ESSAY: Scourge of Narcotics Poisons Soul of the Nation

The daring crime amazed the detectives. A Volga had been stolen right from the entrance of Petrovka 38, the renowned residence of Moscow's police force elite. But the car was quickly recovered. The police were surprised to find that the auto thieves were only 16 or 17 years old. During the first round of questioning, they confessed that they had no other way to pay for the drugs they regularly bought from older friends. The "elders" were soon arrested, and the dealers who were behind them were caught in an apartment used as a drug den.

"We shut that drug den down," one of the detectives told me. "But several others will probably appear in other Moscow regions. That's how the process works."

Official statistics suggest that Russia has 1.5 million drug users today, while specialists put the figure at 10 to 15 million, or almost one in every 15 citizens. The average age of registered drug users is 13 years old. They start by sniffing glue and progress to more powerful narcotics. According to the Interior Ministry, the number of drug-related thefts and robberies has doubled over the past two years. On average, these drug users live to the age of 30. But before they die from cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis or AIDS, they can hook another 12 to 17 people on their poison.

Just what is happening in the hearts of drug addicts? Some young people from the capital city opened up to me. Here is what they had to say:

"I started shooting up. At first is was awesome, euphoria, everything around me was terrific. But then about 10 to 12 hours later, you get horribly depressed. People whom you're ready to kiss suddenly start to seem like plastic dolls and losers."

"I started spending more and more money on heroin -- $100 to $150 a day. I was sniffing and smoking, and I couldn't get a rush anymore, it just eased the pain. ... Withdrawals would start every three hours."

"I watched people right next to me go crazy. They thought everybody around them was a traitor, an enemy. They were certifiable."

"I stole everything I could from home -- the television, the record player, my mom's things, gold. I had hundreds of people who I thought were my best friends. Then I finally realized they were just using me."

"I'm 23 years old now and I don't have any teeth left, they're all fake. I have hepatitis, and my friends have cirrhosis or liver cancer."

"I've tried to kill myself several times. I got a gun and pulled the trigger, but the cartridge was empty. I took about 30 tranquilizer pills, but I survived miraculously. I'll feel another breakdown coming on in about a week and want to kill myself again."

They are not only menaces to themselves. Their dependence on drugs makes them easy prey for criminal groups who involve them in theft and violent crimes. They are hired to distribute drugs and expand the drug market. Young women are turned into living merchandise and earn highs as prostitutes working the streets under the watch of pimps.

A young lieutenant colonel from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB, who specializes in the fight against illegal drug sales told me that more and more drug dens are appearing in Moscow. New dealers are constantly being recruited, including poor pensioners, who don't always realize just what kind of poison they are selling to young people in underground crosswalks. But the poison sells for a high price.

Sergei Bogdanov, chief of the Moscow FSB press center, told me, "We're working to stop the problem of drug sales, but someone needs to work on the problem of demand."

Drug addiction is not a phenomenon that only appeared in the past decade. It was just not talked about earlier. What was covered up then would be shocking even now: Interior Ministry figures from the final year of the Soviet Union's existence show that drug sales had reached 40 billion rubles a year. The entire budget of the huge Soviet Empire the same year was 500 billion rubles. In other words, the budget involved only 12 times as much money as drug dealers possessed.

What is the current situation? For drug dealers from the East and the West, Russia represents a huge, undeveloped market. According to specialists' estimates, since 1991 more than 220 tons of plant-based narcotics valued at more than $185 million have been confiscated in Russia. Those same specialists say that figure represents only about a tenth of the drugs that actually made it into dealer's hands. Every ruble invested into drugs brings a return of thousands.

Of course, this extremely lucrative industry has its own regimented hierarchy of elite managers. Russian drug barons have legal businesses as their covers, which were begun, incidentally, on the wealth earned from drug sales. Some specialists estimate that one in every four or five large companies in Russia started with drug money. According to many specialists, the owners of these firms are not just dreaming of getting into government to promote their interests, but have already done so.

The soul-poisoning business is spreading across the country like fire during a summer drought. It would be naive to suppose that increasing the number of drug treatment centers alone will stop it, although more centers are certainly needed.

The narcotics business is one of the most dangerous forms of organized crime. It poses a particular threat to Russian society, especially given that the country's difficult years of reform have left it more vulnerable to drug abuse.

The younger generation in Russia needs protection from the scourge of drug addiction. But how?

Colombia could serve as an example. The Colombian government declared war on the drug cartels that had divided the country up into spheres of influence. The country's entire police and military force participated in the fight. The terrorist attacks of drug cartels left not only dead policemen and government officials in their wake, but also judges who handed down guilty sentences to drug dealers. But in 1991, the godfather of Colombian organized crime and 17 ringleaders from the cocaine business were forced to surrender to the government and were locked up.

As it turned out, the drug cartel boss, Pablo Escobar, had $15 billion at his disposal -- enough to pay off all of Colombia's foreign debts.

We have plenty of debt ourselves. And not just foreign debts. Every year the parliament goes through the painful process of passing the budget. Because the country cannot make ends meet, miners, teachers and doctors go unpaid.

Our most important duty, however, is to defend the up-and-coming generation from those who can destroy it. This is a fight for the defense of the health of the nation and of our future.

When will we all, including the government and the parliament, finally realize this?

Igor Gamayunov is a staff writer for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.