All university students and older schoolchildren in the Russian republic of Tatarstan this year have been asked to take a drug test.
Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev has hailed the testing, which was conducted throughout the Russian republic for the first time, as a major milestone in fighting drug abuse. However, the proposal to extend the measure nationwide is drawing a mixed response from students and experts.
Renat Gazizullin, a second-year information-technology student at Kazan State University, in Tatarstan, was asked to undergo a medical test to screen him for drugs at the beginning of the year.
"It's helpful. I think the university will kick out drug addicts, if they don't drop out themselves. I don't want to be in contact with drug addicts," Gazizullin says.
Other students, however, were less thrilled.
Elmira Galieyeva, who studies at Kazan's Culture and Arts Academy, tells RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that students felt obliged to take the test, which in principle should have been voluntary.
"People should be given the choice to take this test. Not everyone in our group was prepared to take it. It was fun at first, but then it got unpleasant," Galieyeva says.
A handful of educational institutions in Tatarstan tested their students for drugs last year as part of a pilot program. But this is the first time testing -- which screens for marijuana, amphetamines, heroin, methadone, cocaine, and several psychotropic medications -- is being conducted in all universities and schools across the republic.
Political Support For Testing
Although consumption has eased off since the drug boom of the mid-1990s, the number of drug abusers in Russia is still rising steadily.
The idea of drug testing is not new. In 2007, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov called for the compulsory testing of all university students in the capital.
His initiative has yet to translate into concrete legislation. But Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief epidemiologist, and a number of State Duma deputies have thrown their weight behind the mayor.
Yevgeny Bryun, Moscow's chief physician specialized in substance abuse, backs Shaimiyev's initiative for nationwide testing.
"It's a good idea. The need to undergo this test disciplines teenagers, makes them think about whether to start taking drugs or not. It's a kind of social pressure by society that makes it clear that we don't want our children to use drugs," Bryun says.
Russia's human rights ombudsman, however, has urged caution. Vladimir Lukin says drug testing should be in line with Russian legislation and respect both human dignity and the principle of presumption of innocence.
From a legal perspective, constitutional law expert Aleksandr Strashun says implementing compulsory drug testing in educational institutions shouldn't pose any problem.
Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev supports the tests
"I think there's nothing wrong with it. To obtain a driving license, for example, you also have to present a certificate proving that you are not listed in psychiatric and drug-user registries," Strashun says.
"Concerning students, it depends what subject he or she is studying. There are professions in which using drugs is absolutely unacceptable, medicine for instance -- just imagine going to a doctor who is a drug addict."
Hard To Say No
In Tatarstan, the drug test is officially conducted on a voluntary basis. But critics say that in reality, students are under severe pressure to get tested. In some universities, for instance, the names of students who failed to turn up for the test were printed in the university newspaper.
Albert Zaripov, a psychologist at a Kazan rehabilitation center for former drug users, says the university authorities make life difficult for students who refuse to take the test.
"If students refuse they start putting hurdles in their path; they fail them at exams. Besides, saying 'no' amounts to casting doubt on one's lifestyle. Saying 'no' amounts to protesting against the conditions put forward by the authorities. Only a fraction of people are willing to do so," Zaripov says.
One of them was Mikhail Kinder, a student at Kazan's State Technology University whose story received wide media attention in Tatarstan.
Kinder sued his university earlier this year accusing it of coercing students into taking the drug test. When the case was brought before a court, Kinder found that all the exams he had previously passed had been annulled, following which he promptly withdrew his lawsuit.
Critics have questioned the merit of the test in combating drug abuse -- according to official figures, traces of drugs were detected in less than 0.3 percent of all screened students and schoolchildren.
Igor Sholokhov, who runs the Kazan Human Rights Center, says: "The percentage of tests that come back positive is minimal, and the money spent on testing is huge. This raises questions about the usefulness of this measure."
Psychologists also point to the danger of singling out students with drug problems. Despite universities' pledges to assist such students in kicking their habit, rehabilitation programs catering to that age group are still few and far between in Russia.
Like Renat Gazizullin, many students admit they have no desire to rub shoulders with drug addicts, and experts fear the new test may thrust young users into outright drug dependence:
Psychologist Zaripov again says he could see nothing wrong with the test, provided it involved real help.
"But considering our society's attitude toward drug dependence, this will only serve to label the child for life as a drug addict. And what is that child's future then going to look like?" he says.RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report