Drugs in Transition – The Substances of Time in Post-Communist Romania Liviu Alexandrescu

This blog entry has been written by Liviu Alexandrescu (@liviuAlexand) who is studying for a Ph.D. at the University of Lancaster. His research focuses mainly on the moral discourses and materialities of injecting NPS use.

Every year on the 26th of January, ‘nostalgics’ come to lay flowers, light up candles and celebrate Nicolae Ceaușescu’s birthday at his grave in Bucharest’s Ghencea cemetery. The former Romanian dictator’s body had been laid to rest there together with that of his wife Elena. It had taken less than an hour and a half for a military tribunal to decide they should face the firing squad, on the very first day of Christmas. The year was 1989 and a quarter of a century later, these elderly Romanians who sing ‘The Internationale’ and denounce the illegitimacy of the new capitalist order and political class, seem frozen in time as they sigh among tombs. They cannot recreate the past and they refuse to look forward to the future. They do not fit into the dominant narrative of condemning the past that announces the individual and collective moral goal of constructing the liberal society that would end the post-communist transition.
Like them, another group is stuck in the quicksand of this historical project. When the country reopened its boarders after the collapse of the USSR, it quickly became an active segment of the Balkan Route that moved heroin from Middle Eastern suppliers to Western European consumers via South-Eastern Europe. But in becoming a transit country Romania also became a consumption country and heroin the drug of choice for most injecting drug users (IDUs). Throughout these first decades of market democracy heroin users are the residual waste of transition, just like nostalgics. In choosing ‘addiction’ to dark goods, they fail to appropriate liberal choice and the freedom of the market (1). They fail to be rational consumers and legitimate choice-makers. If during the harsh deprivations of the last decade of communism the collective imaginary was haunted by the promise of the Western ‘El Dorado’ and its consumerist lifestyles, counterpublics like heroin users and nostalgics fail to enjoy its spoils – the former excessing on a single freedom-depriving ghost commodity, the latter not wanting to be liberated by the market at all.
In this context, heroin use and nostalgia can also be read as ways of opting out of transitional history. This means making the jump straight from the ‘Golden Age of Communism’ to the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ without abandoning one sacrificial generation after another in the corruption and social chaos that marks the passage. Drawing on her analysis of a popular hit song from the late ‘90s titled ‘Cryogeny Saves Romania’, Oana Popescu-Sandu (2) refers to such forms of ‘reverse nostalgia’ as ‘cryogenic strategies’ of putting oneself to sleep and wanting to wake up in the new world – freezing oneself throughout transition. The phenomenological qualities of heroin and opiates more generally favour such escapes into cryogenic zones. This is what the French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau describes in his Opium: The Diary of an Addict as the ‘season that never changes’ where the drug user stops suffering any alteration of time. Opium thus appears as a ‘fixative’ that freezes the passage of time – personal and historical.
But eventually local drug markets went through a phase of transition themselves. In 2008-2009 head shops (or ‘dream shops’ as the Romanian media called them) started to appear within urban and online spaces apparently selling ‘legal highs’, ‘bath salts’ or rare ‘ethnobotanical plants’ that would only interest researchers. Using such marketing strategies and surviving through successive waves of bans on the synthetic chemicals found in their composition, they were able make good profits until about 2012-2013, when legislative measures that complicate the process of obtaining shop licenses forced retailers to move these new psychoactive substance (NPS) either online or onto the unregulated street market. The most popular among injecting drug users have proven to be the amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) (synthetic cathinones, tryptamines, pyrovalerones etc.) that were increasingly associated by drug workers with surging HIV-infection rates and other health harms. Some estimates indicate that around 2011 – at the peak of the NPS trade – as many as one in every two IDUs in the capital Bucharest were using these novel stimulants. Data has also shown that the daily frequency of injecting ATS could be even more than three times higher on average than that of heroin. Significant numbers of heroin users on methadone-maintenance treatment started ‘self-medicating’ on ATS, encouraged by the absence of withdrawal sickness and reduced craving for opiates (3).
In this passage from heroin to stimulants, it is possible that some IDUs also saw a possibility of escaping ‘cryogenic time’. Stimulants excite the fabric of desire that consumer capitalism thrives on. As David Lenson (4) remarks, stimulants generalize desire and make it a stable condition in time, fluidizing it to the extent that its momentary objects of interest become irrelevant. It is the interest itself that most matters in moving from object to object with every split second. In doing so, stimulants seem to accelerate the flow of individual time and synchronize it with the rapid time of capitalist production and consumption. The head shops themselves replicated the legitimate consumer experience, as at least in the beginning they seemed to be part of the official economy. They challenged one to exert choice in presenting him/her with multitudes of vividly coloured packets to be checked out at the cash register. They directed desire not only onto the substance itself, but onto a lot of other status commodities as well. In this sense, injecting drug users could feel that they have been reinstated as healthy choice-making liberal subjects freed by the market from their ‘heroin bubbles’ through the will of their autonomous selves.
The ‘speed time’ of NPS and head shops came to stand in opposition with the cryogenic time of heroin and the tedious sacrificial time of the methadone clinic. The clinic proposes recovery as a slow but stable process in which one learns to affirm his or her future in accepting the carefully dosed discipline of the pill and in rejecting the dissolution of the time-bound self through the ‘quick fix’ (5). This slow sacrificial process gradually ties back together production and consumption (or labour and gratification) as the essence of capitalist time. In injecting ‘legal highs’ in the ATS range methadone patients tried to escape the flat time of recovery that the clinic offered and reconnect with the historical time of transition to consumer society. They did so through what seemed to be the most suitable strategy of treating malaise like nostalgia in the neoliberal world – visiting the shop and opting to buy instant gratification. In doing this they felt they could crawl out of both the freezer and the crypt of history.

1. See O’Malley, P. and M. Valverde (2004) ‘Pleasure, freedom and drugs: The uses of ‘pleasure’ in liberal governance of drug and alcohol consumption’, Sociology, Vol. 38, no.1: 25-42; and Reith, G. (2004) ‘Consumption and its discontents: Addiction, identity and the problems of freedom’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 55, no.2: 283-300.
2. In Todorova, M. and Z. Gille (Eds.) (2012) Post-Communist Nostalgia. New York and Oxford: Bergahn Books.
3. According to interview data collected by the author in Bucharest, Romania, in 2012.
4. In Lenson, D. (1995) On Drugs. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
5. See Klingemann, H. (2000) ‘”To every thing there is a season” – Social time and clock time in addiction treatment’, Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 51, no.8: 1231-1240.


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