Austerity is Fueling a Drugs and HIV Crisis in Greece

Last weekend, Greece performed well at the Eurovision Song Contest, with the rebetiko ballad "Alcohol is Free" performed by Koza Mostra coming in 6th place. But for Greeks suffering from mass unemployment, cuts to social services and pensions, and endless rounds of austerity, alcohol is not free—it is in fact taxed at one of the highest rates in Europe following steep rises in the VAT in 2010. As Greece's downward economic spiral continues without end, desperate Greeks are foregoing increasingly expensive alcohol for illegal drugs, made all the more dangerous by cuts in drug treatment services under austerity.

Several days ago, a report by VICE shed light on a drug called "sisa" (sometimes pronounced "shisha"), a methamphetamine derivative called by some "the cocaine of the poor." Without accurate government analysis of this new synthetic drug, speculation abounds. According to local addicts it often contains harmful additives "like battery acid, engine oil, shampoo and cooking salt." But at €1 - €2 a hit (and only €1.50 for a pipe), the price is right for the destitute, especially the growing numbers of homeless people on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities.

As drug use increases, drug treatment centers in Greece like those run by Okana (Organization Against Drugs) are having their budgets cut and in some cases being shut down for lack of funds. Without methadone treatment or needle exchange programs, addicts are tempted to reuse and share hypodermic needles to inject heroin or sisa. The results are not too surprising, even if their scale may shock: a 35-fold increase in HIV infections among drug users from 2010 to 2012.

This is the cruel logic of austerity—just as people are most in need of a safety net in the face of economic depression, public budgets are slashed and social services shrivel. The long-term fiscal costs of an HIV-epidemic in Greece will almost certainly outweigh the mere millions of Euros being cut from organizations focusing on prevention of HIV-transmission. But with a government whose only solution is to use police to drive out drug addicts from the city center of Athens, the human costs of ignoring the growing drug crisis in Greece are likely to be incalculable.