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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Group Collects Votes for Marijuana

MTTransnational Radical Party members gathering votes on Pushkin Square on Tuesday for the legalization of marijuana.
A small but vocal political group called for the legalization of marijuana and hashish Tuesday, sparking an angry response from the country's top drug expert, who said such a step would be terrible for Russia.

Members of the Transnational Radical Party held what they called a "street referendum" on Pushkin Square, extolling the virtues of legalizing light drugs and asking people whether they favor it.

"Hemp and its derivatives are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco," said Anatoly Khramov, head of the party's Moscow office.

"Light drugs remain under the control of mafia structures and bring them tremendous profits," he said, arguing that marijuana should be made legal to take it out of the criminal realm.

Khramov called for three basic changes to drug-related legislation: to free drug users from criminal liability; to make a clear distinction between "hard" and "soft" drugs; and to provide free medical treatment and rehabilitation to addicts.

Under existing law, people charged with obtaining and keeping even a small amount of marijuana face up to three years in prison. Distribution can bring sentences of seven to 15 years.

Tuesday's street action prompted an angry response from Nikolai Ivanets, the Health Ministry's top drug abuse expert. Speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, Ivanets warned that legalizing "light" drugs like marijuana would be a "danger to the nation."

"It would be terrible if this is allowed," Ivanets said, adding that "from the medical point of view, marijuana opens the way to other harder drugs" that are more addictive.

Drug use, especially of harder drugs like heroin, has exploded since 1991, leading to a sharp rise in AIDS cases among addicts who share needles.

A recent poll of 1,600 people conducted by the All-Russia Public Opinion Center found that 99 percent of those surveyed said the country's drug problem is "very serious" or "serious enough." Only 1 percent called it "not very serious."

The marijuana survey was the second headline-grabbing public action by the Transnational Radical Party in as many days. On Monday, members of the group boarded a Moscow riverboat and, just as it passed by the walls of the Kremlin, unfurled a banner calling for immediate peace talks between President Vladimir Putin and Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.

The party complained that Moscow authorities had denied their request to hold Tuesday's event for the whole day, instead limiting it to several hours. In a statement carried on its web site, the party said it had filed a complaint in city court.

Valeria Konovalenko, 20, a psychology student and cigarette smoker, said she signed against legalization. "I think there are enough amusements for young people and nothing good will come of legalizing marijuana. It's bad for your health," she said.

Nikita Karpov, a 17-year-old law student, voted for legalization because he considers marijuana a soft drug. "It should be like in the Netherlands," he said. "If they legalize it, there will be fewer users."

State Duma Deputy Gennady Raikov disagreed: "It would be something awful if drugs were legalized in Russia. You have to take into account the culture and mentality of a people -- not compare them to, say, Holland."

(AP, MT)