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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Animal Lovers Favor Drug Legalization

Two men walk into a clinic to get their cat spayed.

What sounds like the opening line of a dubious joke is in fact the beginning of one of many criminal investigations that has left veterinarians and animal lovers up in arms.

According to the owner of a Moscow pet clinic, when the vet brought out a syringe to give the cat in question a shot, the men identified themselves as agents of a narcotics squad -- and raided the premises for a banned drug.

Together with animal rights groups, veterinarians say that the newly formed federal anti-drug agency -- created from the now defunct tax police -- has started prosecuting animal care-givers for using an anesthetic widely used in the West but banned in Russia.

The drug in question, Ketamine, is known to ravers as Special K.

But according to veterinarians it is the only widely available and affordable anesthetic on the market -- the black market, that is.

Ketamine has been banned in Russia since 1998, when the Agriculture Ministry neglected to include it on its list of approved veterinary drugs.

Veterinarians, however, have continued using the drug for procedures ranging from neutering to complex surgery.

Until the anti-narcotics agency stepped up its crackdown three months ago, vets relied on shady importers for Ketamine. But now many clinics are refusing to treat pets that desperately need operations, animal rights activists say.

"Doctors are stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Irina Novozhilova, president of Vita Center, an animal rights organization.

"If they operate without using an anesthetic, they can be charged with cruelty to animals and are breaking their doctor's oath to do no harm," she said. "But if they use Ketamine they can face a criminal penalty for drug possession."

Some vets have tried performing operations using only drugs that immobilize the sick animal but do not make it lose consciousness.

"I witnessed a cat being sterilized in this way, and it was terrible. It was convulsing from the pain," Novozhilova said.

Veterinarians say raids by narcotics committee agents started at the beginning of the year and have intensified in the past three months.

Many have resulted in the confiscation of Ketamine and suspended prison sentences. It is possible that many more cases never make it to court.

The owner of the Moscow clinic that was raided by agents posing as cat owners said he only avoided prosecution by paying a bribe.

The vet, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the raid turned up Ketamine.

"Unfortunately one of the doctors had left a bottle out of its hiding place and they found it," he said. "We already knew they were tightening the screws, so we don't usually keep our supplies in the clinic anymore."

Although the vet was told he could face a sentence of up to five years in prison, he was never charged. He arranged for an "out-of-court settlement," he said, by paying off agents several thousand dollars at their Moscow headquarters.

The anti-drug agency is unsympathetic to such stories.

"If there was a problem, then it can be reported through the official channels," said Vasily Sorokin, first deputy head of the Moscow City division of the agency. "We have an internal security department which deals with these kinds of issues."

The agency is making no plans to loosen up on veterinarians who use Ketamine.

"It's a controlled substance. What do you expect us to do, just let them use an illegal drug?" said Sorokin

He said he was not convinced that vets have no viable options for anesthetics besides Ketamine.

"The Agriculture Ministry is well aware of the situation, but they have not done anything to change the drug status," Sorokin said. "They have a whole list of other drugs that can be used."

Veterinarians say criminalization will not solve the problem of Ketamine distribution and have called on the Agriculture Ministry to legalize its use.

"The only thing criminalization has done is cause people to take their pets to unlicensed doctors who are not on the authorities' radar screen," said Alexander Tkachyov, owner of the Maved clinic and head of the Veterinary Association.

"Not only that, but this is causing the illegal Ketamine market to boom because pet owners know that vets may not have the drug available. So they are stocking up on it themselves, just in case something happens."

"This whole situation is the result of a mess-up by the Agriculture Ministry, which, for some inexplicable reason, forgot to include Ketamine on its list of approved drugs and has done nothing to change that."

The Agriculture Ministry did not respond to a request for clarification.