Organisations: DIA+LOGS (center for support for everyone affected by HIV/AIDS), HIV.LV Association HIV.LV and activists of the community of people who use drugs “Dveri” (“Doors”)
The event to celebrate “Support. Don’t Punish” campaign was held in the Cultural Center Kanapes (Cannabis in Latvian) in Riga, Latvia. The event was organized by several public organizations: DIA+LOGS (center for support for everyone affected by HIV/AIDS), HIV.LV Association HIV.LV and activists of the community of people who use drugs “Dveri” (“Doors”). The event included the exhibition of the film “Three Hope”: about DIA + LOGS activists, as well as a discussion on the topic “Is it necessary to punish drug use with criminal penalty?”
Janis Bekmanis, Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Astrida Stirna, Chief Narcologist at the Ministry of Health, and Agita Seya, Board Member of DIA + LOGS participated in the discussion. The discussion was facilitated by journalist I. Paparde. The event was attended by the representatives of the Ministry of Health, Riga City Council, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Probation Service and activists of the community of people who use drugs.
Agita Seya highlighted a public stereotype during the discussion: that drug use automatically leads to crime. In her opinion, people with drug dependence should be treated and not prosecuted. A criminal should be in prison, but a sick person should be in hospital. “There were always groups of people that were condemned by the society. Women with black hair were once considered witches, and burned at the stake. Maybe drug users should not be punished either?”
She noted that in this case it was not about supporting the illegal drug trade, but about the way people with dependency were treated by the society. “I would buy a clean drug at the pharmacy or grow a bush of marijuana in the garden with great pleasure myself, » Agita said.
Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Janis Bekmanis agreed that sanctions are not the solution. He, however, pointed out that Latvia is not ready to end criminal prosecution for drug use yet. “Penalty and administrative responsibility are necessary as a deterrent,” noted J. Bekmanis. He also added that the minimum term of imprisonment, 3 months, is applied after two administrative punishments. Unpaid fines, the cost of forensic examination, as well as the cost of a lawyer must be paid by the violator, and they still should be paid after serving the sentence. From his point of view, the Latvian laws are quite humane in relation to drug users, when compared with practices of other countries. However, the existing norms of responsibility and support for people are not sufficiently implemented in the country.
Astrida Stirna, chief narcologist at the Ministry of Health, confirms that it’s very seldom when compulsory treatment is offered instead of criminal punishment. According to her point of view, the assistance should be more accessible for people who want to recover from drug dependency. At the moment, most programs are provided on a fee basis, and not everyone who needs help can afford them.
Madara Lapsa, head of the rehab in Liepaja, says that former prisoners often become their patients and most of them were imprisoned not only for drug offenses. It was usually theft, burglary and other crimes. Drugs for these people is just the usual background of their life. They are forced to get involved in trafficking to earn for a new dose. Currently, special programs are being held in the Olaine prison for convicts who wish to recover from drug addiction, but this program only lasts a year, and it is difficult to wait for real results in a period of 3 months. “We need a drug policy that is based on human rights, health care, access to rehabilitation and harm reduction services,” Madara Lapsa said.
Thus, the discussion after watching the film was very lively and interesting. There are so many unresolved issues in Latvia that there was not enough time to discuss all the issues of drug policy, rehabilitation and prevention. As a result, everyone agreed that decriminalisation is necessary, as well as a broad discussion in society and the media. The economic and legal development of the Latvian society is necessary, which means greater tolerance towards people with “other” views.