Pubdate: Tue, 24 Nov 1998
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Media Group 1998
Author: Helena Smith in Athens


Greece has marked Europe's much-vaunted drug prevention week by cracking
down on shops specialising in hemp products - the virtually drug-free cousin
of cannabis.

Six of Greece's 15 self-styled Kannabishops have been shut down in a move
that could soon bring the country before the European Court.

Never mind that Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC,
praised hemp, a crop not only used as bedding in the Buckingham Palace
stables, but now widely subsidised by the European Union.

Or that each of the 500 items sold by the chain carried the very visible
warning: "Don't try to smoke this product. If you do, you will get nothing
but an awful headache. It does not contain THC (the psychoactive ingredient
in marijuana)."

Yiannis Ganiatsas, who imports merchandise for Kannabishops, lamented: "In
some cases the police have gone in and confiscated everything - shoes,
shirts, jewellery, postcards, the lot. I told them the only thing hemp
products turn people on to is the environment, and that we would take the
case to the European Court to prove that EU laws on the free movement of
goods were being violated. They seemed to think you could get high wearing a
hemp shirt."

The clamp, imposed by Athens' new public order minister, is in tune with
existing strict drugs laws in the country, which has Europe's
fastest-growing number of heroin addicts.

But it runs counter to recent attempts by the Socialist government to
introduce a softer approach to drug use, now widely regarded as Greece's
most serious social problem.

Last year stiff prison sentences for possessing recreational drugs such as
marijuana were revoked, although smokers caught red-handed are still
required to have long periods of counselling. The state has also funded the
opening of 36 therapeutic and drug prevention centres in less than a year.

The scale of the problem is such that heroin deaths have risen 200-fold in
two years. George Papandreou, European affairs minister, and a leading soft
drugs advocate, said: "There's now a real narcotics problem in Greece.
Addressing it by closing shops that sell absolutely harmless hemp materials
is both crazy and contradictory when we've got an entire mafia out there
selling hard drugs.

"The police always go for the easiest prey to make it look as if they're on
the job. Repressive measures never work."

But in a country where an estimated 100,000 people, 1 per cent of the
population, are hard-core addicts, such liberal beliefs are hard to swallow.
In spite of the stance of well-respected politicians like Mr Papandreou,
Greece is finding it increasingly difficult to shake off its reputation as
one of the world's most repressive states when it comes to drugs.

Unlike its EU partners, Greece has always adopted tough United States
policies. With legislation still prohibiting doctors from treating addicts,
the distinction between soft and hard drugs, addicts and non-addict users is

"The Kannabishops were targeted because they sold products that carried the
cannabis leaf logo," said a police chief at Athens' newly expanded
Anti-Drugs Squad. "This is a clear-cut promotion of cannabis which goes
against the 1988 United Nations charter on drugs and ultimately encourages
young people to experiment with them. This is our way of fighting a
modern-day scourge."

As the 15-member EU's only Balkan country, Greece has been flooded with
drugs brought in from Albania, its chaotic northern neighbour, since the
collapse of communism.

Last month police intercepted a train-load of mules carrying 200 tons of
hashish across the mountainless border. So bad is the problem that vast
quantities of heroin, shipped in from Turkey, are believed to be sneaked
into Greece daily from Albania.

"Around 95 per cent of the hashish and 75 per cent of the heroin entering
this country comes from Albania," said the officer whose rank forbids him to
reveal his identity. "The Albanians are now the biggest drug traffickers in
Europe after the Turks. What they are doing is even worse than the Internet
with all the lessons it now offers in making synthetic drugs."

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Checked-by: Don Beck