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Without a Joined-Up State Drugs Policy, Russia Will Never Bring Its Raging Heroin Epidemic under Control
Russia is the biggest target market for heroin distribution, and consumes one fifth of all heroin produced in the world, a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released on October 21 claims. Now, every third person killed by the drug the world over is Russian. Afghanistan holds a near monopoly on heroin production, accounting for 92 percent of global output, and the highly addictive drug then floods into Russia from the war-torn country across Central Asia’s porous borders.
Earlier this autumn, President Dmitry Medvedev called the drug trade emanating from Afghanistan “a threat to national security.” With an estimated 2.5 million Russians addicted to it, Afghan heroin has created a “lost generation” in Russia, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service said on Wednesday. The findings of the UN report prompted discussion of several new anti-narcotics bills in the Moscow City Duma and the Federation Council, but many remain skeptical that they will have any positive impact on the anti-narcotics campaign, or that the bills will even see the light of day.
An estimated 30,000 Russians die from heroin overdose each year—more deaths than Russia suffered during the whole of its military campaign in Afghanistan from 1979 to 89. In the context of Russia’s continuing demographic crisis, the staggering 80 Russians dying from heroin overdose a day is not only deeply tragic, but also has serious implications for Russia’s economy, since the drug claims the lives of Russia’s working age population. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) demographic report filed by Russian academicians on October 6 argues that by 2025, Russia’s current population of 142 million will almost certainly have dropped below 140 million, and could fall to as low as 128 million. Although the report cited alcohol abuse and Russia’s low birth rate as the major factors, Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic “due to the high levels of drug addiction” was also mentioned as a contributing factor.
Russia has often been criticized by European addiction specialists for banning the use of methadone, a heroin substitution drug which is commonly used in the West to wean addicts off the drug. When asked whether the unavailability of prescription methadone is indeed the problem, Sergei Polyatykin, the head of the No to Alcohol and Drugs Program Fund, said that this is not really the main issue at hand in Russia’s drug battle. “The main point is that too many drug addicts are victimized in Russia and they do not have the means to get treatment and rehabilitate themselves, because state programs and state money are practically non-existent. It is therefore very difficult for a person to realize his wish to give up,” he said.
Russia’s Federal Council on Wednesday developed a bill proposing that teenage addicts be legally required to follow courses of treatment to combat their addiction up until the age of 18 (whereas now it is only 16). The rationale for this is that “doctors and teachers believe that ages 16 to 18 are the most dangerous for developing a dependency on harmful drugs,” Federation Council Senator Lyudmila Narusova told the Kommersant daily. But Polyatykin remains unconvinced. “Up until the age of 18, it is not about treatment, but rather about providing people with a social purpose for a sober way of life, skills, alternative behavioral stereotypes, the ability to live without drugs,” he said.
Other, somewhat unambitious anti-narcotics proposals submitted to the Moscow City Duma by the capital’s police force on Wednesday included making healthy lifestyle advertising at night clubs mandatory, and introducing regular drug testing for night club staff. Increasing public awareness is clearly important, but as for the latter, from a human rights perspective it is simply unfeasible. “Testing staff for drugs would simply be illegal,” human rights defender and expert on anti-narcotics legislation Lev Levinson told Kommersant. With regard to legally imposing anti-addiction treatment on older teenagers, Levinson was highly skeptical, pointing out that without their active desire to participate in programs, “treatment would probably make them worse.”
It is clear that the state needs to provide more support for the rehabilitation of drug-users. “It needs a state conception, realized through a multitude of programs carried out in the many aspects of the population’s lives,” Polyatykin said. Currently, almost nine out of ten heroin addicts return to drug abuse within a year of leaving drug rehabilitation programs.
The solution to the problem, however, requires not only cutting demand, but also reducing supply. Narcotics traffickers are able to take advantage of corrupt and therefore porous borders into Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to transport the heroin, before crossing into Kazakhstan and then into Russia. The head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service recently highlighted the lack of effective border control as a major problem, but also blamed NATO/U.S. forces for doing “next to nothing” to halt drug production.
The spike in opium cultivation and heroin production in Afghanistan which coalition forces have presided over has been a major source of tension between Moscow and Washington. U.S./NATO forces have been presented with a strategic conundrum: while eradicating opium fields deprives Taliban forces of funding for continuous insurrection, it also drives local farmers toward the Taliban, since it deprives them of their main source of livelihood. In a major policy shift in U.S. counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan, Washington announced in August that it would be targeting Afghan drug lords, rather than concentrating on poppy eradication, deemed to be wasteful and ineffective. But it remains to be seen whether this will reduce the amount of heroin flowing into Russia and help the country to bring its heroin addiction under control.
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