From Iceland — The Drug Trade is Wide Open

The Drug Trade is Wide Open

The Drug Trade is Wide Open

Published January 13, 2006

/// What inspired you to do investigative reporting on the Icelandic drug culture?
– In the beginning, Páll Bragi Kristjánsson, manager of Adult Children of Alcoholics, got in touch with me and asked if I would like to write about these things. I thought the drug culture was too far away from me, so I thought it over. I have five children of my own, the youngest one is nine. And I looked at this little girl and thought, ‘Why not? Why not go down and see these people and try to find out why they act this way?’ With this book, I was trying to make a picture of this drug world. I wasn’t trying to heal anything or anything like that, I just wanted to show people, this is the way it looks. There’s a lot of death and a lot of sad stories. I was thinking if young people are reading this and their parents were reading it, too, they would have something to talk about. Because if you’re going to fix those things, you have to know them. There’s one case where a young girl, who was a champion at glíma [Icelandic wrestling], was showing a lot of promise but now, at the age of 20, she’s been in [the treatment centre] Vogur twenty times.
/// That’s a pretty dramatic change. Did you see any reasons for such a change in some young people, but not others?
– I was trying to see, when I wrote this book, why some kids would make such a dramatic change, and I haven’t got the answers. No one has the answers. I just know how her story is. A lot of kids who had ADHD were prone to take drugs. It’s the same thing with alcohol or drugs. They say that 15% of people are prone to alcoholism. If you’re lucky, you fall into that 85%, and you can have a drink and stop when you like. But 15%, when they start their first drink or their first drug, they’re hooked. They can’t live without it. But some people can use it, and have control of it. That’s part of the problem, because someone who can’t handle it looks at them and says, “Well, that one can do it.”
/// Being a semi-remote island, I would think it’s difficult to bring drugs into Iceland.
– It’s just wide open. All the harbours, all around the country, are wide open. The drugs are not usually brought over in the hold of the ship. People sending drugs over to Iceland from countries like Germany or England will have divers attach the drugs to the bottom of the ship. And then these ships come to Iceland, to some little villages in the north and the west. And checking all the ships would take a lot of police and a lot of money, and a dog almost never goes on board a ship.
Look, I was a captain on a trawler. I know how these things work. You come back with the alcohol that you bought abroad, and two guys come on board asking if you’ve got any alcohol. You leave two or three bottles under the bed for them to find, and you say, “Here, just take this,” and everybody knows what’s going on – the customs officials are going to have a good time at home. They take a little look around, say, “OK everything is fine here,” and leave. Meanwhile, we’ve got 20 cases of alcohol in the toilet.
/// What efforts has the government made in combating the problem?
– In 2000, the Progressive Party said, ‘We are going to make Iceland drug-free by 2002.’ But look at this [opens an issue of Mannlíf]: in 1995, about 200 people checked in to Vogur for cannabis. In 2004, nearly 600. Amphetamines: 1995, about ten people. 220 people in 2004. Cocaine: seven people in 1995. 124 people in 2004. Ecstasy: in 1995, four people. In 2004, 104 people. You can see where this is going.
/// What do you account for the increase?
– I really don’t know. There are young people who are just careless. They say, ‘It’s OK to do this once or twice. And if we run into some trouble, we can just go to Vogur and it will be fixed.’ And that’s why you have to connect with your kids, and you have to talk about it.
/// What do you think can be done to stem the increase in drug use?
– I don’t know. A lot of volunteers are fighting against this, but somehow the problem is growing bigger and bigger. They’re talking about putting 60 billion [ISK, a little less than one billion USD] into a high-tech hospital, while my friend, [Skuggabörn documentary director] Lýður Árnason, who is also a doctor, said, “This is crazy. They should be giving that money to whatever volunteer groups are doing something positive.” I don’t think it’s enough to say, “In two years, we will clean Iceland of drugs,” You can’t do that. First, you have to know the problem, to know what you’re dealing with. But if I had told people after having seen all I’ve seen in the drug world over two years, I have the solution, I would be lying. But you have to take a closer look at it, and you have to put money into it, to try and find a way. You’re not going to promise to fix the problem; you’re just going to promise to fight the problem.
/// In the course of your research, what surprised you most?
– How close this all is. There was one former drug dealer who had me meet him at Perlan. He told me that this was one of his favourite places to sell, because it was the last place you would expect. It’s so close to us. I met one of the biggest drug dealers in Iceland. If he calls you and says his name, you have to pay him immediately. He’s almost at the top of the pyramid. There’s only one guy above him. He heard I was writing this book, got in touch with me, and asked me to meet him behind the Reykjavík skating rink. I didn’t know what he looked like. When he came up to me and told me his name, I was surprised. He looked like a carpenter, like someone who could be living next door to me. You couldn’t tell he was this person who breaks arms and legs. He looked just like a regular guy, and is living in one of the best neighbourhoods in Iceland, living next door to some Icelandic television star and some well-known businessman.
/// Did he say why he got in touch with you?
– I don’t know why he did. He said, “I know about this [drug] problem in this country, and I know I should quit.” He said that he didn’t want his kid growing up in drugs. But he says the same thing everyone else does – if I’m not doing it, someone else will.
/// After seeing all the types of treatment available in this country, what would you recommend someone do if they think they have a drug problem?
– The only hope is to check yourself in to Vogur immediately. But these people are always surprising me. I knew this one guy who went into Vogur and was clean for ten months. And then he relapsed, and he told me it was because he was getting depressed. I don’t know why, but some people just relapse again and again.
/// What steps do you think parents should take to keep their children away from drugs?
– Talk to them. They have to make clear what the price is. They have to get close to them, not in a controlling sense, but in a way that you would talk to your friend. And I think the way to stop this is to try to bring the stories you know over to your kids now.

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