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Russia’s Futile War on Drugs

La fútil guerra de Rusia contra las drogas

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When bloodthirsty Vladimir Putin tried to somehow justify his unprovoked invasion of democratic, sovereign Ukraine, he used two main “arguments”: the now-infamous “denazification” crusade; and one that went almost unperceived by the public—Putin openly accused Zelensky’s government of being “a gang of drug addicts.”

Addressing the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Putin further said, “It seems that it will be easier to come to an agreement with you than with this gang of junkies and neo-Nazis, who settled in Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.”

Such accusations constitute in no way a coincidence. Russia’s war on drugs is among the cruelest and nonsensical of them all—because they all are.

Anyone mildly suspected of being a drug lord will be tortured in Russia. Such actions don’t happen in the shadows, they are officially encouraged. Needless to say, there are barely fair trials. Suspects are whipped by law enforcement officers in a most barbaric display of savagery and inhumanity.

Russia faced — and still faces — a real drug abuse problem. Neighboring Afghanistan — the world’s largest producer of opium (once also invaded by Russia, by the way) — and China are the country’s main suppliers.

Actually, if we recall Putin’s speech, back in 2013, at the International Drug Enforcement Conference, he sounded rather moderate, no different from many of his Western counterparts. “The drugs trade” — he explained — “has become a global challenge to the entire international community, and for some countries has become a national tragedy. The drugs trade is a breeding ground for organized crime, smuggling, and illegal migration. Even sadder and more dangerous, it is also a breeding ground for terrorism. We, therefore, believe it’s essential to fight all types of drugs, and we are worried by the more ‘relaxed laws’ that some countries have passed, and that lead to legalization of so-called ‘soft’ drugs.” 

Although my personal take on the matter (and on all matters, honestly and happily) is far from Putin’s — I am for the decriminalization of all drugs under medical prescription — his orthodox approach seemed to be, then again, in sync with many world leaders.

However, Putin doesn’t intend to tackle dangerous cartels only. Beyond the aforementioned abuses, the Kremlin’s tyrant doesn’t hesitate to harm his own people; regular consumers that, in a worst-case scenario, need medical attention and treatments, and not ostracism and mockery. 

“Drug users are stigmatized and often turned away from hospitals. After flirting with decriminalizing small amounts of drugs, Russian law enforcement returned to locking up users, going so far as to raid nightclubs and urine-test everyone inside,” wrote Samuel Oakford for VICE.

“Much of the heroin in Russia today originates in Afghanistan, and Russian drug officials have repeatedly blamed the US and its NATO allies for destabilizing Afghanistan, which led poppy production in the country to soar,” Oakford continues. “Owing in large part to Russia’s refusal to offer harm reduction programs [like facilitating needle exchange] the country is now experiencing a full-blown crisis of HIV and other communicable diseases. In January, Russia passed a grim milestone, registering its millionth HIV-positive patient. The true number is likely at least 50 percent higher, according to the country’s top HIV expert, who warned that 3 million people.”

Even cancer patients are affected by Putin’s iron fist. Terminally ill patients don’t get access to the medication they need because of this absurd, exaggerated prohibition-like stance.

Olga Usenko explains to The Lancet that “these deaths are a prime example of how something has gone horribly wrong in Russia’s war on drugs. People who are terminally ill have become collateral damage in its bid to crack down on illegal drug use.”

Nadezhda Osipova, an anesthesiologist, says that “Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service [the FSKN, now superseded by the GUKON, Main Directorate for Drugs Control] had spread its reach beyond its remit of policing illegal drug trafficking and into the corridors of hospitals and clinics and the result was a substantial rise in human suffering.”

The zero-tolerance approach to drugs has dramatically failed everywhere. There are, literally, no exceptions to this statement. While keeping drugs illegal, the government paves the way for cartels and immensely powerful drug lords.

Nonetheless, Russia’s stance is particularly brutal. “The inaccessibility and poor quality of services pertaining to the treatment of drug dependence in Russia have been extensively documented. Treatment methods reported include flogging, beatings, punishment by starvation, long-term handcuffing to bed frames, ‘coding’ (hypnotherapy aimed at persuading the patient that drug use leads to death), electric shock, burying patients in the ground and xenoimplantation of guinea pig brains. The practice and acceptance of such methods clearly indicate that the government’s approach does not correspond to international drug treatment guidelines,” reads a Drug Policy Facts report, based on an IDPC article.

As Anya Sarang, president of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, said to The Guardian, “What we need instead of this harsh drug control rhetoric is greater emphasis on rehabilitation, substitution treatment, case management for drug users and protection from HIV.” 

“It has been widely shown that criminalizing people using drugs simply drives them underground and makes them much harder to reach with preventative measures,” explained specialist Denis Broun, also for The Guardian. “Purely repressive measures do not work,” he concluded.

When this is the official, governmental view on drug abuse, it is no mystery why Putin was so hasty to accuse Zelensky’s government of being “junkies.” In pure demonization, all punitive acts are acceptable. And Putin knows this.

Pris Guinovart is a writer, editor and teacher. In 2014, she published her fiction book «The head of God» (Rumbo, Montevideo). She speaks six languages. Columnist since the age of 19, she has written for media in Latin America and the United States // Pris Guinovart es escritora, editora y docente. En 2014, publicó su libro de ficciones «La cabeza de Dios» (Rumbo, Montevideo). Habla seis idiomas. Columnista desde los 19 años, ha escrito para medios de America Latina y Estados Unidos

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