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Shooting Blindly in the War on Drugs

The government’s own report says Romania is mishandling its war on illegal narcotics. 12 January 2004 BUCHAREST, Romania--Hemp farmers and drug addicts are suffering equally as a result of poor law enforcement, insufficient funding, and erratic strategizing when it comes to the Romanian government’s battle against illegal drugs.

That’s the surprisingly critical conclusion of the year-end report by the country’s own National Anti-Drug Agency, the government body funded by the Interior Ministry and the administration that began supervising Romania’s anti-drug strategy six months ago.

"So far we have heard only unofficial grumbles and other sounds of discontent from various bodies … but had no backlash against our staunch criticism," said agency spokesperson Melania Marcu.

"Still, the year is young," she added, seeming to indicate that the agency is willing to wait for a course correction in the county’s approach to eradicating its narcotics problem.

From a country that had virtually no consumption, traffic, or production of illegal drugs before 1989, Romania is now firmly part of the so-called Balkan route, the geographic path along which drugs travel into Western Europe and beyond.

On that count, the evolution of this Southeastern European country parallels that of other transitioning countries in parts of former communist Europe, where the opening of borders, rapid and sometimes ad-hoc legislative development, and under-prepared law enforcement agencies have allowed criminal organizations to take root and flourish.

Reflecting this situation, most of the conclusions in Romania’s National Anti-Drug Agency's evaluation are sweeping and negative. Among other things, the report states that international and national laws are not being enforced, that government agencies do not cooperate among themselves or with civil society organizations, and that treatment centres and organizations working to reintegrate drug addicts into society are not as numerous as they are reported to be.

The damage that inadequate funding inflicts on drug addicts is illustrated in the amount of money Romania spends annually on each patient: 77 euros (approximately $100). In contrast, the European average is 2,011 euros (about $2,583). Sweden devotes 6,058 euros (about $7,782) and Belgium 3,470 euros (about $4,457) to each patient's treatment.

Citing a range of conflicting figures from various official sources, the report also concludes that the agency has failed to correctly estimate the number of drug users in Romania. It accuses the anti-drug program of "not keeping track of such people for statistical purposes, not conducting studies, surveys, or inquires for speedy evaluation," in spite of legal provisions that mandate such activities.

HEMP FARMERS TARGETED

Against the backdrop of ever-changing laws and half-measures in Romania’s war on drugs, legitimate hemp farmers have paid a high price.

According to the report, "From an exporter, Romania [became] an importer of hemp due to incoherent and inconsistent monitoring of hemp fields and the use of inadequate indicators, which led to overstatements regarding the actual danger of cultivating this plant for industrial purposes."

Indeed, faced with the prospect of 15-year prison terms and the glare of the media over government raids on fields where hemp was being grown for legal industrial purposes--but was wrongly identified as cannabis--many farmers have simply given up. In 2003 only 2,000 hectares of hemp were registered, down from 50,000 hectares in 1990, according to Agriculture Ministry official Elena Tatomir.

Tatomir, who agrees with the agency’s findings, said "much of the hysteria was motivated by poor knowledge of the legal provisions that regulate hemp cultivation and production, from law enforcement agencies as well as media organizations."

This failing has had dire consequences for the livelihoods of individual farmers as well as for the national economy. Out of 28 plants that processed hemp stems into fibers, only two are left.

Hemp is used by the textile industry to make strong fabrics; the fibers are usually woven with cotton or synthetic fibers. Other uses include insulation, ship cable and canvases for painting. Tatomir said more uses are possible.

"We recently conducted a project with the German maker of BMWs to see if short fibers of hemp developed at our research institute at Lovrin, in western Romania, can be used in making the seats."

In the years since agricultural cooperatives were dismantled and rural properties restored to private owners, rural Romania has grown to approximately 4 million households that rely on subsistence agriculture, farming plots of up to 3 hectares.

These small farms are ideal for growing technical-use plants such as hemp, flax, sunflower, and rape; two tons of rape can bring in as much income as five tons of wheat but is considerably easier to grow.

Despite the missteps in the country’s drug war, there is evidence that Romania’s Agriculture Ministry senses that the cultivation of technical-use crops could become a lifeline for the Romanian farmer.

To that end, it has launched a two-pronged campaign to educate law enforcement agencies about the differences between various hemp varieties and to give financial incentives to farmers in the hopes of reviving domestic production in advance of the country’s planned EU accession in 2007.

By offering direct subsidies and partially subsidized bank credits for hemp cultivation, the ministry hopes to provide the soil in which seeds of a revived domestic production will grow, Tatomir said.

--by Dumitru Balaci
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