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Russia: St. Petersburg's Drug Problem Becomes Catastrophic

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - At a recent news conference in St. Petersburg, the city's top law enforcement official responsible for fighting drug-related crime said St. Petersburg's drug problem is going from worse to catastrophic.

Since the disunion of the USSR, St. Petersburg has emerged as Russia's "drug capital," with the highest per capita drug use in Russia. Experts attribute this situation to the fact that St. Petersburg is both an international port and major land transport hub, which facilitates the import of traditional drugs like marijuana and heroine. St Petersburg also has a pharmaceutical industry, with many unemployed chemists, who are finding lucrative opportunities manufacturing narcotics. These features are compounded by the city's general liberal atmosphere, which tolerates a wide variety of behavior, and by the daily psychological pressures that many face because of economic hardship and subsequent instability.

According to St Petersburg's chief narcotics officer, Leonid Shpilenya, the city has close to 300,000 regular drug users, of which 100,000 are hard-core addicts. The city's total population is five-million. Also, according to city officials responsible for coordinating the fight against drugs, nearly 80 percent of those in their 20s, have used drugs at least once, and about 25 percent of students use drugs frequently.

To make matters worse, the city's social-and-health services are still grossly unprepared to tackle the drug problem. There is only one large state-run. de-toxification center with 400 beds, and several church-based charities with their own drug-treatment centers. Otherwise, the state has a network of outpatient treatment centers in each city district, but our correspondent reports drug users are afraid to turn to them for help, because the police are often notified. Finally, there is little public education among young people about the dangers that drug use poses.

A recent, wide-scale, anti-drug police operation revealed a structural change in the demand for drugs in the city. More traditional drugs such as marijuana and heroine are becoming less popular, while various types of synthetic drugs such as methadone, "ecstasy" and cocaine are enjoying a rise in popularity. This change reflects the purchasing power of a class of young people who are able to buy such costly drugs, But, officials say, it is also due to the presence of many unemployed chemists and under-utilized laboratories.

St Petersburg's burgeoning drug culture has not only alarmed local officials. Exports of synthetic drugs, as well as the highly toxic "black" heroine, have been hitting the market in Scandinavian and other North European countries. Black heroine is especially dangerous, since it is a highly impure and toxic form of heroine that is easily cooked up in one's kitchen.

Officials from neighboring countries are reported strongly interested in helping St Petersburg crack down on its drug problem to prevent it from spilling over onto foreign shores.

Police officials have pointed out that a potent drug culture exists among young people, which pressures them into drug usage. So-called "Rave parties" are quite common in youth circles, and drug use - especially of synthetic stimulants - is an integral part of such all-night dance parties. Rave establishments are sometimes raided by OMON soldiers looking for drug users.

Law enforcement officials have also singled out several youth magazines for allegedly encouraging young people to experiment with drugs. One of these magazines, Ptuch, which is popular in both Moscow and St Petersburg, is now under investigation by the police, who are trying to determine whether the contents of Ptuch agitate drug usage.

According to an interview published in "Kommersant Daily," Ptuch editors admit their journal openly discusses the issue of drugs for its young readers, but with the intent to educate them about the problem's existence and potential dangers -- not to promote drug usage.