Six men come to a carefully maintained city park. They pass a fenced playground and get lost in the bushes for a while. When they leave after a while, some of them are still looking at the bags of white crystalline substance they just bought.
Left behind on the ground is a syringe, bottled water for diluting the drug during intravenous administration, and cotton swabs for filtering unwanted substances before intravenous administration (see photo gallery).
The scene takes place on Friday morning in Na Skalce Park in Smíchov, Prague. Similar scenes can be seen daily in the nearby Mrázovka and Santoška parks. And it is not an exception that drug addicts inject substances into their veins right on the sidewalk next to the intersection at Anděl, in one of the busiest places in the Czech Republic.
In recent years, Prague 5 has become the center of the capital – for people addicted to “the needle”.
“Mrázovka is beautiful and we have it closer, but we prefer to go to the park here, to a more visible place. There aren’t that many people here who lie down and fart,” says Anna, who came to Na Skalce park as a nanny with a sleeping child in a stroller. He regularly comes across users injecting drugs in the park. Or they trade with them. “Sometimes I witness it. They don’t really care if anyone sees them or not, unless of course it’s the police,” says Anna.
Drug addicts have been an increasingly hot topic for local residents in recent years.
“We meet them here every day. They get replacement drugs and go to inject them at our place in Santoška. There they lie down, have a drink, sometimes undress, throw out the garbage. There is a lot of excrement from them, so when my dog runs away, it lies there for two days. He gets poisoned by something, you can’t keep an eye on it,” says pensioner Tomáš, who came to Santoška to walk his border collie. “On the one hand, I feel sorry for them. On the other hand, there are a lot of young people among them who wouldn’t have to do it,” thinks Tomáš.
Canceled contact center? The situation worsened
The contact center of the non-profit organization Sananim is located right on Skalka, which provides assistance to people at risk of drug addiction and their loved ones. It is one of only two “ducks” left in Prague – similar centers in Prague 1, 2, 5, 7 and 11 have closed since 2009.
Last year, the City Hall of Prague 5 – still under the previous management – terminated the lease agreement with the Stage 5 contact center at Plzeňská Street. But the situation in Smíchov paradoxically worsened, explains field worker Radek. Usually he goes around clients directly in the streets, but today he stops by colleagues in the contact center.
“In the Na Skalka contact center, after the cancellation of Stage 5, contacts and performance increased by 100 percent. And community work in the area, for example in the adjacent park, has increased tenfold. There are many more clients, i.e. problem users of addictive substances, and thus there is much more infectious waste. It is impossible to prosecute. According to the World Health Organization, there should be one contact center per 100,000 inhabitants, yet there are only two in the whole of Prague. You can simply calculate that nine of them are missing,” describes Radek.
Meanwhile, a pair of people enter the contact center, at first glance addicted to hard drugs. They pour used syringes into a tin tray that folds into a closed bin and receive new ones. A woman complains that she is threatened with prison due to a physical conflict. “I’ve already sat six times, now I’m facing 10 years,” she says worriedly.
A decently dressed man arrives who at first glance does not appear to be a drug addict. Replaces syringes with new ones. The center serves – among other things – precisely for the collection of used material.
Users do bring syringes, for both selfish and altruistic reasons. First of all, if they don’t return any, they only get three free. But if they return the syringes, they get as many as they need. In addition, some of them also feel a sense of responsibility.
“They themselves do not want the image of a drug user to be created, which is rooted in the public. The users themselves collect it from others, so that they are not scolded by residents or the police,” Radek explains when he finally has time for a longer conversation after several days of work.
A syringe for three kroner will save treatment for half a million
According to Radek, after the cancellation of the Stage 5 contact center, 700 clean syringes are missing from the streets every day. When addicted people can’t get them for free, they look for them in other ways – either in pharmacies or from other users. This spreads HIV, hepatitis C and various other diseases in the population.
The protection of the entire society is precisely the argument that, according to Radek, the public should understand and accept contact centers as a benefit for everyone.
“We are primarily a public health service that protects the overall general population from the spread of communicable diseases, mainly hepatitis C and HIV. And at the same time, we relieve the overburdened healthcare system by providing some basic healthcare, or basic diagnostics. But the biggest benefit is precisely the exchange of syringes, thanks to which the Czech Republic has a completely privileged position among other European countries, i.e. a low incidence of HIV,” points out Radek.
He would therefore recommend to the public that people, despite all fear, should rather support such centers instead of disrupting them. “If they want to close all other low-threshold services, the problem will not disappear. On the contrary, it will take on a nuclear reaction and in a moment there will be a much bigger problem with excess overdoses, excess incidence of infectious diseases, with an excess of various other comorbidities associated with the use of addictive substances,” appeals the trained addictologist.
And he immediately calculates how much it pays to distribute syringes to people on the fringes of society.
“One needle, which costs plus or minus three crowns, can save the system several tens to hundreds of thousands. For example, the treatment of type C jaundice alone costs our system 450,000 crowns. That’s a very big difference between costs and benefits,” says a field worker who has been working on the streets of Prague for 10 years.
During these 10 years, he is said to have found no more than 10 syringes in children’s playgrounds.
“This is exactly the same hoax as syringes in cinemas and on public transport seats. I practically did not experience it in my practice. Most often, these are places where our clients meet, or where there are some corners near an open drug market. When the person buys a drug and a syringe, he wants to inject it as soon as possible,” he explains.
And that brings us to the crux of the problem: Why did Prague 5, specifically the Anděl intersection and several nearby parks, become the center of Prague’s drug scene?
Curfew changed everything
“In recent years, a specific unit of the criminal police, called Krystal, has developed in Prague 1, and it specializes in the elimination of street drug sales. At that time, we spent most of our time at the main station, on Wenceslas Square, the drug market was right there,” says Radek.
But everything changed with the arrival of covid. The government issued increasingly strict measures, tourists disappeared from Prague and the streets were completely deserted for a long time. That is, except for those who had nowhere to go.
“With the curfew, suddenly it was just us on the street – the field workers, our clients and the police. It was easy for the police to collect street drug sales, there started to be a big repression by the police. That’s why the market started to shift around 2020,” says Radek.
There were always a lot of people moving around the intersection near Anděl. Even at a time when tourists did not go to Prague. Anděl forms a natural intersection where the paths of the inhabitants of several large housing estates converge – from Barrandov through Stodůlky to Řepy. A large shopping center attracts more people, including tourists. In addition, it provides an opportunity for theft.
“A relatively large part of our clients is no longer worth stealing, because they have already been in prison several times, and thus they would be considered recidivists. Moreover, in the state of emergency, the penalties were higher. Clients at the lowest level of the social ladder prefer to earn by begging. In this regard, foreign tourists are better, who give more than Czechs,” says Radek.
In addition to theft and begging, the crowded streets also provide a kind of protection to drug addicts. Not anonymity, because they already know the police, field workers and each other well. But in the presence of witnesses and the police, drug addicts are less afraid of being attacked.
“The clients themselves are afraid of each other. Street drug sales work in such a way that I have something for myself and sell half of what I have to someone. For example, I dilute ‘gingerbread’ with paralen, I use ascorbic acid or vitamin C. In an area where there are many people, there is less risk that the person I cheated on will attack me,” explains the addictologist.
The third factor that attracted hard drug users to Smíchov, according to many testimonies, is the office of a local psychiatrist who willingly prescribes Subutex – a drug used for opioid addiction – and its generics to an unusually large extent. Field workers and local politicians talk about it openly.
According to experts, substitution treatment, if done correctly, is of irreplaceable importance. At the same time, some users claim that they have never tried “real drugs” such as heroin. However, they became quite quickly addicted to Subutex. Among the public, this practice then gives the impression that addicts are getting drugs for free.
Subutex and its generic equivalents operate as a unique item on the black market. Instead of one dose of heroin for 2,000 crowns, users only need a quarter of the powder to suppress withdrawal symptoms. They can buy it second hand for 60 crowns.
Mayor: Let the mayor hear it from the locals
The drug scene attracts the attention of the local public, the media and, of course, politicians. Newly elected mayor Radka Šimková, who replaced her colleague from Prague 5 Sobě Jaroslav Pašmik in September of this year, immediately after taking office announced that the city district had selected several candidates for the positions of so-called interventions. They should work in a similar way to the city police and supervise drug addicts.
However, as the mayor admits, cooperation with the city police, which should pay for these interventions, is still difficult.
“Seven candidates contacted us, we passed those contacts on to the city police. Some changed their minds, so only two went to the physical tests. And they failed in them,” the mayor describes.
According to Mayor Šimková, the municipality could apply for a grant in the coming months, which would enable it to employ its own workers, who would, for example, clean up the waste after drug users. Alternatively, the city district could issue a contract for one of the non-profit organizations that has experience with this.
But according to the mayor, the only real solution is what all politicians have been talking about for many years, but none of them is willing to implement it – to open additional services for drug users in other city districts.
Security belongs to the responsibility of Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda, who, after being elected to office, somewhat surprisingly, also took responsibility for the drug issue. Originally, drugs were supposed to belong to the councilor for social policy, which is Svoboda’s colleague from the ODS, Alexandra Udženija.
Šimková hopes that she will be able to convince Svoboda to, for example, have the city police prepare a map of crime in Prague or to open support centers for drug users in other parts of the city.
“I will convene a round table, a forum on security at the end of November. I want to invite non-profit organizations that work in the field, I want to invite the city police, the state police. And of course the mayor and responsible persons from the capital city of Prague. I mainly want to invite our citizens to share their experiences. The interaction of those responsible persons with the citizens who are troubled by the matter is the most powerful thing that affects politicians,” believes the mayor.