The municipal government of Budapest admitted that it has been paying thousands of Euros every year since 1998 as a membership fee for a Stockholm-based prohibitionist organization, the European Cities Against Drugs (ECAD) – reported the Hungarian online newsportal.
ECAD was established in 1994 by the Swedish government to counter-balance the alliance of harm reduction oriented cities in Europe, who drafted the Frankfurt Resolution in 1990 to promote a pragmatic, public health and human rights based drug policy. ECAD advocates a repressive drug policy, its Mission Statement urges governments to prohibit the “consumption of narcotic drugs and give the police more effective possibilities to discover and stop drug abuse, primarily among young people”. The organization has offices in Sweden, Latvia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Russia.
Andrea Szolnoki, the head of the Health and Social Policy Committee of Budapest said the membership fee was raised by ECAD to 10.000 Euros this year, so they decided to submit a proposal to the City Council to resign from the network. She said the membership did not prove useful for the city, the only gain of the membership was to receive a monthly newsletters and the possibility to attend ECAD’s conferences. However, the representatives of the municipality had to cover their own tavel and accommodation costs at these events. Budapest became a member of ECAD in 1994 and it paid 5000 Pounds for the membership in 1998 and 8000 Euros in 2005. To the question of why the city leaders did not resign earlier if the membership was so useless, she said “they did not realize it” before. The City Council will soon vote about the proposal to resign the membership.
At the same time, the municipial government provided only scarce resources for Budapest-based prevention, treatment and harm reduction organziations. The annual budget for this purpose was 19 million Forints (at current rate it’s 70.000 Euros) in 2005, needle exchange programs received 1,5 million Forints (5.500 Euros). This means that the tenth of the total drug budget went to the ECAD membership fee. Notwithstanding, drug users in some parts of the town badly need help: in the impoverished neigboorhoods of the 8th district of Budapest there are thousands of people injecting amphetaime and heroin who live in the margins of society. A few years ago the NGO Blue Point set up a needle exchange center on Kálvária square, where they registered 1600 new clients in two years. The majority of these clients belong to the Roma minority who have never attented any treatment or harm reduction programs before, many of them are unemployed, homeless and they are in a bad health condition. According to a targeted testing survey, 70 percent of the clients proved to be Hepatitis C positive. However, the local municipial authority does not provide any funds for the needle exchange program. What is more, the newly elected Conservative mayor of the 8th district anounced in a press statement that it is actually needle exchange that attracts drug users to the area. Aranka Kovács, the local chief of the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ANTSZ) said NGOs overestimate the severity of the situation because it is only a problem for "an isolated minority" of the population. These statements caused a storm of indignation among drug treatment and HIV prevention specialists.
“It is outrageous what is happing in Budapest,” said Balázs Dénes, the director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a Budapest-based watchdog NGO leading advocacy efforts for more harm reduction. “The city leaders have paid millions to support a Swedish prohibitionist organization while they have been neglecting an emerging publich health crisis related to injecting drug use under their nose. We demand the municipality to immediately resign from the ECAD membership and provide more resources to social and public health interventions targeting problem drug use, as well as experimentation with innovative harm reduction measures such as supervised injection rooms to minimize the risks of the open drug scene.” In December last year HCLU organized a conference on the perspectives of supervised drug consumption rooms, where speakers from Germany, Holland and Norway outlined the public health and security benefits of these facilities. Unfortunately the local muncipial government did not accept the invitation. HCLU sent a FOI (freedom of information) request to the municipality to ask how much money the city spent exactly on ECAD membership and about the grants they provided to local NGOs during the same period.
Story by Peter Sarosi