Russia defies growing consensus with declaration of 'total war on drugs'
Under new laws being drawn up addicts would be forced into treatment or jailed, and dealers 'treated like serial killers'
Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the state duma, the lower house, said a "total war ondrugs" was needed to stem a soaring abuse rate driven by the flow of Afghan heroin through central Asia to Europe.
Russia has as many as 6 million addicts (one in 25 people). Every year 100,000 people die from using drugs, Gryzlov said in a newspaper. The scale of the problem "threatens Russia's gene pool", he said. "We are standing on the edge of a precipice. Either we squash drug addiction or it will destroy us."
This year, President Dmitry Medvedev said drug abuse was cutting up to three percentage points off economic growth.
Injecting drug-use is also accelerating Russia's HIV crisis because – unlike most other European countries – methadone treatment is banned and needle exchange programmes are scarce, meaning the virus spreads quickly from addict to addict via dirty syringes. An estimated one in 100 Russians are HIV positive.
Under legislation promoted by the ruling United Russia party and now being reviewed in parliament, drug addicts will be forced into treatment or jailed, and dealers will be handed heftier custodial sentences. "The barons of narco-business must be put on a par with serial killers with the appropriate punishment in the form of a life sentence," said Gryzlov, who is chairman of the party.
Activists criticised the idea of putting addicts behind bars, pointing to a growing worldwide consensus that treating drug users as criminals has failed as a strategy.
The Global Commission on Drugs Policy said in a report last week that there needed to be a shift away from criminalising drugs and incarcerating those who use them. Gryzlov, however, claimed that "criminal responsibility for the use of narcotics is a powerful preventative measure".
Special punishments should also be considered for dealers, he added: "Sending drug traders to a katorga [forced labour camp], for example. Felling timber, laying rails and constructing mines – that's very different from sitting in a personal cell with a television and a fridge while you keep up your 'business' on the outside."
While it remains unclear how many of the measures will become law, other leading members of United Russia – which is headed by Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, and which dominates the duma – said they supported the initiative.
The plans follow an admission by Medvedev in April that Russia's fight against drug addiction had failed. He called for radical measures such as mandatory drug tests in schools.
Possession of small quantities of psychotropic substances in Russia carries an administrative fine of up to 15,000 roubles (£330), but Gryzlov indicated it would now result in a jail term. The state should offer narkomany (addicts) a stark choice, he said: "Prison or forced treatment."
That could be a bleak prospect. Some of Russia's detox clinics still use "coding", a controversial therapy in which patients are scared into thinking terrible consequences (such as their testicles falling off) will result if they mix drugs with medicines which are actually placebos.
Several activists condemned Gryzlov's suggestion to "isolate" drug users from society.
"Sending more people to prison will not reduce drug addiction or improve public health," said Anya Sarang, president of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, an advocacy group for people with HIV which works with injecting drug users (IDUs). "Russian prisons are terrible places full of HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases. Drugs are often even more accessible there than anywhere else."
She added: "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."
HIV prevalence among IDUs in western countries is 1 or 2%, but lack of outreach work and the absence of opiate substitution (methadone) and other "harm reduction" measures mean the figure is 16% in Russia – rising to 60% in hotspots such as St Petersburg.
Denis Broun, the Moscow-based director of UNAids for Europe and central Asia, told the Guardian that Gryzlov's proposals could make matters even worse.
"It has been widely shown that criminalising people using drugs simply drives them underground and makes them much harder to reach with preventative measures," he said. "This is not an effective strategy for fighting HIV. Purely repressive measures do not work."