Georgian addictionologists are raising the alarm
Picture yourself in a standard, one-bedroom apartment in the city outskirts. There is a distinguishable odor in the room, resembling that of the chemical lab.
David, 46, is the owner of this apartment. He lives here with his daughter, who is a student. David is a drug addict. He is nervously walking to and fro around the room, recalling intensly his bothersome hallucinations.
‘I first tried drugs during the Abkhaz war. Almost everyone from my generation has either become a drunkard or a drug addict,’ he says, looking out of the window, from which the gloomy, grey residential buildings could be seen in line with one another.
David is unemployed. The only reason he leaves the house is so that he can walk up a small hill where a few fir shrubs are growing, to collect some fir needles and prepare the so-called “Ephedra screw.
This compound has the intoxication-like effect of a narcotic and has already attracted Georgian experts’ attention.
The harm reduction field professionals are raising an alarm-a “fir-needle compound is becoming increasingly popular due to its affordability and low prices.
A plant known in Georgian medicine as “tskhenismukhla (ephedra) contains ephedrine alkaloids. Varieties of this fir shrub are common in Asia, Africa and America. Four species of ephedra can be found in the Caucasus, of which two of them can be found in Georgia. Drug addicts use these in different combinations in order to achieve a drug-like intoxication effect.
The first time David prepared the fir-needle drug was two years ago. However, the real fir-needle boom started in Tbilisi a few months ago, after it had turned out that these shrubs were growing in the wild nearby the city.
The homemade ‘screw’s’ drug lovers primarily take a liking to it for its long-lasting euphoria (as well as the harm it causes), which is similar to the “screw effect.
According to Khatuna Todadze, an addictionologist, the Head of the Global Foundation’s Methadone Substitution Therapy Program at the Center for Mental Health and Prevention of Addiction, the potential to become addiction to ephedra is rather high, whereas all highly toxic homemade drugs become even more harmful if chemical substances are added.
David Vadachkoria, an addictionologist, says it’s a serious problem, since several patients, whose health has been affected by the “fir-needle compound, have already turned to his private clinic.
In Vadachkoria’s words, drug users often add sleeping pills, petroleum and other harmful substances to ephedra in order to enhance its addictive potential, as well as consume it along with suboxone and methadone, thus further increasing its harmful effect.
‘It takes a few hours to prepare this compound. It’s not just made up of fir-needles. I also add many other things. This process requires concentration. I never cook it when my daughter is at home. It has a strong odor, and I have to air out the apartment afterwards,’ says David.
The ‘fir-needle compound’ or ‘Ephedra screw’ causes rapid physical and psychological dependency and inevitable health problems: body inanition, abscesses, sepsis, acute cardiac failure, inflammation of the skin and blood vessels, psychosis, depression…The addictionologist unanimously point to the fact that according to wide-spread practice, there are frequent cases of suicide attempts among the users of this drug.
‘Sometimes I talk to the walls, I have hallucinations and I suffer from convulsions. I do not want my daughter to see all that,’ says David, re-setting the hands of the run down clock on the wall. He can’t keep his hands from trembling.
The social workers are visiting David from time to time, offering him to join the harm reduction program, as well as some medical assistance.
Giorgi Mchedlishvili, one of the social workers, is a member of the ‘New Vector’ organization that is working with the drug addict community. Apart from David, he knows of many other “fir-needle compound users and has even witnessed cases of overdose.
‘The fir-needle consumption technology is developing fast and is reaching such a scale that there is a need to timely raise public awareness about it. The nature of this drug has not been thoroughly studied yet and that further increases the risk of its consumption. It’s a stimulant, under the influence of which a person can go without food and sleep for days. And this, in turn, finally depletes the body.’
Having interviewed the representatives of different community organizations, similar to the ‘New Vector,’ we have found out that the fir-needle drug has made its way into regions of Georgia within the span of just a few months.
The transport of the fir needles from Tbilisi to Imereti is quite typical, whereas in Kakheti and Samegreloit it is a ‘novelty’. Community organizations’ employs state that the situation is really disastrous in Gori and Rustavi where due to the favorable climatic conditions, this plant is growing as thrivingly as in the capital’s outskirts.
‘It’s good that it cannot be artificially cultivated, since it takes years for a coniferous plant to grow,’ says Lasha Abesadze, a coordinator of New Vector’s Rustavi branch.
While the harm reduction field experts are mulling over how to raise funds for studying the “fir-needle toxicity in laboratory conditions, governmental agencies cannot plan any measures against the “tenacious plant-the police are not allowed to arrest someone just for having the fir needles in hand.
According to the Georgian Interior Ministry’s latest drug report, the study conducted in 2015 revealed that the number of injected drug users was 49,700.
In Georgia, a treatment of abstinence syndrome caused by various substances is provided by a state-funded two-week detoxification program, which is in most cases ineffective. Whereas, this type of treatment and rehabilitation in Europe lasts for at least six months.
David does not care much about his status in the problem-drug users community. He just thinks of tomorrow’s fix, since he is afraid of “firneedle abstinence (‘withdrawals’).
‘I have never done anything illegal. I live in isolation. I’ve tried many times to quit this abominable substance, but I cannot handle it alone. I don’t want other people to be doomed like me in this country, where people like me are ‘treated’ by being placed in jail,’ he says.