Tag Archives: Russia

What have the Russians done for us in the international drug policy field? A timely reminder to take back control

Axel Klein, GDPO Senior Research Associate.
April 24, 2019.

At the 62nd meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March this year the tensions between states with widely diverging drug policies finally came to the surface. On the floor of the plenary meeting the Russian delegation took Canada to task for ‘violating international law [by] legalising cannabis.’ (http://cndblog.org/2019/03/plenary-item-9-implementation-of-the-international-drug-control-treaties-cont-2/)

The Russia delegate also took issue with the Expert Commission on Drug Dependence of the World Health Organisation for recommending that cannabis be moved from schedule 4 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and placed in the less strict schedule 1. Interestingly, the objection had nothing to do with either the new assessment of the harms posed by cannabis or its medical potential. What had given cause to offence was that the ‘perception of the world of the community would be that legalisation is fine and dandy. Probably the experts don’t have to go through the turmoil of thinking through the repercussions of their decisions. They are technical experts. Nothing more’ (emphasis added).

Technical issues, say of patient benefit, the need to address discrimination and stigma, or pre-empt trafficking were not touched upon. The Russian Federation’s statement also glossed over the fact that the placement was not designed to be permanently fixed. The original founders of the system expected that substances would move across the schedules as more scientific evidence became available. Important to recall here is that at the time that cannabis was slotted into schedule 4, tetrahydrocannabinol, the most important psychoactive substance, had not even been discovered.

The point of Russia’s attack on countries like Canada, Uruguay and several US states– though only Canada was singled out – was the risks that legalisation was having consequences.

Consequentialism has not been a driving force in the history of international drug control, given the ontological foundation of the treaties on the ‘welfare of mankind’. The system architects recruited ‘mankind’ to labour in the construction and then retire. Hence the object of Russian concern were not people in their totality or diverse sub-populations – patients, drug consumers, communities – but the ‘international drug control system’ itself.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, we then understand that adhering to the provisions of the three drug control conventions and the various associated agreements and protocols is only indirectly to do with problems of addiction and substance misuse. Their overriding purpose lies in protecting the functionaries and officials who work in it.

Such proposals tend to resonate particularly with representatives of countries with natural resource-based economies and authoritarian regimes. If the recent focus on human rights has already opened a divide between countries, the question of accountability is likely to push them even further apart. Justifying costly layers of administration to tax-paying electorates (though not to universities), is difficult at the best of times, but particularly when they fail to have a positive purpose.

And yet this is what the international system has long been lacking, at least according to Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of UNODC. In a seminal address to the CND in 2008 he stated with counter-intuitive perspicacity, that the ‘system was no longer fit for purpose’ and unable to contain a number of displacements.(Costa, Antonia Maria, Making drug control ‘fit for purpose’ Building on the UNGASS decade, Report by the Executive Director of the UNODC, 2008) The first he mentioned was the ‘huge criminal black market that now thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers.’ Along with these markets comes the full spectrum of crime from large, police and policy corrupting syndicates to addiction fueled shoplifting. Such crime is the trade-off for containing the public health that is threatened by open drug markets. It is on this Faustian pact that the system is build.


(Antonia Maria Costa, UNODC)

Picking up on the admonition by the Russian delegate to consider the repercussions of our actions we need to review the criminogenic effect of drug control. This has to be done repeatedly and publicly precisely because it runs counter to the popular assumptions. In popular folklore, police and paramilitaries are believed to be breaking down doors and shooting up laboratories in ‘response’ to drug criminals. In effect, the causal effect runs the other way. The harder police and magistrates squeeze drug supply, the more devious and brutal the industry becomes when meeting the demand.

The fact that drug control generates crime needs to be repeated to policy makers at every level and may even hold sway with an audience that is otherwise immune to arguments about human rights, patient needs or stigmatization.

At the CND in Vienna most national delegations are comprised of and led by senior law enforcement officers or officials of the Ministry of Interior. If the realisation that vigorous enforcement is resulting in ever more vigorous criminality has not so far had much effect comes down to one of two possible sets of explanation. First, it could be that they are (i) simply not listening, (ii) the causal chain has not been understood, or (iii) is simply not believed. But the second explanation is that the criminal justice sector agencies and public have different objectives. The former are interested in expanding and increasing means and powers to enforce the law. And if public safety is one of the outcomes, so much the better.

In accordance with key tenets of institutional economics we hold that drug control and law enforcement are driven by motives of any social organism – self perpetuation. Hence the need for continuous checks and assessments of policy purpose and outcomes. Since all institutions also include well intentioned and dedicated professionals the need for restating the arguments of criminogenic consequence has to be repeated over and over.

Naturally it is much more difficult to achieve results in thematic areas where key policy decisions have been abstracted by remote and unaccountable international bodies. As the Russian delegate reminds of the importance of repercussions, it is high time to take back control.

Interview: Anya Sarang, President of the Andrei Rylkov Foundation

The following is a transcript of an interview with Anya Sarang, President of the Andrei Rylkov Foundation in Moscow.  Sarang, who has worked on developing and supporting the emerging harm reduction movement in Russia, discusses contemporary drug policy in the country and its effects.  The interview was conducted by Alexander Marshall as part of his recent GDPO policy brief, ‘From drug war to culture war: Russia’s growing role in the global drug debate’.

Q: I’ve read a lot about how things are going in Russia but there is a lot of course that I still don’t understand, and I recognize this fact, therefore to begin with I still have a lot of what might seem general questions regarding the local context, particularly as there is a comparative aspect with other countries in our project. Your opinion is very important and I’m very glad you agreed to meet me. My first question is how you see the current situation in Russia currently developing generally? What is your opinion?

A: It seems to me that compared with the 1990s open drug scene, access for heroin has reduced-in the 1990s access was as free as you please, ‘you want heroin, you want khanka [Russian slang: a home-made opium derivative, normally injected] go ahead‘-compared to this the situation has quite changed, it’s become more closed and less accessible, and also that people have started using synthetic drugs and pharmaceutical substitutes, for example last year we had a string of cases of people using prescription drugs without prescription, and we had a three year epidemic of ‘krokodil’. We street methadone in the market, but since last year this has also become less accessible. To me it seems that if one compares today with the 1990s and start of the 2000s access to substances has become more limited in general, even with pharmaceutical drugs, however new synthetic drugs are becoming more available.

Q: Many thanks. Could you say a few words about your organization, what you do here in Moscow and how the authorities relate to you?

A: Our foundation was created to honour the name of Andrey Rylkov, we wanted to create a mobile group of activists and we  were the whole time occupied with the problem of HIV/AIDS, but it became clear that it was impossible to engage this question without also engaging with the issue of drug policy, so, we are advocates of drug reform, based on human rights, that is the mission of our organization. We also have ‘service’ projects helping drug users on the streets of Moscow, we go every night to the pharmacies to dispense condoms, ointment, quick tests for infection, we accompany people to hospitals, which in Moscow is a difficult process, and we also have a large advocacy role in drug reform and everything connected with that, preparing reports for the international human rights bodies, the UN, and we seek to influence the legal situation with regard for example access to therapy for hepatitis (which you just saw in our press conference), the arbitrary detention of drug users by the police, the criminalization and over-incarceration of drug users and so on. On top of all this we work on strategic litigation cases aimed at the European Court of Human Rights.

Q: Could you say a few words about how the attitude of organizations working in this area, for example the Ministry of Health or FSKN, has changed in the last few years?

A: In the last ten years the situation has very significantly changed. For example in 1997 we worked with the Ministry of Health on development of a training program on harm reduction for Russian doctors, and the Ministry took quite a supportive position. Since  1997-98 there were over 40 harm reduction programs, there were training programmes and the Ministry of Health supported training for specialists, issued several orders about necessity to focus on HIV prevention among drug users and they treated this question more or less normally. A few years ago, by 2009, this approach simply ceased. Measure to reduce prevalence of HIV/AIDs practically ceased, and there also came forth a more repressive position, particularly towards some international recommendations around harm reduction, the Ministry of Health openly opposed recommendations of the WHO for example, and in the past year they have taken a still more aggressive position towards harm reduction. On top of this you have the FSKN, an enormous agency, with a budget of billions of roubles, which wants complete control of this whole area, but it is completely unclear and confusing what their role is. If you look at drug cases in Russia – there were practically no cases with systematic work to turn down a real drug lord or king pin  – people who are prosecuted are drug users who are set up while “selling” half a gram of heroin. In other words this service is in no condition to carry out any kind of serious work, they prosecute people who uses drugs, veterinarians and people making poppy-seed buns but they do nothing against the real drug lords as they claimed they would in the beginning of their existance. In connection with this agency there has also emerged a repressive discourse about throwing drug users in prison, arresting pharmacists, but of course they aren’t engaged in anything actually productive.

Q: Why in your opinion has the state attitude become more aggressive, and can you say something about public opinion changing on this subject-for example in Moscow?

A: It seems to me the tone of FSKN became more aggressive in order to justify this budget of billions of roubles, they started on 3 billion roubles, last year they asked for 220 billion, in other words they would like to increase their budget by hundreds of times, and in order to justify this they need to be seen to be throwing all these kinds of groups in jail, and from this emerges a kind of social paranoia regarding drugs in general. What was the second question?

Q: On public opinion

A: Well you know public opinion is a very broad subject…

Q. Of course. But for example someone like Evgenii Roizman appears to have become somewhat popular…

A: Well three years ago when one of Roizman’s associates was put on trial for kidnapping and torturing drug users in their ‘rehabilitation’ center people came out in his defence, views were expressed that what he did was right and that in fact it was the only effective approach to dealing with drug addicts. In this past year however attitudes have somewhat changed, some of the intelligentsia have begun to recognize that drug addicts are also human beings, that they too have human rights, in part in my opinion this change has come about through activity of our organization and engagement with broader groups of social and political activists.

Q: I have a question about head of the FSKN Victor Ivanov, who in 2011 announced the need for a rehabilitation program. To me- I just read about this-this seemed from one point of view a slightly more progressive approach, recognizing for example that past approaches hadn’t worked, proposing the creation of communes and so on. I wondered if I could ask you about this-is it propaganda, is it a real change, or what?

A: Well the first thing you have to understand about this rhetoric is that it was used to generate a lot of money. In the past three years the FSKN were to have built up a regulatory base for certification of rehabilitation centres, they were not to build their own centres but to bring existing centres up to these standards, and then disburse state funds to them, but even with this more simple task the FSKN haven’t managed to move forward in three years. Up to this day I haven’t heard of one person who has officially gone through a state rehabilitation centre. We have state rehabilitation centres in Moscow and St Petersburg, there are perhaps three or four in the whole country, however on the FSKN website there are centres ‘approved by’ the FSKN, and there you find the most diverse kind of centres, for example Roizman’s City witout drugs one in Ekaterinburg which is famous for kidnappig and torturing drug users, others which are known to everyone as charlatans-they simply made a list of all centres in the country and posted it on their website.

Q: So if I understand correctly they-on paper-set out to regulate everything but in practice aren’t regulating anything?

A: Well not quite, they simply continue their consultations, meetings, they spend money, but no kind of product has appeared yet. […] Let me add that another complication is that rehabilitation centres have become accessible only to local residents -in Moscow there are spaces in such establishments only for residents of Moscow. In regards to harm reduction and HIV prevention programs they are ceasing to exist in Russia due to opposition of the Ministry of Health that declared that they were harmful.

Q: Who decided that they were harmful?

A: In 2009 the Minister of Health has talked in front of the State Security Council specifically on harm reduction programs – needle and syringe provision to drug users and substitution treatment and expressed clear opposition.

Q: If I understand the Orthodox church also had a role in this?

A: They don’t work very strongly in this area, they work more against safe sex campaigns but in the area of drug policy they didn’t make any particularly harmful declarations. They also have some rehabilitation centres of their own which differ in quality and approaches but sometimes these are the only accessible rehab options for drug users.

Q: What do you see as the most harmful consequence of these policies in Russia?

A: The most harmful consequences are the high mortality rates amongst people who use drugs – of overdosis, of tuberculosis, of AIDS, of hepatitis complications. According to UNAID we have one and a half million people with HIV/AIDS infections but this estimate is already five years old, right now a minimum of 2 million people are living with the infection, and frequently a condition for them for receiving antiretroviral treatment is that they abstain from drug use, which they can’t do due to the absence of rehabilitation programs or substitution treatment, so the mortality rate of people with HIV is high.

Too many people end up in prisons – early in their lives and that forms their future as a criminals a future that could be avoided. Prisons are also full of disease and outrage upon personal dignity. People with HIV and TB are especially vulnerable as for many of them, due to absence of proper treatment in prisons, poor hygiene and infectious control and malnutrition a prison sentence is often equal death sentence. All of this would be avoidable if we had harm reduction programmes available throughout the country. The courts don’t think about this, and might say this person will sit in jail two years and then will be free, but in fact they’re sentencing them to death, if this person already has AIDs and then acquires tuberculosis in jail they will be likely to die – in prison or shortly after.

We started a project three years ago looking at the quality of tuberculosis treatment in Russia and rate of drop out. The tuberculosis in drug dependent people is practically untreatable due to high rate of drop out and many tuberculosis treatment centres in the regions are simply morgues.  The consequences of the current drug policy are therefore in actual fact catastrophic, but they’re also completely invisible to wider society as a whole.

Q: Where do you think the origins of this whole problem lie-is it a Soviet legacy, a legacy of Soviet narcology, a cultural problem, an issue of too little money, or what?

A: Well Russia has a lot of money, really a lot of money-when you consider the Ministry of Health, the FSKNs budget -really you see a lot of money. But they don’t direct this money in any kind of useful way. The repressive policy and drug treatment does have a history, the Russian addiction treatment (narcology) grew out of repressive psychiatry of the Brezhnev times – when dissidents were ‘treated’ in psychiatric wards, this is indeed a hard legacy to overcome and the psychiatry in Russia is still very repressive and so is narcology. Plus you also have to consider the whole factor of corruption among the Ministries officials – these people are simply not interested in improving the public health situation, all they are interested in is to gain more personal profit from their high positions and access to large budgets. So I don’t expect any kind of solutions from the Ministry of Health or the FSKN.