Outside a café just blocks off Omonia Square, a bustling marketplace in downtown Athens, Greeks in puffy jackets and worn blue jeans struggled to stay awake on a Spring afternoon, even as they sipped espresso and chain-smoked.
One could walk right past the place without knowing it’s where old Greeks go to hang out and snort heroin.
Inside the café, called “The Meeting,” stale cigarette smoke hung from the ceiling. I sat on a rickety chair against a wall facing a dark-haired Greek man who sat facing the door at the head of a long table. His eyes moved from his small black cell phone to the door as customers appeared. Below the table, he expertly handled a large baggie stuffed with several dozen smaller baggies containing low-quality heroin. Aging Greeks walked in and handed the dark-haired man five, sometimes 10 euros. Then they’d walk downstairs to the café’s basement, which they call “cockroaches,” where they’d snort the brown powder that smelled a little like vinegar.
Then they’d find a chair and light a cigarette. Some dozed off. Others stared toward their toes. A few kept up conversation, gossiping about friends.
“The heroin is shit,” Marios whispered.
Marios Atzemis is a former customer of the café. Between 1998 and 2009, Marios bought his heroin and cocaine up and down the narrow brick roads of downtown Athens. Now, at 42, he’s a public health advocate for Positive Voice, also known as the People Living with HIV Association. Marios is one of few people in Athens who is vocal about both his injection drug use and being HIV positive. His streetwise acumen is an asset for agencies trying to contain HIV infections, which tends to spread from prostitution and injection drug use.
“No one would ever take you here,” Marios told me as we sat down. He ordered me an orange Fanta from the cafe’s owner, a bald man who walked around with an apron and a notebook—just like any other cafe. I wondered why Marios was set on showing me The Meeting.
As an American journalist, I cover drug policy with a focus on America’s ongoing opioid crisis. Despite sympathetic awareness campaigns with bipartisan support, America’s opioid problem has only worsened over the years. The death toll rises higher and higher while legislators entangled in American mortality form more task forces and commissions. Meanwhile, heroin overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 2010.
As a former opioid and heroin user myself, it’s become both a personal journey and journalistic endeavor to understand the sharp rise of addiction and mortality. Global drug trends and policy form one piece of the puzzle. But getting to know drug users, how they live and who they are, which tends to be an afterthought in policy debates, provides the clearest window into the epidemic’s causes and conditions.
I came to Athens from America with firsthand knowledge. But Greece has many crises of its own. The latest estimates of the country’s debt load rings in at nearly €300 billion ($319 billion). Part of every debt relief package comes with harsh austerity measures. Since the 2008 crisis, Greeks have seen 12 tax hikes and 12 cuts to their pensions.