SOCIETY ON THE HIGH

by Libby Andrews

Drugs are increasingly becoming part and parcel of life in Bulgaria

In the past 20 years drug culture in Bulgaria has been on the rise. Originally just another transit point on the famed Balkan drug route favoured for its lax security and corrupt customs officials, it has now become a final destination, especially for one of the most potent illegal drugs, heroin.

Drugs trafficking and distribution are now among the most serious social challenges for Bulgaria. The availability of synthetic, lab-produced drugs means that growing numbers of young people use them because they are cheap to buy compared to traditional hard drugs, and still produce the desired feelings of euphoria. A recent survey conducted by the Association for Support of Endangered Children found that 70 percent of students in the three Sofia schools interviewed had tried a range of amphetamines, including ecstasy. The dramatic rise of drugs use in Bulgaria over the past three years has also led to greater addiction rates. Many of the addicts at the rehabilitation clinic, Novo Nachalo, or New Beginning, were hooked on amphetamines and around a quarter of them combined synthetic drugs with heroin.

The most popular drugs here are marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin. Expats have found that drugs are as readily available in Bulgaria as in their homeland, the only hurdle being making initial contact with a local dealer. Once a connection is made, though, it is easy to come by a regular supply. Expats interviewed for this article readily admitted to spending between 100 to 200 leva a week on drugs. They were all under 25 years old and all had well paid jobs with foreign companies.

RJ is 22, from Liverpool. He had never touched drugs before he moved here two years ago. He tried dope at a party. He says: "I took it because my friends were there, I was curious as it seemed everyone was doing it around me and I wanted to impress a girl I liked." Today, he says, "I am up for trying anything but generally I use ecstasy, ganja and magic mushrooms, because these are easier to get hold of here."

He says that drugs are available in the bars or on the streets of Varna, but he has ensured a regular supply through a contact he made when he first came to the country. He can either pick up his stash in Varna or the supplier will deliver to R's front door. One might be forgiven for thinking that R is an irresponsible party animal or beach bum, but he has a well paid professional job and spends up to 150 leva a week on his habit.

R's casual view of drug taking is typical of many young users, both of the indigenous and expat population. R's standpoint echoes that of many of his contemporaries, whatever their background: "It's not expensive and the highs are great and I'm not affecting others."

Yet sometimes other people are affected, as 23-year-old Bulgarian, AH from Varna, explains. "I spend around 200 leva every 10 days. I work to support my habit but I have robbed houses to get the money when work is short. I know it's wrong but I can't help it. I need to get it. I feel my drugs are more important to me than food."

The youths interviewed felt that singling out Bulgaria was irrelevant, pointing out that the problem is no different to any other country in Europe. But all of the expats felt that drugs were far easier to get hold of in Bulgaria and more socially acceptable than in the UK.

As with alcohol consumption, peer pressure plays an important role with youngsters. The belief that everyone else is doing it is usually enough to get them to try their first spliff. The euphoria that follows, and the fact that at first they see no ill effects, can often lead to more frequent use and potentially an addiction to harder drugs.

Although for some it is a way of life, not everyone who tries drugs becomes a serious user. The youngsters most at risk of drug dependence are those who use them to escape problems like abuse, loss or depression. PG explained that personal trauma was the reason he turned to drugs five years ago when he was 15: "My father died unexpectedly. I was upset and taking my first drugs helped me to chill out without a care in the world. It took away the pain I had from losing him."

Thirty years ago a parent's greatest worry was that their child would start smoking, drinking or having sex, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Today these are minor issues when compared to the possibility that your child may develop a drug habit.

Education about drug abuse is not as widespread here as in other European countries. Bulgaria's attempts to educate schoolchildren about the dangers appear to have little effect on curbing the rise in drug use among teens and young adults.

Bulgarian youths have a cavalier attitude about the issue, in the same way that kids scorned their parents' overprotectiveness about booze and fags a generation ago, and the problem seems set to escalate, just as it has done in the West.

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