Austerity's Drug of Choice
Greece's infamous new drug, sisa, is basically meth and filler ingredients like battery acid, engine oil, shampoo, and cooking salt. The majority of its users are poor, often homeless, city dwellers reeling from the psychological and physical impacts...
A meeting with an anarchist in Exarcheia, a district of Athens. Photos by Henry Langston.
Standing in the Athens police headquarters, interviewing the director of the drug unit, I realized I had a bag of chemically enhanced crystal meth in my pocket. I’d bought it the night before from a Greek homeless man and had forgotten to throw it away. After the interview, I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, which is when some officers noticed the film crew I had brought along, who were recording from a distance.
Minutes later the cops dragged us into a holding room, the little packet of drugs still stuffed in my pants. They made some calls, glared at us, and eventually, reluctantly, released us—without ever searching me, thankfully. On my way out, I threw the baggie into the first garbage can I passed.
Several Greek police stations have been firebombed in recent months, so the cops have reason to be nervous, especially when they notice that they are being filmed. On our first evening in Athens, a different group of officers approached us and, after spotting our film crew down the street, demanded to see our papers. They deleted our footage and detained us for a couple of hours, until we’d managed to get our passports delivered to the station. Greece is a paranoid place at the moment. The police, fascists, anarchists, dealers, and drug users are all fighting for local supremacy and no one trusts anyone else.
The night before our close call at the Athens police headquarters, I was approached by a group of homeless people, one of whom was smoking some horrible-smelling stuff through what appeared to be a meth bowl made from an old lightbulb. Although I don’t speak Greek, I managed to let him know that I wanted to buy some of the drug, colloquially known as sisa. The homeless guy wandered off with my five-euro note, and afterward an old man grabbed my arm and shouted, “No, no take! Very bad.” I wasn’t going to smoke it, but I was very curious about Greece’s infamous new drug.
In 2012, Charalampos Poulopoulos, director of KETHEA, a government-funded antidrug, rehabilitation organization, authored a research paper titled “Economic Crisis in Greece: Risks and Challenges for Drug Policy and Strategy” for the journal Drugs and Alcohol Today. In it, he detailed the ways the Greek economic disaster has exacerbated drug use in the country, claiming that “rates of drug and alcohol consumption... as well as the associated mental-health problems are set to rise the longer the recession continues.” At its essence, the report provides data for the obvious: the instability that results from widespread and increasing nationwide poverty leads to hopelessness, health problems, and self-medication by way of street drugs.
“In the last two years drug users have become more self-destructive,” Charalampos wrote. “Especially in the region of Athens where the effects of economic crisis are more obvious.” According to him, it was around this time that sisa emerged on the market.
The basic ingredient of sisa is methamphetamine. Addicts have reported that it can also contain filler ingredients like battery acid, engine oil, shampoo, and cooking salt. “There is no official data on that,” Charalampos told me. “The General Chemical State Laboratory of Greece hasn’t gotten enough samples to reach any conclusions yet.”
Whatever’s in it, in many ways sisa is the epitome of an austerity drug. The majority of its users are poor, often homeless, city dwellers reeling from the psychological and physical impacts of a country in the grip of total economic collapse. In a country so broke that upper-middle-class families reportedly ate their Christmas dinners in unheated homes so they could afford a turkey, many users’ habits have become unsustainable. Addicts who’ve been priced out of using smack, crack, and meth have turned to sisa, which costs as little as two euros a hit.
As with most cheap highs, sisa comes with some nasty side effects, including “insomnia, delusions, heart attacks, and aggressiveness,” according to Charalampos. “It’s often compared with cocaine,” he said, though it acts faster, and the effects last longer than coke. “It’s the drug of the streets, produced in home-based laboratories.”
Sisa is the latest grim example in a global trend toward mass-produced synthetic drugs, from the skin-eating opiate cocktail krokodil in Siberia to South Africa’s new fascination with getting high from souped-up anti-AIDS meds to the bath-salts craze in America and the UK. These are cheap, DIY highs, so it’s no wonder that in poverty-stricken Greece, sisa has found a natural home.
The day we arrived in Athens, we approached a man as we walked through Exarcheia, a district that’s traditionally been home to anarchists and is now known for its high concentration of addicts. The man was glaring at the sky, shouting. I thought he was screaming at God, but it turned out he was just yelling about a broken traffic light. Cars swept past, their drivers giving him no opportunity to beg at their windows. He was inconsolable, flitting between rage and tears, but after I bought him an orange juice, he chilled out, said his name was Konstantinos, and told me all about sisa.
“The cocaine of the poor! It’s the cocaine of the poor!” he shouted. He said that people he knew who smoked too much were losing limbs. “If you smoke it for six months, you’ll be dead,” he said. He claimed that he wasn’t a user, but the next day I bumped into him again, and he beckoned for me to follow, squatted behind a car, and smoked a pipe full of sisa. It was the middle of the afternoon.
Sisa has become something of an urban legend in Athens; everyone knows it exists, but no one knows exactly what it is. The only people with any real understanding of it are its users, the police who bust them, and the dealers who fuel the epidemic. The rest of the country is too busy trying to ignore the country’s 58 percent youth-unemployment rate, the rise of the far right and the extreme left, an increasingly ineffective legal system, a political class reduced to selling the nation’s islands, and the European Union’s demands for austerity measures that may or may not be working. As such, reports about sisa in the Greek media have been rare.
“We found out about sisa from a paper by the European Center of Disease Prevention in November,” said Dani Vergou, the health editor of the newspaper Efsyn. Sisa was a mystery to her. She’d heard rumors, but “there’s not much research from the Greek authorities or the Ministry of Health. It just sounds dangerous.”
In the streets, though, people know all about it. On Kapodistriou Street, one of the most popular junkie hangouts in Athens, I met Kostas, Stathis, and Panagiotis—chronically homeless addicts who have been trying to kick sisa, without much success.
“There’s three ways you can take sisa,” said Stathis, who’s in his 40s. “With a pipe, with a syringe, or with a piece of aluminum, and I’ve seen people snorting it as well. But let me say that if you shoot it, you don’t have long to live. It destroys all vital organs from the inside.” I asked him if he knew of anyone who had died from taking it.
“Many,” Stathis said. “I know too many. For some, their innards rotted… It might give you other sorts of sicknesses, it might hit your liver, your heart, kidneys... anywhere.”
A bag of sisa we bought for $6.50. We suspect we were ripped off.
The three of them spoke darkly about sisa. “When I had it for the first time, it freaked me out,” Panagiotis said. “I didn’t like it. It tensed me up, I didn’t feel good at all.”
“It melts you,” Kostos said. “It hits others in their nervous system. It creates wounds on the body that don’t heal, they never close. It starts like a pimple and instead of healing, it grows. Even the user’s face is full of holes.”
“You see 50- to 60-year-old guys addicted to sisa. Men, women, wherever you look, sisa,” Panagiotis bleakly added. “Everywhere in Athens: alleys, squares, smoking all day long and looking for more sisa. You don’t hear about heroin anymore, or weed or pills. This is because sisa is a cheap drug… For me sisa is the drug that will destroy Greece.”
Later the trio took us to the Off Club, a day center for sisa addicts, where the attendants handed us zine-like comic books about the dangers of the drug. The club is located just off Exarcheia Square, which is cluttered with coffee shops, bars, gangs, teens, immigrants, and others on society’s margins. Near the square is the enormous building that houses Athens Polytechnic, one of Greece’s most prestigious universities, and where, in 1973, the military sent tanks to break up an antigovernment protest, resulting in 24 deaths. The police don’t patrol around here much; instead they stay in their riot vans on the square’s outskirts, smoking cigarettes, submachine guns hanging from their shoulders. A few anarchists I met harbor a conspiracy theory that the police themselves are behind the influx of sisa into the neighborhood.
In a nearby bar, we met a notorious young anarchist who we’ll call Alcander. In 2008, during the anarchist riots, he allegedly manufactured gasoline bombs and handed them out en masse. Two years ago, Alcander noticed that homeless drug addicts were acting differently; then he had the shit kicked out of him by a group of people he claimed were users. He said that he directly blames sisa for their wanton aggression, and the way he spoke about the drug made it sound demonic. “How can I tell if someone’s a sisa user? It’s easy—they’re unbalanced, unstable, like a psychopath. They have crazy eyes, are talking to themselves, and they are very aggressive. I think sisa is the worst drug in the world.”
I asked him why he thought local police officers were behind the distribution of the potentially fatal narcotic. “Some of [the users] came to us and said that the police told them to go to Exarcheia. They said, ‘We cannot do it anywhere else, they send us away from all the other territories, all the other squares. They said go to Exarcheia.’”
“So you believe it’s political?” I asked.
“Yeah, this whole social movement is starting to rise up, and they want to have an excuse to come in as a savior for the residents... They’ve done it before, like two decades ago with heroin.”
Greek anarchists have already begun fighting back against the sisa epidemic by coordinating attacks on dealers and users in an attempt to clean up their neighborhoods. “We want the children to play in Exarcheia Square and not have to worry about drug dealing,” Alcander said. Their goal doesn’t seem like it will be met any time soon, however. Users are scattered throughout the city and, presumably, other parts of the country. And over the course of our visit, sisa dealers appeared out of nowhere to sell their wares before charging off just as abruptly.
According to Alcander, some women in the area have been raped by sisa addicts. However, this could be a rumor inspired by the idea that sisa fuels sexual appetites—a description that some addicts agree with. Konstantinos said that after he smokes sisa, he usually ends up having wild, violent sex. And he wasn’t bragging; he looked upset about it.
A sisa user smoking his pipe on Kapodistriou Street.
As recently as 2009, it was a rarity to see homeless people in Athens. But since then, homelessness in Greece has gone up 25 percent, according to Greek activists, and today, a drive through the city feels like touring a never-ending Skid Row. The police have even started throwing the homeless in the back of vans and driving them out of Athens to Amigdaleza, an immigrant detention center, in an effort they’ve dubbed Operation Thetis, after Achilles’s mother. The word thetiko, taken from her name, means “positive,” but in the minds of the homeless people it targets and those who work with them, it’s nothing short of fascistic.
“This is crazy policing,” said Charalambos. “It pushes people with the problems to the margins, and toward criminal behavior.” While we were in Greece, the homeless people we spoke to claimed that at least twice a day, the police were conducting sweeps through the center of Athens to round up the homeless and drug addicts.
“We don’t know where they’re taking them or what they’re doing it for,” said one social worker, as I accompanied her on her nightly tours of addict hot spots. “It’s a mystery.” She was being coy; it was obvious what she thought the police were doing: cleansing the streets of undesirables.
A couple days later, we visited Kannigos Square, where prostitutes, addicts, and drug dealers (who, we’d been warned, were often armed) congregated. The atmosphere was tense: earlier that day, about 20 uniformed policemen had rounded up the homeless situated throughout the square and loaded them into three large buses. When we arrived, plainclothes cops were still milling around a crowd of tweaked-out sisa and heroin users.
The sergeant who had detained us and deleted our footage when we arrived in Athens was also there, so we hid our cameras and approached his colleagues. They told to us inquire at the local headquarters, which is how I ended up accidentally bringing sisa into a Greek police station, where I met George Kastanis, the director of the Athens narcotics division. He said that he thinks sisa originated in Africa and Asia, and although he told me he was increasingly worried about its popularity, he didn’t believe the drug was turning users into violent maniacs and rapists, which matched up with my own impressions—very few of the addicts I met had showed any signs of aggression. When I asked George about Operation Thetis, he told me that it had been enacted only once.
“But I saw something this morning that looked a lot like a sweep of the streets. Was that Thetis?” I asked.
“No. It’s something completely different,” George answered, adding that these detainees are taken to police stations where the cops check for outstanding warrants against them, and that most of the time, they’re set free after an hour and a half. When I asked him whether he believed schemes like Operation Thetis were useful, he looked as though the question made him uncomfortable and said, “I’m a policeman—I follow orders.”
The follwing day, before returning home, we bumped into Konstantinos again and took him to a bakery to get him some lunch. We stood in the sun, eating small, honey-covered balls of dough, while Konstantinos tried to explain something in broken English. He kept running his finger across his neck to clarify his point, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was a nice guy, the son of a prostitute who said he’d always been surrounded by drugs, whose quality of life had become immeasurably worse since Greece’s financial collapse. We gave him prints of some photos he’d asked for earlier, and he left smiling, saying he loved us.
“You know what he was trying to tell you before?” my translator asked me later. “That he loved you, but if you’d approached him in English that day underneath the traffic light, he would have got his sisa dealers to kill you for your cameras.”
Watch our new documentary, Sisa: Cocaine of the Poor, now on VICE.com
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