Addicts Not Criminals

About a million citizens could fill up Russia's already overcrowded prisons in the near future according to the Russian Radical Transnational Party, which spoke out recently against the federal law on narcotics that went into effect April 15.

This group first raised a scandal in February in the State Duma when the lower house met to discuss the bill. Activists from the party distributed leaflets that called for the legalization of the use, possession and production of hemp and its derivatives. They called for treating drug addition not as a crime but an illness, and proposed allowing for the use of methadone for treating it.

On the following day the Duma committee on public health urgently called on all deputies to condemn the activities of the so-called transradicals and approve the new federal law on narcotics.

Practically all those who spoke at the Duma hearing, including representatives from law-enforcement bodies and the Orthodox Church, accused the activists of promoting drug use, and Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Vladimir Kolesnikov promised to put the authors of the pamphlet behind bars.

The drug epidemic in Russia has seized around 10 million citizens, and the volume of trade in the illegal drug business is about $3 billion a year. More than 1 million people were officially registered in medical institutions as drug addicts this year. It is these people who are under threat of landing in prison, because the criminal code will now allow for prison sentences of up to three years for drug use.

This has stirred up the indignation of human rights activists who consider that the federal law is not aimed against narcotics but against the sick drug addicts.

For example, Article 44 calls for the forced medical examination of all tho se who are suspected by law enforcement bodies of drug use. This gives police the right to detain any person if they consider him to be under the influence of narcotics.

Independent drug addiction specialists and private doctors are in shock over the state's attempt to monopolize the treatment of drug addicts. The doctors from municipal drug treatment centers I have spoken with say the probability that patients will be cured in state clinics is only 3 percent to 5 percent.

The medical world is generally divided into two camps over how to treat drug addiction. Some doctors prefer not to use psychoactive drugs to cure addicts and actively promote alternative methods such as detoxification with the help of physiotherapeutic procedures, hypnosis and psychological treatment. Others, on the contrary, believe that only weaker drugs or alternative narcotic substances can break the patient's addiction.

One of the most widely distributed substances is methadone, which is used extensively for drug addiction in countries like the United States, Australia and many European countries. In Russia, this substance is forbidden, although it is sold illegally here and is popular among drug addicts.

It is hard to say today which methods are most effective, given that much depends on the personality of the drug addict and the degree of addiction. But in all civilized countries drug addicts have the right to chose whether to go to a private clinic or a state institution. This has been a stumbling block for doctors in Russia who have decided to leave official medicine and practice alternative methods of treatment. But Article 55 of the federal law now prohibits treating drug addicts outside municipal and state medical institutions.

Despite bans, Russia has doctors that have private practices, but they are expensive. There are rehabilitation centers that were created by dedicated people without the participation of the state. But it should be noted that official medicine looks on such informal institutions with suspicion and jealousy. This is one reason why the Russian health establishment fought for the adoption of Article 55.

As long as the state monopolizes the methods and right of treating drug addiction, the number of addicts will continue to grow in Russia.

But this is not all. If you believe the letter of the law, Article 46 says that any mention of narcotics in the mass media, in films and books can be considered propagandizing the use of drugs. Some say, without exaggeration, that the day may soon come when Russia begins burning books and films if the words heroine or cocaine are mentioned.

Law enforcement agencies, for their part, consider some of the points in the law to be too liberal. This concerns the articles in which the state regulates giving out licenses for the pharmaceutical trade. Any person in clinics or pharmacies who has a degree in pharmacology has the right to keep and use narcotic and psychotropic substances. Opponents of this item in the law consider that in a country as criminalized as Russia, it is necessary to separate the concept of narcotics from psychotropic substances. Only the state should regulate the use of narcotics, and not private companies or clinics. Otherwise, the narcotics mafia will get a legal loophole.

Unfortunately, the Russian authorities are unaware of what is happening in the country and how to fight against the drug epidemic. While it is difficult to judge how successful the fight against drugs has been in other countries, what is clear is that in democratic states, the law as well as the rights and freedom of their citizens are strictly observed. Drug addicts are not seen as criminals but as sick people.

In Russia, everything is the other way around. Instead of protecting the nation from narcotics, the state has decided to guard itself against its own citizens, condemning them to isolation and death.

Mumin Shakirov is on the staff of Radio Liberty, Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.