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Russia: Fighting 'Social Calamity' Of Drug Addiction Is Uphill Battle

  • Francesca Mereu

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday signed a decree creating a special unit to combat the sharp rise in drug abuse in Russia, a problem he called a "social calamity." Drug use has skyrocketed over the past decade in Russia, with affordable drugs pouring across the border from Central Asia and finding eager consumers in a country ravaged by poverty and unemployment. Experts say the number of Russian drug users -- now officially some 3 million -- is no higher than in other countries. What is alarming, they say, is that most drug users are very young and that little is being done to educate them about the dangerous link between drug use and another mounting crisis, the AIDS epidemic.

Moscow, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-three-year-old Artur spends every day the same way: scraping together the money he needs to support his heroin habit. Artur, who spends most days on Moscow's central Arbat Street collecting money from passersby, says it's a routine he's maintained for nearly half his life. "I've probably been taking [drugs] for about 10 years. I started when I was 12, when I smoked [hashish] for the first time. That was what my friends and I usually did. There were some older guys who smoked [hashish], so it wasn't difficult for me [to get drugs] at the time," Artur said.

Soon Artur broadened his drug use to include "any kinds of drugs available on the Russian market." Six years ago, he began using heroin.

Artur's experience was like that of many young people in the mid-1990s, a period that saw a dramatic rise in drug use and addiction in Russia. Yevgenii Otchkovskii, Russia's national program officer with the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP), said the rise in drug use is one of the many results of the severe economic and social decline that accompanied the country's post-Soviet transition.

The situation, Otchkovskii said, proved especially difficult for young people. "During the 1990s in Russia, social and economic transformation took place too quickly. Cultural traditions, norms, and rules that had been accepted by the entire society were destroyed. Young people looked in a [nihilistic] way at the values their parents believed in. And what's more, parents found themselves unable to provide economically for their children," Otchkovskii said.

By the end of the 1990s, nearly a third of all Russians were living below the poverty line and unemployment stood at 10 percent. The economic crisis also meant a severe cutback in government-funded social programs, like sports and cultural centers, which previously had provided a gathering place for the country's youth. Many young people suddenly found themselves alone on the street, with no jobs and few prospects, at the same time that the Russian drug market was exploding.

The Russian Health Ministry says that over the past 10 years, the number of drug users has increased by nearly 400 percent. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who yesterday unveiled a new antidrug unit to combat the growing problem of addiction, said the number of drug users in the country has reached 3 million. Some government officials, however, put the number closer to 4 million or 5 million.

Otchkovskii said the most alarming aspect of the rise in drug use is that more and more, the narcotic of choice is heroin. It is readily available and relatively affordable: Its street price has dropped from $160 a gram in 1997 to around $50 a gram today. Moreover, as a highly addictive injected drug, it is the strongest driving force behind the escalating AIDS crisis in Russia, where clean-needle programs and public-awareness campaigns remain scarce. A recent UN development report said that 90 percent of HIV infections in 2000 were linked to intravenous drug use.

Otchkovskii said the boom in heroin use can be demonstrated by the significant rise in the amount of the drug that has been seized by police during the past few years. "The amount of drugs smuggled [into Russia] has increased dozens of times [over the past seven years]. In 1995, [Russian law-enforcement agencies] seized 6.5 kilograms of heroin on Russian territory. But in 2000, [they seized] 2.93 metric tons. In 2001, Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border alone seized 2.5 tons of heroin. And on Russian territory, [Interior Ministry] police seized a ton of heroin. Compare that with the [1995 figure of 6.5 kilos] and you'll see how serious the growth in smuggled [heroin] onto the [Russian] market has become," Otchkovskii said.

More than 95 percent of the heroin brought into Russia originates in Afghanistan and is trafficked through Central Asia, which also sees the bulk of trafficking in opium, hashish, and marijuana. In Moscow, heroin is sold almost everywhere: on the street and in clubs and other places frequented by young people. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of Russian drug users are under the age of 25. Some studies indicate that one out of every four teenagers has experimented with narcotics.

Katya, a 20-year-old Muscovite, is a recovering heroin addict. She said she turned to drugs as a way of coping after being raped when she was 14. "I always wanted to be the first, the leader in everything. It was easier to [hang around] with people [who used] alcohol, hashish. I always wanted to be older than I really was. I was 14 at the time, and I used to go out with people who were older than I was. But then something changed in my life. I was sexually abused. I was raped. After the rape I couldn't find a way out -- I needed to find something [to help me]. I understood that I had been humiliated, and I couldn't stand it. With heroin, it was much easier to forget about it and solve all my problems," Katya said.

Katya is one of the patients at Land of Life, a private rehabilitation center located outside of Moscow in the town of Podolsk. The clinic, which offers an 18-month, 13-step program, is highly regarded by experts and boasts an impressive recovery record. Of the 60 percent of the patients who make it through the program, some 90 percent manage to stay off drugs once they leave. But the treatment available at Land of Life is a relative rarity in Russia -- and it comes at a high price.

Irina Petrova paid $500 a month to put her two children -- Sonya, 22, and Petr, 20 -- through the Land of Life program to beat their heroin addictions. Petrova, who lives in the industrial city of Norilsk in northern Russia, said the state-sponsored drug programs left her no alternative. "In our hospital [in Norilsk], you have the drug-treatment ward. [Within that,] you have paid units, where in 10 days and for some $300 it was possible to quit 'cold turkey' [total and instant withdrawal]. If you did it this way, you didn't have to be officially registered [as a drug addict]. If you decide to be officially registered, it's free. But people are treated like animals there, like real animals. They would say [to the patients]: 'You're not a human being. You're going to die. You'll never be able to give up drugs.' People believe that drug addicts get pleasure from [drugs]. They don't see it as an illness. They think drug addiction is a perversion and since you were the one who chose it, you have to suffer the consequences," Irina Petrova said.

Sergei Polyatykin is the director of No to Alcoholism and Drugs, a nongovernmental organization that offers free rehabilitation programs for drug addicts. Polyatykin said the government is not doing enough to support addiction programs, saying that authorities tend to look at the problem of drug abuse primarily as a criminal issue. Moreover, he said, law-enforcement officials and NGOs like his often work at cross purposes, with police officers undermining initiatives like clean-needle programs, which they consider an incentive to continue using drugs. "The police, for example, used to organize ambushes near the pharmacies that were open at night. The police would stop any young man who went to the pharmacy [to buy a needle, and they would take it away]. He had a clean needle! We used to cooperate with some pharmacies that were open at night. We gave them information pamphlets about HIV/AIDS. The pharmacists gave the pamphlets to every young man who bought a needle. [The pharmacists] were the ones who told us about [the police]. If a police officer takes a clean needle away from a drug addict, and if he doesn't offer him any medical help, the drug addict will go into withdrawal and will need treatment or drugs. And just because you take away his clean needle doesn't mean he'll stop using drugs. He'll just use a dirty needle instead and will get infected," Polyatykin said.

Polyatykin said even health officials prefer to treat the physical symptoms of drug addiction without addressing the patient's deeper social and psychological needs. He said the government needs to spearhead a radical change in society's entire approach to drug use. "There are practically no government rehabilitation programs. There aren't government programs focusing on understanding the problem in general, and what should be done to solve it in particular. The problem is broad. You should begin by educating children in kindergartens, in schools, by helping families with problems. And only after that you should think about [the law-enforcement issue] of selling drugs. But in our country, they begin by fighting [drug] supply and demand, meaning the police begin by catching drug dealers and drug users," Polyatykin said.

The government appears to be waking up to the problem of drug addiction. In addition to creating the antidrug unit -- a body that will involve the Interior, Health, and Education ministries -- the government has pledged to finance 25 rehabilitation centers throughout Russia by 2004. "It's not enough to cover the huge number of people taking drugs," says the UN's Otchkovskii. "But it's better than nothing."