From society parties to the streets: Athenian drug use: Two Worlds Apart

The widespread use of cocaine over Christmas and New Year (23 Dec-7 Jan) once again this year, attested to by analysis of Athens’ wastewater at the Psyttalia plant, has been a hot topic of discussion in the first weeks of 2024. Psyttalia is where the sewage from most of Attica ends up.

A significant increase in the use of ‘party drugs’ was noted over the festive period, with cocaine and MDMA the two main substances that tend to be consumed in a festive, party context. According to Nikos Thomaidis, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Athens, their use spiked noticeably this Christmas.

Specifically, while the average daily consumption of cocaine for 2023 is estimated at 1.11 kilos (which corresponds to over 50,000 “lines”), it reportedly soared to over 2 kilos per day during the holidays. Similarly, in the last three days of 2022, consumption rose to 2.12 kg per day (around 100,000 lines, which corresponds to 50,000 users snorting two lines each) and remained high in the first days of 2023 at 1.85 kg per day (or around 90,000 lines).

However, the highest levels of cocaine use in 2023 were noted at an unexpected time of the year: the weekend before May Day (28–30 April). Over the long weekend, daily use peaked at 2.67 kg (or more than 130,000 lines).

However, even though overall cocaine use has gone up in recent years (rising to 1.36 kg/day, up from 0.48 kg/day in 2019), Athenian consumption is still quite low compared to other European cities. “Barcelona, Amsterdam and cities in Belgium record cocaine use that is ten times higher (or more)”, stresses Gerasimos Papanastasatos, head of the Research Department at KETHEA, the therapy center for dependent individuals, speaking to To Vima.

The use of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) also regularly doubles during holiday periods. However, the quantities consumed are far smaller: 28 grams per day were consumed in 2023 (corresponding to 280 pills), while in the period between Christmas 2022 and New Year 2023, consumption ranged from 42 to 87 grams per day (420 to 870 pills).

As Gerasimos Papanastasatos says, the last 20 years have witnessed a historic shift in drug abuse, especially on the street. “Whereas in the early 2000s, drug consumption was focused on opioids (heroin), it has now shifted to stimulants (cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine).”

Which makes for a different pattern of consumption. Unlike the consumption of “party drugs”, street drug use does not differentiate between weekdays and weekends, holidays and non-holiday periods. Cocaine is expensive and not readily accessible, so methamphetamine, the main ingredient in the drug known as ‘shisha’ on the street, is taken instead. In 2019, methamphetamine use in Athens doubled to exceed 100 grams per day for the first time. Its use in 2022 rose to a record 176 grams/day in Athens, but usage fell off in 2023 back to 2021 levels (120 grams/day).

But there is one truly classless drug: cannabis. The pattern of cannabis use resembles that of the party drugs: “From what we have seen, cannabis use typically increases on Fridays, Saturdays and less so on Sundays, then falls drastically over the working week,” Nikos Thomaidis explains. Average cannabis use between Friday and Sunday is estimated at 75 kg/day (about 500,000 “joints”), which falls to 32 kg/day (around 210,000 joints) between Monday and Thursday.

Finally, sedatives like benzodiazepines have come into widespread use in recent years, both as medicines and as drugs. They are the active substance in drugs like Xanax, Stedon and Lexotanil. On the streets of Athens, it has become quite common over the last decade to combine illegal stimulants with benzodiazepines. “There is a correlation between the use of benzodiazepines and stimulants,” professor Thomaidis notes, explaining that oxazepam, a fast-onset benzodiazepine, is used because, apart from being an active substance in its own right, it is also a metabolite for other benzodiazepines.

In 2022, just over 1.5 kg of oxazepam per day (1,511 grams) were consumed. During the second phase of the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, the use of oxazepam soared to 2.2 kg/day (2,214 grams), while in 2020 the daily use was estimated at 1,581 grams, a significant increase compared to 2019 (1,210 grams/day). Oxazepam use reached its highest levels in the years of the financial crisis, at 3.8 kg (3,770 grams) per day in 2014.

User profiles and psychology

The variety of substances to be found in significant quantities in Attica’s waste water suggests that drug use is not associated with a single social group or particular type of individual. “Use transcends demographic characteristics such as age, gender and economic status”, psychotherapist and psychiatrist Dimitris Papadimitriadis tells To Vima. However, as he underscores, there are certainly factors which can predispose someone more to drug use, including poverty, violence (especially in dysfunctional family environments) or limited access to education.

“There is a lifestyle that includes cocaine in its repertoire. Similarly, MDMA is part of the clubbing lifestyle,” says Papanastasatos. As he points out, “these substances are used to intensify pleasure in a particular context (a party, a relationship)” and their use is generally occasional. In a setting like this, potential users take a decision in the light of the allure of a particular substance: are they willing to take an unknown substance in order to have fun and make an impression on their social circle? In some cases, the decision to take a drug might be prompted by sexual interest in another person,” he notes.