Slovenia’s sole grassroots harm reduction organization was forcefully displaced after authorities demolished a former factory in the capital city of Ljubljana.
On January 19, private security forces and police directed by the Municipality of Ljubljana evicted harm reduction organization Društvo AREAL and other members of the leftist Autonomous Rog Factory, a collective dating back to 2006, from a building once purposed as a bicycle factory, and which Društvo AREAL has called home since 2010. According to a press release by the collective, it was a “violent intervention,” with at least 13 people taken into custody and at least six requiring emergency medical care.
Harm reduction equipment, like sterile syringes and the opioid-overdose reversal medication naloxone, was apparently destroyed or is unretrievable. As of February 1, according to a Društvo AREAL Facebook post, authorities have yet to return confidential documents related to the group’s DBM Project, an initiative mostly serving migrants who use drugs.
As COVID-19 slams Slovenia, the grassroots harm reductionists are therefore displaced and at a loss for life-saving supplies, leaving the people they serve ever more vulnerable.
Video of the Autonomous Rog Factory eviction
An “Ever-Changing Social Formation” Under Attack
Autonomous Rog Factory served marginalized Slovenians, including street-based residents and undocumented migrants.
In 2016, the Municipality of Ljubljana decided to demolish Rog, a building it says it owns, and replace it with a hub for “creators, citizens, organizations and companies”—just excluding the Rog organizers, who are anti-fascists, feminists, migrant activists and, of course, harm reductionists. “Their policies are transforming the city [into] a Disneyland for tourists and putting profit over people,” wrote the collective in another statement. “This is a reason why they have announced a total war against us.”
The Municipality tried demolishing the ex-factory’s surrounding walls, accompanied by private security guard patrols. But the Autonomous activists fought back in the courts, asserting that they had rights to the city-owned property as members of the public, according to an Autonomous Ljubljana blog post. As a result of the legal filings, a court halted the Municipality’s plans.
Some Rog participants were tear-gassed, and a bulldozer soon followed.
Ljubljana authorities then targeted each of the activists, filing for their evictions. One of the cases reached the Supreme Court, only for the Municipality’s eviction claim to be thrown out in September 2019. Recounted by Autonomous Ljubljana, the court found that the city can’t order Rog participants’ removal because the publicly owned space was serving a public function due to its “amorphous, anonymous, and ever-changing social formation.”
Since then, eight cases have been ruled in the city’s favor, according to a Municipality press release on the day of the demolition. “[W]e monitored the events in the area of the former Rog factory,” wrote the Municipality, and “we were informed in recent weeks that Rog is empty.”
On the grounds of a supposed vacancy, police arrived early in the morning of January 19, only to find residents of the Autonomous Rog Factory present. Despite this, residents were removed by armed forces—Belin said that one of the contracted private-security services “is known to recruit neo-Nazis.” Some Rog participants were tear-gassed, and a bulldozer soon followed.
Video of Ljubljana police making arrests at the Autonomous Rog Factory
The international harm reduction community is denouncing the action. “We were shocked and outraged to learn of [Rog’s] destruction,” Juan Fernandez Ochoa, a spokesperson for the International Drug Policy Consortium, told Filter. “In this light, and considering that the world is going through one of the most challenging health crises in recent history, the destruction of Rog feels particularly contemptible. We immediately mobilised through different channels to call for accountability and redress, and hope Slovenian authorities will respond accordingly.”
The head of Harm Reduction International (HRI) also expressed outrage. “The destruction of društvo AREAL cuts a central service point for people who use drugs in an environment in which people already have inadequate access to support, sterile commodities, medicine and services,” Naomi Burke-Shyne, its executive director, told Filter. “It appears the actions of the police at the [Rog] were arbitrary and unlawful—with significant consequences for the health and safety of the community.”
Slovenia’s Record of Attacking User-Led Harm Reduction
The hostility comes despite Slovenia’s endorsement of some harm reduction measures, at least more so than its regional neighbors.
“At the principle level, harm reduction in Slovenia is good. We can praise the health sector because there is very little HIV and HCV is very well treated. Thanks are due to the fact that Slovenia started exchanging syringes very early,” said Belin.
The national drug policy explicitly supports harm reduction. (The United States’ policy does not.) Slovenia has 12 operational syringe exchanges, according to HRI’s 2020 report on the global state of harm reduction. Unlike many neighboring countries, Slovenia offers and fully funds provision of buprenorphine, methadone and slow-release morphine for patients with opioid use disorders, including those in prison. It’s also the only country in the Eurasia region, according to HRI, that has “[s]table drug checking services with adequate equipment.”
Even the the current administration of the Municipality of Ljubljana endorses and finances harm reduction organizations. “Effective approaches are needed at different levels for all the known and newly emerging forms of addiction, thereby reducing the harm faced by the addicts themselves, their families and the wider environment,” wrote Tilka Klančar, the head of the city’s Health and Social Care Department, in a city document.
“Programs started by drug users themselves … were violently taken over by the country’s favourite ‘professionals.'”
But that doesn’t ensure grassroots harm reductionists are well treated by politicians, despite the European Union’s latest Drug Strategy clearly highlighting “the importance of civil society participation and, in particular, about the value and crucial role of peer work, of autonomy and empowerment,” as Ochoa pointed out.
In fact, Belin said, grassroots-led harm reduction groups have historically been displaced and taken over. All “programs were started by drug users themselves and all these programs or projects were then violently, ugly taken over by the country’s favourite ‘professionals,’ whatever you imagine [that] a professional is. Such ‘takeovers’ have support in state policy.”
He’s seen this firsthand; it happened to him and Društvo AREAL’s ERNEST, the country’s first homeless shelter for people who use drugs and safe consumption site, which Belin operated between 2004 and 2008. Shortly after ERNEST’s start, Belin said, a state public health official, Milan Krek, who is now the director of the country’s national public health agency, began undermining his work by telling other agencies to not collaborate with him. Krek did not immediately respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
“The money started to disappear with the knowledge of the authorities and for the first time there was a scandal when the Shelter was cut off from electricity and water, and I didn’t get a salary for seven months.” said Belin, “…terrible.”
The harassment came to a head on October 27, 2008, he said, describing a raid that sounds all-too-familiar now to the activists of the Autonomous Rog Factory. “Masked police rushed into the ERNEST Shelter and all hell began. The police didn’t find anything—or they had to let me go, but they approached me in a different way. I went to jail [for] five months because I didn’t pay some bills (yes, of course, I didn’t because I didn’t get a salary, but I also had a seizure at home because” a funder failing to “pay the shelter’s running costs—[none to] my guilt.”
Despite his prosecution being dropped and his actually receiving damages, Belin said, the project was “destroyed.”
“I was projected as the bad guy.”
Now, Ljubljana authorities are framing the Autonomous Rog Factory, and specifically Belin’s Društvo AREAL, as a public safety hazard. A week after the raid, the Municipality published scandalizing photographs of the factory, claiming, among other things, that “a larger quantity of used and new drug needles and a larger quantity of illicit substances were found, of which the police were informed.” The relevant photograph, below, depicts a total of five capped syringes. For the Municipality, this raises “suspicions of various criminal activities.”
Društvo AREAL disputes the legitimacy of the photo, claiming that the pictured disorderliness was staged to undermine public support for the collective. After all, just a day before the demolition, they had documented the space themselves, with photographs (below) depicting a tidy office. They also reject the that used syringes were lying around.
“Someone, after the demolition […] deliberately took the syringes out of the box, arranged them according to the scattered documents and took a photo,” wrote Belin on the group’s Facebook page, adding that it’s “a bad, malicious manipulation by those people who have been using the politics of drugs for their own purposes in Slovenia for years.”
Photograph of Društvo AREAL’s space claimed to be taken a day before the demolition (Source: Društvo AREAL/Facebook)
The city of Ljubljana did not immediately respond to Filter’s request for comment.
What’s Next for Ljubljana’s Drug Users
While Slovenia has the second-lowest hepatitis C prevalence among drug users compared to 20 other European countries, and HIV is nearly non-existent—according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s 2020 report—overdoses seem to have been trending upwards since 2014. The only other European countries seeing such a rise are Finland and Ireland. Slovenia’s fatal overdose rate, at 41 per million people, is well above Europe’s average of 23.7 per million.
Ljubljana appears to be grappling with issues of a risky drug supply, according to the results of a drug checking service operated by Društvo Stigma, an internationally-funded NGO based in the city. Some pressed pills marketed as Xanax actually contain more-potent benzodiazepines; and cocaine quality is inconsistent, ranging from high purity to being laced increasingly with levamisole, a veterinary medication used to treat parasitic infections, and boric acid, an insecticide.
Public health authorities have showed limited support to Društvo AREAL, said Belin, as they work to address emerging drug trends. During the winter of 2019 and 2020, Belin noticed migrant participants seemed to be increasingly injecting pills, so he contacted Milan Krek “for new, larger [syringes], more suitable for those who inject crushed pills,” according to the February 1 Facebook post. “We didn’t get these. He didn’t answer calls and text anymore.” Krek did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
In the past 10 months, COVID-19 has “brutally affected the homeless population,” said Belin. There seem to be still too few resources that truly meet all their needs. “We have free drug users (in the streets) which … maybe they are wounded, or they smell bad, so they are still not accepted into these programs,” he said in a January 21, 2021 report on the COVID-19 situation of drug users by Correlation European Harm Reduction Network. “Because in Slovenia we really don’t have these permanent shelters for drug users which are really disabled or in a really bad condition. Hospitals maybe they accept them for two days and then release them. So they are now living in the streets.”
That’s not to say there isn’t successful, admirable work. During the COVID-19 crisis, there’s been take-home and prison-based access to opioid use disorder medication, harm reduction outreach and a small one-time payment to unhoused and unemployed people. Društvo AREAL distributes food and naloxone, and has experimented with a smartphone app that alerts a naloxone-trained volunteer closest to an app user who may be experiencing an overdose, the alarm being set off if the individual does not deactivate the alarm, according to a June 2020 report by the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association.
“So this is an invitation to deepen our bonds of solidarity, to stand up for each other, and to mobilize together against the logic of punishment.”
Belin is calling on harm reductionists around the world for support amid the crackdown. First, he said, just “to talk about these problems and injustices” would help his efforts. Second, he’s in need of “start-up funds to start a new” group, since he is now out of an office space and believes Društvo AREAL is in need a rebrand as Ljubljana authorities smear his activities. His budget goals, in the wake of the raid, don’t even compensation for himself and others: “We are used to working without pay because what we do is at the same time our life, which we just live.”
For Ochoa, what happened in Ljubljana concerns all harm reductionists. “An attack on our colleagues in Ljubljana, Abidjan or New York should be understood as an attack on our movement and our shared dignity. We probably wouldn’t have heard of what was going on in Ljubljana without our network and the Support. Don’t Punish campaign, through which we have collaborated for years with Društvo AREAL and hundreds of partners elsewhere. So this is very much an invitation to deepen our bonds of solidarity, to stand up for each other, and to mobilize together against the logic of punishment wherever it rears its ugly head.”
The struggles Belin has endured at the hands of the Slovenian state seem to be far from over.
“I’ve been in two wars—the next one seems to be coming.”
Photograph of the demolished Autonomous Rog Factory by @altepunks