about $84,000) has been made available by the Health Ministry for prevention programs, such as school psychologists and brochure printing. No money has been made available for treatment centers throughout Georgia.†

The 2004 budget was 300,000 lari (about $168,000), of which 150,000 lari was made available for drug treatment. But according to treatment specialists, 150,000 lari was only enough money to treat five seriously ill addicts per month.†

There are 11 treatment centers which depend on financing from the Health Ministry. One is in Tbilisi, the Narcology Scientific Institute. The other 10 smaller centers are located in different regions, including Kakheti, Imereti, Ajara and Samegrelo.†

The interruption in financing comes at a time when Gamkrelidze says the officially registered number of drug users has increased to about 25,000. He says the real number is 10 times higher, closer to 250,000.†

The chief of the financial department of the Minister of Health, Zaza Zurabishvili, says that money for health programs was allocated before his appointment to his position in early April, and he doesnít know why drug treatment programs werenít financed.†

Officials from the Department of Public Health say they have only 25 beds throughout the country where drug addicts can receive special rehabilitation treatment. Fifteen of them are in the Narcology Institute and another 10 are provided by several non-governmental organizations that work on this issue.†

But according to the scientific director of the Narcology Institute, Khatuna Todadze, the institute has about 35 beds for drug treatment in Tbilisi and the government has other beds in Ajara and Telavi. She also said there are about 10 beds in the NGOís Urant and Bemon in Tbilisi.†

To book one of these beds for a 10-day treatment course at the Narcology Institute, an addict must pay 750 lari (approximately $420) but according to Institute chief Gela Lejava, the 10-day treatment only takes the patient through withdrawal pains. For the whole rehabilitation course a patient must pay about 2,000 lari (about $1,120) and must stay in the hospital for about six months.
The only free treatment program this year for drug addicts in Georgia is financed by the World Bankís Global Fund. The program intends to treat 60 drug addicts throughout the country using the methadone replacement method. According to the internet page† "methadone a is synthetically produced, long-acting opiate that was first used in the maintenance treatment of drug addiction in the United States in the 1960s.†

"Drug addiction in Georgia increased very much after 2003, when poppy seeds came into the country," said Dr. Dato Vadachkoria, chief physician at the Narcology Institute. "The product was intended for culinary use, but as the seeds were rich in opiates and the price was about 10 to 15 lari ($5.60 to $8.40), a cocktail made (by boiling) them became very popular among young people. One packet was enough for four people to get high and it was sold without problems in the Georgian markets."†

The head of a United Nations-financed Georgian Anti-Drug Coalition, Jana Javakhishvili, says Georgian legislation wasnít ready for that product.†

"There was no special law which could forbid the sell and use of these poppy seeds," she said. "Before the parliament made a decision to change the law and forbid the sale of this seeds, a huge number of people became drug addicts. Now even schoolchildren use heavy drugs."†

The anti-drug coalition reports on its web page that the number of young people involved in drug usage has increased six-fold during the last 10 years.
Lejava says the main reason is the geopolitical location of the country. "Georgia is the gateway between Asia and Europe," he says. "It is becoming one of the main drug transit routes from Afghanistan and some other central Asian countries to Europe."†

But Lejava also says the most frequently used heavy drug today is Subutex (replacing heroin, which he said was the most heavily used drug one year ago), and it doesnít come from the Asian black market. Subutex mainly comes from France and the Netherlands. It is a drug from the opiate group, similar to methadone, and is intended as replacement therapy for drug users and alcoholics in Europe," says Lejava.†

Twenty-four year-old drug addict Gio, who asked not to give his surname, says that he was buying a half pill of Subutex for about $50-60 in Tbilisi without problems. "A half pill is enough for four people to get high," he said. "This is for beginners; then the dose increases."†

Gio used Subutex as an intravenous narcotic for several years. H was interviewed in a treatment center where he was taking the 10-day withdrawal course. Gio says that he is very lucky that his family has money to pay for his treatment. He says most of his friends want to withdraw from drug addiction but they canít afford to take the rehabilitation course.†

He says he began to use Subutex while on vacation in France. "In Europe, Subutex cost about $8 dollars for a sheet with eight pills." he said. "It was accessible for everyone. My friends used this narcotic and they offered me a taste. When I swallowed it, I liked it.†

"I had used other drugs, but Subutex was cheap and accessible, so I easily got used to it. I was swallowing several pills a day. It helped me to be very energetic all day and to do any kind of job without getting tired.†

When I returned to Georgia two years ago, very few people knew about this narcotic. Drug users used mainly heroin and opium. But now the situation has changed, and you can buy Subutex without problems.†

Minister of the Interior Vano Merabishvili told the journalists of Kavkasia-Press that the government has problems knowing what to do about these pills because neither trained dogs nor most special equipment could detect the substance. "The tablet is so small that you cannot differ it from a heart medication," he said. "Mainly it is smuggled by people who buy cars abroad."†

Merabishvili said the government would like to buy special scanners and install them on Georgian borders, but each scanner would cost $1 million. A mini-scanner that costs $50,000 is often unable to detect Subutex.†

June 26 is International Anti-drug Day, and representatives of the Georgian anti-drug coalition are discussing what measures to take, what clips to shoot, and which famous actors, politicians, and sportsmen they will ask to make official anti-drug statements.†

Coalition members say it is very difficult to measure the results of their activities, but say informing the public and trying to convince them to adopt a healthy lifestyle is about all they can do.
As Lejava says, the only way to fight this problem is to convince youth to get involved in healthy activities. Especially since nobody knows when the financing of drug treatment will resume.

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