An Illusory Drug War

The first scandal connected to the Russian federal law on narcotic and psychoactive substances blew up in the State Duma itself in February 1998, when the legislation was being heard. Activists distributed leaflets calling for the legalization of possession and use of soft drugs, namely hashish and marijuana. But more importantly, they also demanded that drug addicts no longer be prosecuted as criminals but treated correctly as sick people, and that the heroin substitute methadone be allowed in the course of treatment as in the West.

The following day, after law enforcement and Orthodox Church officials met at the Health Ministry to rally against the protest, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov promised to put the authors of the leaflet behind bars. Deputies took the opportunity to usher the law through the Duma.

It is a fact that Russia today is caught in the throws of an epidemic of drug abuse that has affected about 10 million people across the country. The number of addicts officially registered by the end of 1998 was 1 million, while the Interior Ministry puts the value of the annual illegal drugs trade in the country at $2 billion.

A year later, most of the dark prophecies of civil rights advocates appear to have been realized, with what they say is a massive increase in civil rights violations. Government figures recorded the arrest of more than 250,000 people in 1998 in connection with drug offenses, compared with 185,000 the year before.

State Duma deputy and civil rights advocate Valery Borshchov argues that no more than 8 percent of those arrested are dealers, while the rest - addicts or casual users - unwittingly face the same penalties as the dealers because of the secret list of classification he says is attached to the law. Drafted in December 1996 by the Health Ministry, the list is said to define what in the body text of the law is only referred to as a "large quantity" or "especially large quantity" of each type of drug. In the case of heroin, for example, 0.0005 grams of heroin is a "large amount" and anything more is an "especially large amount." So even though 0.0005 grams is not even visible to the naked eye, if an addict is found to be in possession of anything over this amount he faces at least a seven-year jail sentence, the same as a dealer caught with a whole ton of heroin.

Yevgeny Chernousov, a former Interior Ministry employee, now a member of the Moscow collegiate of lawyers, maintains this diminutive distinction makes it far easier for corrupt police officers to plant drugs on anyone "suspicious" as a means of extorting money from them. The main victims of such plants are Caucasians and underworld figures that the police are unable to detain on other charges, says Chernousov, whose claim becomes quite plausible when one considers just how often the newspapers and television report the detention of some alleged crime boss who was found to be in posse ssion of a single dose of heroin and a round from a Makarov pistol. Lengthy prison sentences are later passed on the grounds of these felonies.

This list has never been publicly made available, neither in the press nor the criminal code - which already renders it anti-constitutional - yet the upholders of Russian justice continue to remind offenders that ignorance of the law is not an extenuating circumstance.

The law's opponents argue that it is aimed less at the drugs themselves than at the addicts. Article 44, for example, details the right of police officers to forcibly subject any individual to medical examination - blood and urine tests - if there is reason to believe that the person is under the influence of narcotics or looks like they might use them.

In all civilized countries addicts may choose to seek treatment at a private or state-run clinic - or none at all - yet Russian doctors who work in private drug rehabilitation schemes are shocked that the law outlaws their activities and establishes a state monopoly on treatment of addicts. Addiction specialists from city centers have informed me that the success rate of state clinics is no more than 5 percent, while effective rehabilitation centers run by former addicts have been driven underground. Many people attribute this to pure jealousy on the part of the medical establishment.

But that's not all. If we are to believe the letter of the law as laid out in Article 46, then the very mention of drugs in any context in the mass media, the cinema or in books and newspapers, even in the form of constructive discourse on the problem, is now classified as drug propagation. "It's not so far to go until people in Russia will be forced to burn any books and films containing the words heroine and cocaine," observed one liberal publication.

Liberal Duma deputies argue that the law merely enables the country's law enforcement agencies to foster the image of waging a serious war against drugs, and a group of deputies is currently petitioning for serious amendments.

Russia is hardly alone in facing a rapid surge in drug-related problems - the narcotics business and drug addiction has become a serious headache for many nations in the second half of the 20th century - yet not one democratic state has succeeded in getting the better of the scourge. China and Iran only managed by executing tens of thousands of users and suppliers in the '80s and '90s for drug use and supply, but such methods are not an option in a state where a clear and humane distinction is made between a criminal and a person afflicted by the sickness of drug addiction.

In Russia the reverse is true. Instead of trying to protect the nation from narcotics, the state has decided to segregate itself from its citizens, leaving them to face the problem in isolation. One is rather unpleasantly reminded of the parable of the barber who accidentally nicks a client while shaving him. Apologizing profusely, he carries on and cuts him again. And then again, until finally he tires of saying sorry and angrily slits the client's throat. And that would appear to be Russia's approach, too.

Mumin Shakirov is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.