'A Flashlight In the Dark'
ChEck iT!’s Roland Reithofer walks the fine line between support and prevention
Hanging unapologetically on the facade of Gumpendorferstrasse 8 are postcard-size flyers with the run down on the most controlled substances: cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis, LSD, speed – even alcohol. A black typeface on the door gives a detailed description of amphetamines, from its chemical makeup to long-term side effects. The logo on the blue sign above is the outline of a house; straightforward, unadorned yet appealing in its honesty.
Inside are the orderly rooms of ChEck iT!, an information and counseling center for recreational drug users, in existence since the rave and techno boom of the late 1990s. A white partition separates a spare seminar area with plastic chairs from two smaller rooms in the back: one relaxation room painted all in red, appropriately dubbed "the womb," where severe drug abusers can relax while receiving counseling, next to a less cozy green version where family counseling sessions are held. On the tables are stacks of colorful fliers explaining side effects and describing services.
Roland Reithofer, resident director of ChEck iT!, showed the place off as if it were his own apartment. A warm, young-looking 36, Reithofer represents a new face of drug prevention and risk reduction.
"We are like a flashlight in a dark room," Reithofer said over coffee in the seminar area. "Because illegal substances are sold on the black market, no one knows what is in the drugs they are buying. We give objective information."
But ‘checking’ drugs – the process of testing substances for unclean chemicals from which the program gets its name – is only a small part of the operation, he was quick to add. At first, in fact, it was impossible to tell whether Reithhofer loathed or supported recreational drug use or even if he promoted liberal drug policies. He spent the first ten years of his careers as a social worker helping the homeless and severe drug addicts, he explained, which may have given him a different perspective on the issue. As Reithofer described the day-to-day routine at ChEck iT!, it became clear the majority of efforts were invested in guiding individuals who wished to eliminate or reduce drug consumption, not assisting those who were rebelling against prohibitive drug laws.
For Reithofer, helping people rid their lives of drug abuse begins by building relationships: "These are often socially integrated people who hold a job and go out on weekends," he said of the majority of his clientele. "So no one thinks there is anything wrong. In order to advise people like this, we have to really offer something."
Many ChEck iT! services are there to help people through rough times: individual counseling, crisis intervention, group discussions, telephone hotlines, and even screenings documentaries on drug related themes are on the weekly agenda. Legal advice and relaxation sessions are also offered, in addition to nights where people can just come to play video games and ‘chill.’ There seemed to be a session for every drug, every type of user and every mood.
The majority of funding for ChEck iT! comes from the City of Vienna and the Austrian Ministry of Health, though the NGO receives additional support from private firms. But finding support isn’t always easy, Reithofer explained; "Addiction programs aren’t something that fits in with companies’ marketing schemes," he said with a mischievous grin.
Despite its range of services, ChEck iT! remains best known for drug analysis, which is available at the center as well as at parties and raves, where recreational drugs are sold in abundance. A ChEck iT! tent can be found at around 17 events a year; partygoers come with their drugs and are asked basic questions concerning the drugs’ origins. They are given a number to protect their anonymity and the drugs are then weighed, photographed, and a small test sample is taken for the test to proceed in a neighboring bus – a process that can take up to 35 minutes. Psychologists are on hand to consult, but drugs are never confiscated.
"If you take away their drugs they will just buy more, and then you are actually supporting the black market," Reithofer explained. "Abstinence is not achieved by provocaton."
Ecstasy, speed and cocaine are the most common drugs tested at these events. However marijuana abuse, interestingly, is the most common problem at the center. This is because of the hazy divide between ‘addiction’ and casual use.
"Controlled use of marijuana is very hard to define," he said, "It’s a fine line that is hard to see."
But Reithofer has not forgotten the risks of alcohol abuse and the statistics worry him. In Austria, there are 10,000 deaths a year due to nicotine and 10,000 related to alcohol abuse. For all other drugs put together: 300.
"Alcohol is a legal drug that is viewed very uncritically," he said in a somber tone. "It is consumed without anyone thinking twice about the potential risks involved. These risks are not taken seriously in comparison with how much is drunk in Austria."
But with the other organizations focusing on alcohol abuse, concentrating on illicit drugs – and the youth – may be ChEck iT!’s greatest strength. Feedback among young Austrians is generally positive, at least in regards to the ‘checking’ department. On an Internet forum for electronic music, responses were encouraging. Many were familiar with ChEck iT!, and those who were not seemed willing to try it out. The most interesting response, however, was perhaps also the most revealing: "It’s a very cool thing to have, so people who sell crap stop coming to parties," one respondent claimed. "Maybe then [partygoers] will stop being peaceful hippies and will start being pissed-off customers."
Recreational drug users are, after all, consumers like any others; without organizations like ChEck iT!, they may be exposed to avoidable dangers, as the numerous deaths in Holland and England in 2001-2002 due to ‘bad’ ecstasy pills may demonstrate. Analysis not only protects buyers, but also spreads awareness and brings users into contact with ChEck iT!, and its other services.
Preventing initial consumption, however, is the ultimate goal. Above all, Reihofer wants to help people make conscious decisions so they avoid addiction in the first place.
But perhaps even more important are the psychological motivations for addictive behavior.
"We are all afraid of change," Reithofer said, suggesting a comprehension of the human mind that may only come with years of work in such a field. "Most people will suffer longer than necessary before finding the courage to leave an addiction behind. It’s our job to help them find that courage."
ChEck iT! Home Base
6., Gumpendorferstrasse 8
(01) 585 12 12
Mon. - Thu.: 10:00 -17:00, Fri. 10:00 - 14:00