Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

View on a Russian drug policy from inside

By Christina Kashtanova for ARF

Drug policy in Russia is a dangerous subject to talk about. When I started researching this topic, I was apprehensive about writing about it, because so many people who have tried to help have ended up in prison, beaten in police departments or accused of drug dealing.

There have been many shocking cases, where drug users or people trying to protect their rights have been repressed. Some of those cases became known worldwide, like Irina Teplinskaya (DDN, May 2011) or Denis Matveev (a Russian Human Rights activist who was accused of drug trafficking on a fabricated case, and sentenced to six years in a high-level security prison). There are many more cases, which is why there are not too many people ready to fight for the human rights of drug users. They have practically no rights in Russia, and drugs have become an easy tool for repression of artists, social and human rights activists – not only those who talk on the issues of drug policy, but any activists, who provide social critique of the state. Given police and courts corruption and common use of provocation and planting of drugs as a mean to increase arrests, anyone can be planted with drugs and the case would not be even properly investigated.

“Once I was arrested and beaten at the police station, because they accused me of drug dealing. I didn’t have any drugs with me, and didn’t use any. After several hours of mental pressing and beating they asked me to sign papers, to confess to a crime that I didn’t do. I was very scared, and if they continued any longer, I would have signed anything, even a confession to something I hadn’t done, just for it to stop”, says Alexander Delphinov, writer and journalist, who rights of drug users through his writing and also works as an activist and social worker with drug users during his free time.

Drug addicts meet zero tolerance or help in Russian society. There are no proper therapies for them. HIV-positive drug users or those with TB can’t get proper treatment, because doctors tell them to stop using drugs first. Every day people die of HIV through drug addiction, the only detoxification therapy that exists in Russia treats the physical problem but does nothing to address the psychological issues of drug use. The state authorities themselves admit that 92% of people who go through the state detox relapse to drug use within one year. The government does very little to promote drug rehabilitation centers and the internationally accepted opioid substitution treatment with methadone or buprenorphine is illegal and opposed by the government.

There is only one non-governmental organization in Russia that tries to make a difference in drug-policy, Andrey Rylkov’s Foundation for Health and Social Justice. I spent a day with the activists from ARF, helping drug users on the streets of Moscow. ARF provides users with clean needles, condoms, rapid testing and counseling for HIV and hepatitis C, drug harm reduction advice and referral to medical insitutions. Such social work is very important, because sometimes it’s the only one way for drug-users to communicate with people outside their criminal environment. The ARF don’t have any offices, because they can’t afford to rent them – they do not receive any government funding and exist with the help of private donations and small international grants, or often without any funding – providing their guerrilla outreach services in the city, whose mayorate openly opposes any harm reduction and HIV prevention work with drug users.

I decided to follow the group of activists from ARF and see their work on the streets from the inside. Since resources are scarce, there are usually only two people in the group, who go out into the streets every day. Their limited resources mean that they can only help a few drug users each day, and they are in constant fear of being arrested by the police, who would try to get information about places and drug suppliers from them by any means possible.

“We can’t publicly distribute syringes. Even though it’s not illegal in Moscow, but the city health department opposes it. But we can be accused for propaganda of drugs, if we do it publicly. We don’t have a drop-in center, a mobile unit, or any premises, like most programs in the West do. All this limits our reach to drug users and scope of services we can provide”, says Maxim Malishev, ARF social worker. Maxim was a heroin addict for 15 years, but ARF helped him to stop using drugs (sending him to drug rehabilitation in the Republic of Tatarstan). Now he helps people like him, sharing his positive experience and help.

We began outside the Moscow railway underground station, looking for any groups of people who could be drug users.

At first I felt anxious – I had never met a drug-user before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I realised too that we could be arrested at any time, even though we were not doing anything illegal, I was worried. Fortunately we did not encounter any police.

Maxim could spot several people, who we helped that day. We were able to offer them HIV tests, clean syringes, leaflets, and advice in what to do in the case of an overdose.

One of the drug-users, aged 34, said: “I would like to stop using drugs, because I have serious health problems. The quality of drugs has become worse, and the prices have risen dramatically. I was in the hospital twice, doing detox therapy, but as soon as I returned to the same environment I couldn’t fight my psychological addiction. There is not such therapy that helps the mind.”

“Several years ago, when I was a drug-user, once I was caught up by police with a small amount of heroin for personal use. When they analysed the substance, it actually only contained 3% heroin, and other 97% were harmful infusions. If we had substitution treatment with methadone, it would not only reduce amount of HIV transmitted by injections, it would also improve quality of life for the drug-users, make them less criminal. When you have to spend all the time trying to find money, often by criminal means, to buy the drug, you can’t even think about giving up the addiction”, says Maxim.

That day I’ve seen many drug users of different social classes. I was surprised that all of them took the leaflets and listened to everything activists were telling them. It seemed to me that all of them expressed the willing to quit this addiction. But afterwards Maxim told me, that it was mostly because of the high prices of the drugs and the bad quality of it.

The supply of syringes and antibiotics was over quite fast. But more and more people were coming. Some of them had wounds, some looked really ill. There was a man, who was hardly walking, one of his hands was swallen. I noticed that the activists knew him, but we had nothing left to give him. I was really impressed, when Alexander Delphinov disappeared suddenly and returned with some extra supplies he bought in the pharmacy. He bought vitamins,ointment and bandages.

“This guy was always so cheerful. Just a couple of weeks ago he was going to quit using drugs and go to the hospital together with his girlfriend, who was also a drug user. He was really worried about her, and we discussed the ways they both could quit. But then she left him, and now he doesn’t have the motivation to quit anymore, and he increased his dose. Such things happen all the time, those people are really ill, and they need help. Even though we used today’s supplies, I couldn’t stay away”, says Alexander.

Irina Teplinskaya was the first drug user in Russia to speak out about her rights in public. She is the face of Russian drug addicts, people without rights, without proper therapy, repressed by the government and hated by society. As soon as she began to talk openly about these problems in public, she began to be repressed. Just a while ago, she was planted with a methadone tablet on her way from Ukraine to Russia.

“They were meeting me at the airport, 8 people with a dog. They were really shocked, when after searching me for 3 hours they couldn’t find anything. The tablet appeared out of nowhere. When they knew that they wouldn’t be able to find anything on me, they planted it. I am sure it was connected with my activism. It was an attempt to bring down me and discredit my position, to get rid of me, because I began to sue Russia in the European Court. I filed an official complaint on 14 November 2011,” she says.

When she advocates replacement therapy, she often talks about the Ukraine’s drug program as an example. Ukraine was a former Soviet Republic, and it began to apply replacement therapy 15 years ago. Now there are more than 6000 people receiving treatment.

“I think when Federal Security Service or the Federal Drug Control Service knew that I was receiving therapy in the Ukraine, they assumed it was replacement therapy. I think they were absolutely sure that I was bringing replacement therapy drugs back with me. But they were wrong, it was three months in a drugs free zone, doing a different kind of therapy”, Irina says.

Irina Teplinskaya works for ARF and is a member of the Steering Committee from Russia in the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network. Even though these two organizations are well known around the world and widely supported, their work goes against Russian drug policy.

“In Russia ‘those who are not with us are against us’, so it’s rather normal here that drugs are used as a tool for political repression”, she says.

It’s a well-known practise in Russia, when drugs are planted on objectionable people who go against the political system.

“Drug dealing is a very simple way to accuse any person. If the person is a drug user, like me, the amount of drugs can be really small. And if a person was never been charged for drug use, they just need to plant slightly bigger amount of drugs on them”, says Irina.

After the drug planting incident, Irina decided to leave Kaliningrad, the city where she lived, and moved to the Republic of Tatarstan, which is a federal subject of Russia, but where the situation in drug policy is better. There are government supported syringe and needle exchange programs, and the human rights of drug users are not violated as happens in Russia. “The Tatarstan government understands that there is an epidemic of HIV, and it’s impossible to stop it with only repressive measures. So they meet halfway with such non-governmental organizations. I have no problems living in Tatarstan”, she says.

Irina Teplinskaya is HIV-positive and she doesn’t complain about the treatment she was getting for it in Russia, and now in Tatarstan. “I had several breaks in my therapy when I was using drugs, because I had no time to go to the HIV treatment centers, go through analysis, and get medicines”, says Irina. Drug users who need to think about getting money for their next supply, and then looking for a supplier, can’t concentrate on regular medication for HIV. “Doctors know that the drug user most likely won’t be self-disciplined enough for HIV therapy, so they prescribe such therapy to this group of people quite pessimistically and often find ways to refuse, because they see it as a waste of money for the government.”

There are many problems with the drug policy in Russia, and despite the activists work to try and change the situation their impact locally does not seem to spread to the country as a whole.

“The society should change its attitude to drug users. It should not only be written on paper, that we are all citizens of this country and have our rights, but these rights should be respected in practice. People should become more tolerant to drug users. Russia should change its angle in drug policy from repressive to humane, like it is in most other countries around the world”, she says.

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One comment to “View on a Russian drug policy from inside”

  1. you are a very talented young journalist!

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