Bulgaria’s much-criticised draft Penal Code, rushed through Cabinet approval on January 15 while still yet to be re-edited and publicly discussed, has again come under fire – this time from a group of NGOs objecting to provisions that would increase penalties for small scale drug possession and cause “a mass incarceration crisis” in the country.
Bulgaria has some of the strictest drug laws in Europe – which has led to a staggering rise in the number of people in prison for non-violent drug-related offences over the past 20 years, a statement by the group of NGOs said.
In 1989, only 11 people were incarcerated in Bulgaria for drug offences. This number increased to 723 in 2004 and to 1155 in 2010. In 2011 there were 9885 people detained in prisons, of whom about 20 per cent are people who use drugs. Outside the prisons, levels of drug use remain unchanged in the country, according to the statement.
Bulgarian drug law currently levies a fine of up to 500 euro for insignificant drug possession. However, the new bill imposes mandatory imprisonment for cases of possession of any amount of any illegal drug – making no distinction between people who use (or are dependent on) drugs, and those who are selling or producing drugs for profit.
“Even worse, the new bill does not offer the option of drug treatment as an alternative to imprisonment – although this is recommended by the United Nations and in the European Union Drug Strategy (which Bulgaria has signed)”.
As a result, the bill will significantly increase the pressure on an already overcrowded Bulgarian court and prison system, and undermine the provision of health and social services to people who use drugs, the statement said.
“With these new proposals, Bulgaria is travelling in the opposite direction to what most other countries are doing,” according to Ann Fordham, Executive Director of International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).
“They are going backwards, while the rest of Europe is modernising their drug laws and implementing health-based approaches to drugs – policies that support, rather than punish, people who use drugs.”
Civil society organisations in Bulgaria and abroad have expressed their serious concerns about the bill, and have sent letters to the Ministry of Justice. However, the bill has been fast-tracked through the approval processes, ignoring inputs from civil society and even the National Council on Drugs, the statement said.
“Providing drug treatment as an alternative to imprisonment is best practice around the world,” said Anna Lyubenova, from the Initiative for Health Foundation in Bulgaria. “But it is not included in this bill, despite recommendations from the National Council on Drugs. This is a wasted opportunity”.
In a statement presented to the Ministry of Justice, several Bulgarian NGOs claimed that, “The proposed bill does not offer any progress… There has been public debate about the necessity to distinguish the simple user from the narcotic drugs dealer. The bill fails to do this”.
Another statement said, “The bill creates a real danger for young people to… be treated as dangerous criminals”. National and international groups are now lobbying the Bulgarian Parliament to seek revision of this bill in order to better reflect the global evidence of what does – and what does not – work in terms of drug policy.
“The latest statistics are that 570 000 people in Bulgaria have tried drugs . They would all fall foul of the law. Many of them are students and teenagers,” Lyubenova said
“What is proposed was already done 10 years ago when there was the idea of zero tolerance to drugs. Then we a clogging of the judicial system with many small cases, young people went to jail for small amounts of drug, increasing use is hidden as well as the increased incidence of HIV/AIDS. Measures of punishment should be combined with measures of treatment and prevention,” psychiatrist Georgi Vasilev told a news conference in Sofia.
“In terms of the history of Europe, this is taking a step back 50 years. The alternative to punishment is treatment /rehabilitation and resocialization . The new Penal Code creates the danger that a chronic disease such as addiction becomes a crime – and in this way the human rights of this vulnerable group are violated,” Elena Nikolova of the “Solidarity” Association said.
According to Rada Naslednikova of the Project Butterfly Sofia association, such repressive measures are populist , “because they give people a false sense that it creates a safer society”.
People who were heroin addicts would be subject to prison terms, for something that was treatable, with rehabilitation and resocialisation. “This is social genocide,” Nikolova said.
After being in prison, such people were much less likely to find a job, start a family and pay taxes. Further, their risk of diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis were increased. People became emotionally unfit and at increased risk of suicide, she said.
The most expensive solution for society was sending people to jail, Nikolova said.
The NGOs said that proposed Penal Code provisions also would be in contradiction to key European Union documents, including the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2013-1026 which calls on EU countries to provide alternatives to coercive sanctions, such as treatment, rehabilitation, aftercare and social integration for offenders who use drugs.
The organisations called on Bulgaria’s Parliament to revise the proposed text, taking into account the views of experts in the field of drug abuse and NGOs working on problems of drug abuse and drug policy.