Highs and lows

Drug abuse is a national concern among all social strata.

By KARIN KLOOSTERMAN
October 27, 2005 12:55
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Plying women with the date rape drug GHB, getting kicks from sniffing air conditioner coolants, and chugging bottles of spirits are somewhat new drug issues facing Israelis today. "The world is a global village," says Dr. Rachel Bar-Hamburger, chief scientist of Israel's Anti-Drug Authority. The government-run body studies illegal drug use in Israel, and Bar-Hamburger notices that when a drug trend starts elsewhere, Israel soon feels its effects. She regularly travels to Geneva, where she learns drug-busting policy and "trade secrets" at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters. According to Bar-Hamburger's statistics, one in 1,000 Israeli adults is using GHB either "for fun, for rape, or whatever." Bar-Hamburger, who has a PhD in pharmacology, knows that GHB causes users (or victims plied with it) to forget what they did under its influence. Some users say the drug has the power to erase one's memory an hour before it was ingested, making it nearly impossible for police to trace the events leading up to the crime. Until last year, GHB was not listed as an illegal substance in Israel. It is now a prohibited substance under Israeli law. Last month, a 52-year-old Yavne resident was arrested for manufacturing GHB, which afflicts victims with temporary amnesia and makes them unable to resist sexual advances. Police found 173 liters of the potion in a Rehov Ha'congress apartment in Tel Aviv that doubled as a lab. According to local press reports, the drug was set for export and use in Israel. Averting the attention from the date rape phenomenon, Bar-Hamburger says that people also use GHB for other purposes and ingest the material in liquid, powder, or pill form for a very short-lived and exciting high. The Anti-Drug Authority is to release new statistics in the next couple of months about the current state of drug use in Israel. Bar-Hamburger offered Metro some insider information. "People are waiting for a big increase in drug use, but I can tell you it's not true," says Bar-Hamburger, who supervises drug programs throughout the country based on the respective needs of communities. She estimates that Israeli drug stats are about the same as they were in 2001. The authority has recently added alcohol as a drug on its watchdog roster and is especially concerned about youths inhaling volatile chemicals. Bar-Hamburger was careful not to classify drug use in terms of "soft" and "hard" drugs, noting that some drugs are simply illegal. According to Israeli law, one of those drugs is marijuana. Cannabis can be soft to one person and have hard psychotropic effects on someone else, she says. About eight percent of Israelis between 18 and 40 have admitted to using cannabis at least once a year, while five percent of under 18's admitted to smoking the weed. Bar-Hamburger does not think she will see the day in Israel when people will be allowed to grow pot at home, citing too many horror stories where users have become mentally unstable or carry hidden paranoia for many years. R., a 39-year-old male who works with computers, thinks otherwise. He cultivates marijuana plants on his Tel Aviv balcony, making a hobby out of growing and smoking. With seed banks advertised on the Internet, R. explains that it is easier than ever to obtain genetic strains of marijuana from all over the world. "Living in Israel, where there is sun almost every day of the year, makes it a grower's paradise," says R., who proudly talks about his plants as though they were his children. On occasion he smokes, but he is "very anti any other drug," and says he suffers from an allergic reaction to alcohol. "Pot should definitely be legalized as in the Dutch system, where there are 'coffee shops' and good cannabis is available to everyone, detracting people from hard drugs and booze," he says. If he did not grow his own, he would be smoking pot anyway and financing drug dealers. "Many Israelis think that all that's available is the bad stuff that comes from the Negev Desert, with thousands of seeds and full of sand and dirt. Smoking that stuff gives me a headache. Maybe for that reason, most Israelis prefer to smoke hash." Despite some people's convictions about the medicinal properties of smoking organically grown pot, Bar-Hamburger maintains that marijuana is a poison. "It affects heart rate and blood pressure which, in turn, affect the body and mind," she says of the inhaled format, agreeing that medically supervised research on cannabis, such as the research carried out by Prof. Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University, is valid and important for medical drug development. Mechoulam was the first researcher to isolate the drug's active material THC from hashish in the early Sixties. The once-popular drug ecstasy, used by an estimated 17,000 Israelis per year, seems to be on a decline, while legal volatile drugs in the form of helium, Freon, and glue are rising - and, according to Bar-Hamburger, is the biggest problem among Israeli youth today. These drugs do not cost much, are relatively easy to find around the house, and entice nearly 8% of teenagers. Israeli youths are putting these substances into a plastic bag and inhaling, giving them a short-term high, sometimes to the point of loss of consciousness. The use of volatiles is found across the board, from teenagers in dire financial situations and broken families to stressed-out rich kids. The latest estimates indicate that 2.5% of teens are using cocaine, usually in conjunction with other drugs. The cost of coke is declining and is now affordable to the middle class at about NIS 150 per gram, says an undisclosed source. The global village effect Bar-Hamburger speaks of easily crosses over into Israel's Muslim population. Although alcohol is forbidden in Islamic culture, drugs are not. "The numbers concerning drug abuse in Israel are similar among Jews, Christians, and Muslims," she ascertains. As for the after-effects of the disengagement, she believes that drugs being smuggled into Israel will probably continue as they were previously - from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Other drugs smuggled by plane from Europe, the Far East, or South America will still likely crop up in Israel. "We use the same sources that the rest of the world uses," says Bar-Hamburger. New immigrants to Israel bring their habits along with them, she notes. The stress of adapting to a new country can exaggerate one's propensity to adopt and maintain a bad habit. On the evening before Rosh Hashana, hordes of Russian-speaking young people lined the parking lots from the Vox nightclub on Tel Aviv's Rehov Lillienblum nightlife axis. Car stereos cranked out music, while youths swigged clear liquid from bottles they rested on car hoods. Bar-Hamburger wants people to be aware that not only new immigrants from the former Soviet Union turn to alcohol escapism. All new immigrants bring their drinking habits with them, she says. By 2006, new policies on alcohol use and abuse will come into effect for the first time in Israel. Abuse, some organizations believe, happens when governing bodies are too restrictive. One group going against Israel's anti-drug policies has orchestrated a pro-cannabis campaign under the name Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf). The political party, headed by Boaz Wachtel, opposes the criminal attitude applied to cannabis use and the zero tolerance policy Israel has copied from US legislation. "We are harm reductionist activists," says Wachtel, who thinks that cannabis should be considered separate from other drugs and the European model and its attitude to drug use should be brought to Israel. He is all in favor of heroin addicts having access to unlimited clean needles and allowing them good treatments. "There is now an underground culture of addicts totally disconnected from the police because of police persecution and violence." In Europe, he says, people have a lower threshold for getting treatment because they are not afraid of the authorities as they are here. Ze'ev Balas, general manager of the Edelson Clinic for Treatment and Research of Drug Addicts (including methadone) at Tel Aviv's Surasky (Ichilov) Medical Center, echoes Wachtel's sentiments. On any given day, Balas sees about 130 people who come for their daily fix of methadone, a legally administered substitute to help wean addicts off heroin. When his patients are "good" - meaning that urine samples come back heroin-free - Balas says the clinic allows patients to take methadone home, allowing them time off from traveling to the clinic. Balas notes that this attitude is not found in Ministry of Health-run clinics. He says that the Edelson clinic's popularity is due to the fact that doctors and social workers take a "holistic" approach to helping people heal. The 300 addicts registered at the clinic are treated as though they are sick and "not drug addicts," explains Balas. He agrees with Wachtel that there is a need for more methadone clinics in Israel. Wachtel is concerned that Israel's war on drugs is manifested in a policy close to fascism, where in Tel Aviv many people are let off for drug possession with no penalties, whereas in the northern part of Israel - notably Rosh Pina, Safed, and Haifa - people are singled out and harassed because of the way they look. "Young Ethiopians and Arabs are more likely to be profiled, like blacks are in America," says Wachtel, who served as a military attach to the Israeli embassy in Washington DC for several years. Merav Betser, fundraiser for the anti-drug abuse association Al Sam, does not advocate drug use in any form. Al Sam is a non-profit group that aims to take at-risk youths off the streets and drug habit, under guidelines set by Israel's Anti-Drug Authority and the welfare ministry. About 1,500 youths aged 11-22 meet for one-on-one counseling to help them kick their habit at 11 walk-in clinics in major cities such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, Kfar Saba. and Ra'anana. Thousands more receive support through group meetings and special boarding schools. Marijuana, reports Al Sam's director, Ruth L. Rak, is the most common drug that Israeli youths are using. Among youths from the former Soviet Union, the drug of choice is heroin - a much more expensive drug that is often associated with criminal activities. Twenty-five percent of all youths receiving treatment are recent immigrants. Like many non-governmental organizations, Al Sam operates on a shoestring budget: One-quarter of its money comes from the Anti-Drug Authority, another quarter from local municipalities, and the rest from private donations. The group recently announced its first branch dedicated to the Arab sector in Shfaram, established with the help of Rabbi Yechiel Epstein. "Drug abuse is a common problem characterized by being a teenager," explains Betser. "This is a problematic age, and when youths are using helium, air conditioning gas, Freon, ecstasy, or glue, it's a temporary escape that they don't know how to stop. They don't yet know the costs - only the joy of using."

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