The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

Conservative Russia: Assailing Addiction

Russia is now the largest user of heroin in the world. From bbc.co.uk:

“The head of Russia’s anti-narcotics service, Victor Ivanov, said that seizures of Afghan heroin were up 70%.

Mr Ivanov, a former KGB officer and senior Kremlin official, said the flood of the drug from Afghanistan posed a threat to Russia’s national security. […] He said the drug was partly to blame for rising crime and a fall in Russia’s population. “In recent years Russia has not just become massively hooked on Afghan opiates, it has also become the world’s absolute leader in the opiate trade and the number one heroin consumer,” he said in a report made available to reporters.

“Drug trafficking has become a key negative factor for demography and a blow to our nation’s gene pool… [and] a challenge to Russia’s civilisation.”

The Russian health ministry says Russia has up to 2.5 million drug addicts out of a population of some 140 million, most of them aged between 18 and 39.”

This stunning statistic slams home a malignant double whammy for Russia. Not only does heroin addiction reap its usual icy devastation on individual and community, it also helps oil the motor of demographic decline by doing so to the most fertile age group.

To date, Russian drug policy has centered on a zero tolerance approach of tough punishment, cold-turkey withdrawal and willpower.

A BBC photographic essay on a drug rehabilitation program in Yekaterinburg, where, according to the corporation, heroin has claimed the lives of over 50,000 out of a population of 1.3 mn since 1999, offers further insight:

“Addicts who come to the all-male centre at Izoplit [run by a private fund Drug-Free City], most of them at the insistence of their parents, spend the first 27 days “in quarantine”.

They live together in a crowded, barred room, fed on a “monastic diet” of bread and water to clean their system.

[…]

Addicts are asked to handcuff themselves to their bunks initially, to keep them restrained during the agony of lomki (cold turkey).”

Such methods are sharply criticised by NGO Human Rights Watch, which says that Russian efforts at treatment are “compounding the country’s serious illicit drug use and drug dependence problem and further putting drug users at increased risk for other serious diseases.”

HRW criticized the paucity of rehabilitation treatment, arguing that research “has clearly established that detoxification treatment on its own is not effective treatment”, but said that many drug users don’t even seek treatment because of the “state policy under which drug-dependent persons who voluntarily seek treatment are put on a drug-user registry. This registry is used to restrict drug users in their rights and is perceived as stigmatizing by most drug users.”

However, first among HRW’s criticisms was that Russian policy explicitly prohibited “the use of effective and best researched drug dependence treatment approach for opiate dependence, methadone or buprenorphine maintenance treatment.”

Methadone, a synthetic opioid, is favoured in the West as a treatment because of its ability to relieve craving, suppress withdrawal symptoms, and block the euphoric effects associated with heroin. However, in Russia, to discuss its use is heretical, according to the New York Times:

“Methadone has critics in many countries, who argue that it replaces one form of opiate addiction with another; in Russia even talking about it can provoke legal sanction.

“There is no possibility to have a normal discussion about this issue,” said Dr. Vladimir D. Mendelevich, director of the Institute for Research Into Psychological Health, in Kazan, 500 miles east of Moscow.

After the conference in February, which Dr. Mendelevich helped organize, Moscow’s legislature began an inquiry into whether he had engaged in “drug propaganda,” and it called on prosecutors to open a case against him, he said.

Several years ago, prosecutors filed administrative charges against him after he posted reports on methadone treatment to his Web site. The charges were eventually dropped, but he was forced to take down the site.”

Of course, methadone is not perfect, but by bringing addicts into the system, it frees them from the need to engage in criminal activities to feed their cravings, puts in place a structured program for detoxification and rehabilitation, and provides support beyond ad-hoc individual efforts to quit.

Even in the West, however, many view rehabilitation and methadone programs with disdain. Will power, for them, should be enough. Social stigma, rather than being a barrier for seeking treatment, is an effective incentive to quit or never start. Besides, they wonder, why should their taxes go ‘mollycoddling’ ‘junkies’?.

The Parallax Brief suspects Ivan Six-Pack holds similar views, and HRW admits as much in its report, arguing that the Russian “…public often blame drug users for their failure to overcome their drug dependence.”

Often, the Western press slothfully assumes that there remains in modern Russia at least the remnants of the Soviet aversion to frank discussion social problems, and this, combined with an autocratic, cruel government ill suited to dealing with modern problems, is the basis of a Russia’s tough drug policy.

This, however, would be wrong: it is simply an extension of the public opinion.

An introduction to the Parallax Brief’s ‘Conservative Russia’ series can be found here.

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2 Responses

  1. Sleeper says:

    I remember speaking to Christian Caryl at Newsweek about 6 years ago, and he was doing an article about the drug trade in Russia. His view was that Russia was unusual in that the drug trade was de facto legalised. By this he meant that at street level, most drug dealers operated under the krysha of the local militsia, who regulated trade, stopped other dealers coming in to the turf, and so on.
    In addition, most drugs are imported by small traders, who bribe the border police. Also I believe a lot of heroin is imported by army and silovik structures – Yuliya Latynina talked about this in one of her novels.

    The thing is that because the authorities are so corrupt, there is no room for drug gangs, which is why Russia is mercifully free of drug related violence. So this is what I mean by de facto legalisation. De jure, of course, it’s very illegal. But there is almost no public debate about the drug problem, because this would threaten the revenues of these powerful people. I’ve lived in Russia for 10 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard about a cocaine bust. I can only imagine who is making all the money from supplying coke to Moscow’s jeunesse doree. But no one is investigating this, and the anti-drug campaigners are not encouraged at all – needle swap programs get no help from the authorities. Because if there is any public debate about the problem, certain important people lose their revenue.

    • parallaxbrief says:

      That’s very interesting analysis. Thanks.

      In the end, it all comes down to corruption in Russia. Even if they had the best policies in the world, it would be difficult to implement them, because the country is rotten.

      Really, the idea that the militsya should be involved seems obvious. I mean, if a militsya man can be bribed with 200-500 rubles to forget about just about any public disorder/traffic crime, how much sway are drug barons going to hold?? Infinite, is the answer.

      It seems to me to strengthen the argument for greater efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration. If you’re not going to beat the drug trade because of a vast, porus southern border and corrupt and inefficient policing, you might as well try to do something about the result of this — that is, on the demand side. Better and more clued in education to try to make sure people never start, and enhanced efforts to deal with people once they do, with the aim of holding their hand toward full recovery.

      Russia just can’t go on like this.

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