Could a Syriza Win Spell Good News for Harm Reduction in Greece?

A sisa user in Greece. Source: Vice

Greece's left-wing Syriza party looks set to win the country's upcoming election on the platform of alleviating the economic crisis that has brought Greece to its knees and stoked an HIV epidemic among drug users. Could this mark a turning point for harm reduction services and marginalized groups?

Greece’s economic collapse in late 2009 led to a public health disaster along with the rupturing of its national health system.

Since 2010, following the €110 billion bailout financed by the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government has been struggling to meet the repayments under rigid austerity measures imposed as part of the bailout package. Social welfare and health programs were the first to experience massive cuts in their budgets, with deleterious repercussions on Greek society.

The government has been forced to maintain public health spending below six percent of the GDP (in comparison to a global average of nine percent), unemployment is above 25 percent, and almost three million people live below the poverty line. Since 2009, the depression rates have increased by 50 percent, drug and alcohol misuse have risen sharply, and HIV infections have never been so high.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction's (EMCDDA) risk assessment on HIV cases in injecting drug users published in November 2011:

“Between 9 and 16 cases among IDUs were reported annually during the last 5 years [2005-2010], never representing more than 2–3% of all reported cases. During the first 10 months of 2011, cases among IDUs increased to 190, representing 25% of the reported cases."

As noted in a separate EMCDDA report the following year, this dramatic increase "occurred within the context of a long‐term low coverage of service provision in the field of harm reduction," something which had little or no chance of improving under harsh austerity programs.

Charalampos Poulopoulos, director of one of the largest drug and rehabilitation facilities in Greece said in 2013, “The economic crisis has affected dramatically the lives of all Greeks, but people who use drugs were the hardest hit.”

Last year, the country's first and only drug consumption room was closed down after just a year of being operational. 

The poor provision of harm reduction services and the issues this has caused have been exacerbated by a tough approach from law enforcement. In one police initiative dubbed “Operation Thetis," for example, authorities in Athens focused on rounding up homeless people and problematic users, putting them in a van and shipping them off to a temporary detention center outside of the city. As Poulopoulos told Vice: "This is crazy policing. It pushes people with the problems to the margins, and toward criminal behavior."

To make things even worse, a new scourge hit the streets of Athens in the form of a new drug called sisa: an extremely dangerous, easy to make, and above all, cheap drug resembling crystal meth that's mixed with poisonous ingredients, such as battery acid or engine oil.

Against such a bleak backdrop, is there hope for a reversal in the near future? A recent poll for the January 25 election shows Syriza leading and thus close to forming a new government. Among national plans of reconstruction and the renegotiation of Greece's government debt, Syriza has promised to launch a series of measures to take Greece out of poverty. Such far-reaching initiatives include: free electricity for 300,000 poor families, housing guarantee schemes, restoration of the 13th "Christmas bonus" pension for pensioners receiving less than 700 Euros per month, and, perhaps most importantly, free healthcare to uninsured and jobless citizens.

Though the party rarely bring up the drug problem amid their top social priorities in the run-up to the elections, there is hope that alleviating the “humanitarian crisis” will also mean an increase in harm reduction programs to curb an issue that has been crippling Greek society for the last five years.

In the meantime, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has raised some hope that his party may take a compassionate approach to problematic drug use. In November 2014, during a visit to 18 ANO, a school operated by one of the country's drug rehabilitation centers, Syriza’s leader affirmed: “It is shameful for our country, for our culture, that we cannot find the miniscule funds necessary, such as 6,000 Euros a year, and that this school ... remains closed even today," noting the current government's failings in helping marginalized populations.