What I learned about addiction from a Czech crystal meth cook | Barbora Benesova

I was researching ideas for a documentary when a friend told me about a village in a rural region of the Czech Republic. He half-joked that when people in this place visited their family, the grandma wouldn’t bake fresh cakes to serve with coffee, as is the custom, but fresh meth. Most people in the village were on meth, he said, even those with children.

I grew up in 1980s Czechoslovakia when it was still part of the Soviet bloc. As a teenager I read Memento by Radek John and Zoo Station by Christiane F, both about meth and heroin addicts. When I was 20, I discovered that one of my childhood friends had become a heroin user. He was the only one from among his group who lived.

My recollection of those years is that drug use was heavily stigmatized and associated with certain subcultures, including parts of the Czech underground. Anyone caught in possession and prosecuted faced harsh moral censure and the real threat of a prison sentence. Many others were sent to psychiatric institutions, although not much was understood or tolerated about addiction as an illness. People in these institutions were misunderstood, misplaced and many of them got lost in time.

But the Velvet Revolution didn’t sweep away the problem, even if drug policy evolved. Due partly to a past as the eastern bloc’s center for pharmaceutical production, the Czech Republic now has the biggest methamphetamine problem of any European country and is Europe’s biggest supplier of meth (also known as crystal meth). It accounts for one in every two Czech admissions to specialized drug treatment, and nearly 90% of the illicit meth labs dismantled by law enforcement in the EU annually are Czech.

A former meth addict called Josef now runs a center for outpatient treatment in the north of the country. It was to Josef I turned to find out more about this phenomenon. This was May 2020, and much of Europe, including the UK, was in Covid lockdown, so I decided to drive from London across the continent back home.

Josef let me visit the center and told me that methamphetamine, known locally as “pervitin”, is mostly made by small home producers in kitchens or back-yard sheds. In the district Josef overseas, approximately half of meth “cooks” are female. They find their “ingredients” in cheap over-the-counter medicines bought from pharmacies in Poland, a short drive away.

Lenka: a portrait of methamphetamine addiction in the Czech Republic – videoLenka: a portrait of methamphetamine addiction in the Czech Republic – video

The person I really wanted to meet was a meth cook called Lenka. Her name was known in the meth community. There were a lot of stories about Lenka. When I finally tracked her down, I realized that the stereotype in my head of a long-term addict, constructed partly from American films, was plainly wrong. Lenka was a vibrant, hardworking person who played with words like a poet and made me laugh.

Lenka was looking after her aging parents, helping them with the house and their personal care needs. Their health was deteriorating and she was trying to stay away from cooking meth as much as possible. She worried that if anything happened to her, they would have no support and no care.

But she could sleep only a few hours a night, between helping her mother with bathroom visits and her father with the land, the animals and household tasks. Lenka was also holding down a full-time job at a local recycling center and in the evenings she worked more, supplementing a basic income by selling scrap metal from her shed.

I warmed to Lenka: she was smart and had a big heart. But it was clear to me that she wasn’t just choosing to stay on meth because it was a comfort in a lonely and isolated life, but because it was central to it. She carried a lot of responsibility and relied on meth to get by on barely any sleep. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, before pushing a big syringe into her arm, as we sat in the shed and she talked late into the evening.

While the Czech government has liberalized drug policy – ​​personal drug use and possession of small amounts are not criminalized – the stigma around addiction remains high. A network of addiction outpatient clinics similar to the center managed by Josef has expanded, but they are still greatly under-resourced, relying on NGO or private funding.

There’s an unmet human need, too, that may be sustaining the meth business. Lenka’s parents’ dependency on her was one of the most striking things about her story. This is not unique, it connects to a bigger story of rural Czech society, where families often stay close together, with children caring for elderly or dying parents. The level of personal sacrifice that is accepted and expected by the older generation is tied closely to the value placed on the family as a whole. But it carries a heavy price.

Lenka and I were born in the same year and the same country, and grew up in very similar surroundings. I came away from making the film wanting her to stop using meth. But I also wanted to understand her. And I could see how she was trapped in a cycle of needing it in order to keep working and supporting her family. Meth is sometimes referred to as the “worker’s drug” in central Europe, because migrants putting in 18-hour shifts on building sites or cleaning houses rely on it for the energy to keep going.

People like Lenka are harmed by drug use, but they also fall through the cracks in a system that even when it speaks the language of “harm reduction” still fails to see the complexity of their circumstances and their lives, much of it a result of chronic poverty and limited options. Meth addicts don’t need our pity, but they do need more of our empathy.

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