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Kazakhstan: President Orders Study On Effects Of Decriminalizing 'Soft' Drugs

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has commissioned a study on the experience of countries that have decriminalized "softer drugs" and the potential ramifications of legalizing substances such as marijuana. Kazakhstan is the first country in Central Asia to consider such a step as a way of combating the flood of harder drugs coming into the country from places like Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova discusses the pros and cons of decriminalization with various regional and international experts.

Prague, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has asked for a study on the effects of decriminalizing or even legalizing so-called soft drugs like hashish and cannabis.

Kazakh Justice Minister Georgi Kim says the president has requested the country's Security Council to study two strategies for fighting drug addiction: imposing harsher punishments or easing restrictions.

Kazakhstan is the first of the former-Soviet Central Asian states to consider legalization as a way of combating the inflow of hard drugs, like heroin, from places such as Afghanistan. The thinking goes that if softer drugs are made more available, the allure of harder drugs will diminish.

It's not clear when soft drugs might be legal to produce and use in Kazakhstan, but the move to study the issue has been hailed by regional experts.

Mamasobir Burkhonov is the director of a methadone clinic in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, funded by the United Nations Development Program. He says decriminalization has worked and cites Holland as a success story:

"In some countries, [cannabis] is sold and certain officially legalized dose of drugs are consumed. For example, in the Netherlands, drug-addiction has not been increasing due to legalization. In other words, the number of drug-addicts or the number of HIV-infected drug-users are not growing."

In Holland, using and selling soft drugs has been tolerated since the 1970s. Harald Wychgel, a spokesman for the Holland-based Trimbos Institute of Mental Health and Addiction, an independent think tank, says the plan has succeeded in an important respect -- restricting the use of harder drugs.

"When you look at Netherlands and you look at countries surrounding us, you will find that in every country the use of drugs has increased. However, in Netherlands the use of harder drugs like heroin has been stable for years whereas it has been growing in other countries. What we wanted to achieve was to make sure that people were not very likely use harder drugs and we have been successful in this."

The use of narcotics has a long history in Central Asia. For centuries, opium poppies were widely cultivated for use as a remedy against pain, colds, and pneumonia. Hashish was a leading recreational drug for the region's upper classes.

Narcotics use was not traditionally regulated by the state but by social and religious custom. Drug abuse was relatively rare.

This changed during the Soviet era when growing, possessing, and using drugs became a crime. The five former-Soviet states of Central Asia inherited this drug policy after independence in 1991, and thousands have been jailed in connection with drug crimes.

The problem is expected to grow worse as more and more heroin transits the region from Afghanistan. The UN says opium-poppy production has increased greatly in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Central Asia has become not only transit territory for trafficking Afghan heroin, but a big consumer market as well.

Not everyone is convinced that legalization is the answer.

Herbert Schaepe, the secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent organ for implementing UN drug conventions, says the Dutch government's relatively tolerant approach toward soft drugs is not in line with international conventions.

He says the policy has created problems within the Netherlands, such as the rise of drug-linked crime.

Schaepe tells RFE/RL that if Kazakhstan were going to follow the Dutch example, it would create even bigger problems for the region.

"According to international conventions [the] use, possession, trade, manufacture, and production of drugs for nonmedical purposes must be a punishable offense. In Kazakhstan, we have a fantastic potential of production of cannabis. Cannabis grows wild everywhere. Now if really it would mean that those who engaged in cultivation or in collection, harvesting of cannabis would not be punishable under future law, this would be the place for all traffickers of the world to go."

Even Wychgel questions whether the Dutch model might be applicable to a country like Kazakhstan.

"The key thing is, of course, that you have to look at why people use drugs. The situation here in Netherlands is not completely comparable with the situation in Kazakhstan, I think. When people use drugs for recreational reasons this kind of user is a different user from when somebody is using heroin. There are no people in Netherlands who use heroin for recreational reasons. Heroin is a drug you use because you want to forget things; you want to ease your pain, which can be physical, but also mental. So people using heroin do this for this reason. And perhaps they will not use other drugs like cannabis."

Wychgel says simply reforming drug policy is not enough to tackle the drug-linked problems. He says that living and employment conditions must also improve.

Burkhonov too says he is aware of the possible shortcomings of decriminalization, but he says the rapidly deteriorating situation in Central Asia convinces him this is the right step.

"In my opinion, if it is impossible to control and if it is already impossible to cope with it, the only way is to legalize [drugs]. Consumption of some drugs should be legal and thus controlled. In such condition, out of two evils you have to choose the less dangerous one."

He says as many as 2 percent of the entire Kyrgyz population may already be addicted to heroin and the situation is other countries might be worse.