. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN: Drug Trade Booms Without Mafia

Russia is facing an explosive growth in drug consumption and trade, but its major organized crime rings haven't yet plunged into the narcotics market, said a United Nations-sponsored report released Thursday.

Large criminal groups accumulated so much wealth during the country's turbulent transfer to a free market during the 1990s that they "have no interest to 'dirty their hands' with drugs," Dr. Letizia Paoli said in the report, commissioned by the UN office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.

The "illegal drug trade still represents a relatively small part of the booming Russian illegal and semi-legal economy and is far from being a primary source of revenue for the galaxy of Russian organized crime," Paoli said at a news conference.

The report — based on an extensive survey of police, doctors, journalists and drug addicts in several regions — concluded that there was scarcely any evidence to support the official view that the drug trade was increasingly monopolized by the powerful "Russian mafia."

"The phenomenal growth of drug use can rather be attributed to the 'invisible hand' of the market," said Paoli, who works with the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg, Germany. "The local drug markets … are today largely supplied by a myriad of dealers who tend to operate alone or in small groups and often consume illegal drugs themselves."

Vladimir Yegorov, the Health Ministry's chief narcotics expert, disagreed, saying his data show the drug trade "is a controlled process."

According to Interior Ministry statistics, the number of drug seizures has grown 3.5 times between 1990 and 1999, reaching almost 60 tons in 1999. The number of registered drug users has increased almost 400 percent since 1990 to reach 450,000 in 2000.

Even the Interior Ministry acknowledges these figures were just the tip of the iceberg, estimating that between 2.5 million and 3 million people — or about 2 percent of the population — regularly or occasionally take drugs.

Although high, these figures aren't staggering compared to other countries, Paoli noted. "What is really staggering … is the explosion of injecting drug use — specifically, heroin consumption."

Since appearing in the mid-'90s, heroin has rapidly spread among teenagers. Paoli's survey showed that 6 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds interviewed in Moscow in 1999 admitted to having used heroin at least once. The rate didn't exceed 2 percent in any of the other 21 countries in the survey.

The quick spread of heroin and other intravenous drugs has contributed to a dramatic rise in HIV and AIDS cases. The number of registered HIV cases almost quadrupled last year from 29,000 cases registered between 1987 and 1999 to 105,000 now, said Yegorov.

Sergei Kharitonov of the Interior Ministry's anti-drug department attributed the quick spread of drugs to low living standards and hard economic conditions, admitting that cash-strapped law enforcement agencies have found it difficult to stem the rising tide of drugs.