Hungary: Drug Users Turn Themselves In

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Mar 27, 2005
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Feature: In Civil Obedience Campaign, Hungarian Drug Users Turn Themselves In


For the past month, drug users and former drug users have been giving Hungarian police fits as they march up to police stations and turn themselves in, demanding to be charged as violators of the country's repressive -- by European standards -- drug laws, according to reports from participants and organizers. The campaign has managed to put drug reform in the media spotlight just as a Hungarian parliamentary committee examining the subject is getting underway.

The unique protest began in late March, when, under the glare of dozens of TV cameras, three activists escorted by lawyers from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union went to Budapest police headquarters to turn themselves in for their drug use. Surprised police hustled the three into the building to record their confessions, then transferred them to a police laboratory for a urinalysis. They have since been released and are awaiting formal offers from prosecutors to take six months of drug treatment or choose criminal prosecution. Most activists intend to seek prosecution, organizers said.

The self-confessed drug criminals have since kept coming, and are beginning to include well-respected and well-known Hungarians. Eight people turned themselves in the first week in April, and approximately 30 had done so by this week. Earlier this month, established Hungarian novelist and literary figure Julia Langh, a 63-year-old grandmother, joined the civil obedience campaign, appearing at her local police station to announce that she had been using cannabis without ill effect for forty years -- a move that rekindled the media spotlight on the issue.

Organized by the Hemp Seed Association, or Kendermag, a nonprofit group that advocates for drug users' rights and drug reform in Hungary, the "Civil Obedience" campaign is designed to express discontent with Hungary's drug laws. Under those laws, simple possession of illicit drugs, including cannabis, can result in a two-year prison sentence. In a 2003 "reform," the ruling Socialist-Liberal government created the option of a six-month stay in a drug treatment program. In the rhetoric of the current government, drug users are not "criminals" but "sick people" who need treatment. That is not a paradigm Hemp Seed and other reformers are buying, and by presenting themselves for arrest, drug users hope to point out the glaring injustice of those laws, organizers said.

With some 4,000 drug arrests annually, 90% of them for simple possession, according to government figures, the prosecution of drug users is keeping the courts busy. And with a series of raids on raves where hundreds were arrested on drug charges, police aren't helping.

"This is about sincerity and fairness," said Peter Juhasz, spokesman for the Hemp Seed Association. "If you are a drug user you face criminal prosecution every day -- whether you are arrested is only a matter of luck. The government says it does not intend to imprison and criminalize drug users, but this is evidence that is not true. Just because you smoked a joint some weeks ago, you can undergo a very humiliating procedure and the loss of your freedom. Only 1-2% of drug users in Hungary are problem users, and even they do not need imprisonment, only free and effective services to improve their quality of life."

Drug users just want to be respected and left alone, said Juhasz. "We don't believe in forced treatment and medicalization," he said. "We would like to show that we want to live as law-abiding citizens."

"Many people identify drug users as the dregs of society; let us show them that drug uses are sometimes well-respected people with a normal lifestyle," said Peter Sarosi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union's Drug Policy Project, whose attorneys accompany people turning themselves in and which has produced a how-to pamphlet telling people how to do it themselves. "When the police are arresting these people in front of the TV cameras, that shows the irrationality and injustice of the present law. It is also a sort of coming out for the movement."

The Hungarian campaign takes the Gandhian civil disobedience model and flips it, said Sarosi. "Civil obedience is a play on words," he explained. "It is modeled after civil disobedience movements, but it turns the philosophy of disobedience on its head: Why can't we protest by being obedient to the law we want to change? This is Gandhi-style passive resistance: Okay guys, if you think we're criminals, please arrest all of us who have ever used any kind of illicit drug," he told DRCNet.

The campaign has generated tons of publicity, said Sarosi. "The media response has been very intensive and also very positive. After the first arrests, it was the lead story in all the daily newspapers the next day. And you see very few articles or reports that are critical of the action, and those are coming from the right-wing press," he said. The continuing campaign has also led drug reformers to be invited onto television and radio talk shows and generated a letter of support from more than 50 drug treatment and prevention experts urging the government to accept Hemp Seed's proposal and decriminalize drug use.

The timing couldn't be better for the Hungarian drug reform movement, which got underway more than a decade ago with the formation of the HCLU, and the Hemp Seed Association, which cut its teeth with last year's May Million Marijuana March and is busily preparing for this year's. The government is moving on several fronts toward a revision of the drug laws. Discussions are going on among the government ministries on a new law and an ad hoc parliamentary committee to discuss drug policy issues was set up earlier this year.

Sarosi was guardedly optimistic about the prospects for progress on his country's drug laws. "The Alliance of Free Democrats {SZDSZ) last week introduced a proposal in parliament to completely abolish sanctions for simple drug possession, and the HCLU was invited to address one of the interministerial discussion panels. Of six experts tentatively hired by the parliamentary committee, five favor decriminalization, and one of them is another HCLU attorney, Andrea Pelle. We should be able to reach a certain consensus that drug users should not be punished -- in legal terms, that means some form of depenalization, maybe making possession an administrative offense punishable only by civil sanctions if the user causes a pubic nuisance."

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