Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

The Russian-African Anti-Drug Dialogue: The potential for disaster and death

Text: Shaun Shelly

On the 8th and 9th of March 2016, South Africa hosted the Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue at the ICC in Durban. Here are some examples of press coverage: The CitizenIndependent On LineTASS Russian News agency and the one intelligent piece of reporting on the dialogue by Kevin Bloom for the Daily Maverick.

Russia has some of the most harmful and punitive of all drug policies. Despite their “no tolerance” approach they have more injecting drug users than any other population, have some of the highest drug-user statistics in the world, have a totally ineffective substance use disorder treatment system that is in violation of basic human rights and have massive rates of HIV infection, all as a result of a refusal to implement evidence based policies. Why would Africa want to share experiences with Russia, and why would they even consider issuing a joint declaration of recommendations on international drug policy?

It should also be noted that while this event was made ‘public’ on the SAPS website, attempts by researchers and journalists to participate or observe this event were met with strong exclusionary processes including a complex accreditation process for registration.

I briefly describe the context of the event and then provide the evidence that shows that almost all of the 16 recommendations made in the draft declaration are counter-productive, ignore international evidence, ignore current drug policy evidence and if implemented would significantly increase the harms caused by drug use.

The South African Government Statement on the Cabinet Meeting of 2 March 2016 ( under heading “4. Upcoming Events”, states:

“4.3. The Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue at the ICC in Durban from 8 to 9 March 2016 provides a platform to enhance the National Drug Master Plan (2013-2017).
The fight against illicit drugs is in line with the National Development Plan and the dialogue is under the auspices of the AU in pursuit of the obligations in terms of the relevant UN Drug and Transnational Organised Crime Conventions, AU Plan of Action on Drug Control (2013-2017) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) resolutions.
The conference is a follow-up session of the Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue, which aims to present a consolidated position in how world leaders intend to tackle the international drug problem. This will be tabled at the UN General Assembly Special Session in April 2016.”

Similarly, the South African Police website welcomes us to the Russia-Africa Anti-drugs dialogue webpage ( and states:

The Russia-Africa Anti-Drugs Dialogue Conference will be co-hosted by South Africa and Russia under the auspices of the African Union (AU) in pursuance of the obligations in terms of the relevant UN Drug and Transnational Organised Crime Conventions, African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control (2013-2017) and BRICS resolutions.

The resolutions taken at this event will be critical to develop a common Russia-Africa position on the world drug problem leading to the Commission of Narcotic Drugs (CND) that is held annually in March as well as the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) that will be held in April 2016. Therefore there is an urgency to hold this event prior to UNGASS and CND.”

The National Drug Master Plan (2013 -2017) that the Russia-Africa Dialogue “seeks to enhance”, was formulated by the Central Drug Authority in terms of the Prevention and Treatment of Drug Dependency Act (20 of 1992). A drug master plan is defined by the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) as ‘the single document adopted by government outlining all national concerns in drug control. ‘It summarizes authoritatively national policies, defines priorities and apportions responsibilities for drug-control efforts’. It acts both as a director and a directory of a country’s policies and programmes in the fight against substance abuse. The CDA is the body authorised in terms of Act 20 of 1992, as amended, and Act 70 of 2008, as amended, to develop an NDMP and to direct, guide, co-ordinate and oversee its implementation as well as to monitor and evaluate the achievements of the NDMP and to make such amendments to the plan as are necessary for success (Department of Social Development & Central Drug Authority, 2013).

Considering the legislated policy framework, as well as the two announcements above, one could justifiably conclude that the Second “Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue” would be endorsed by the Central Drug Authority (CDA) and any policy statement resulting from this dialogue would align with the National Drug Master Plan. This conclusion would, however, be wrong. The Declaration of the Second International Conference “Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue”, is not widely endorsed or supported by the Central Drug Authority, the Department of Social Development, perhaps because it does not align with the South African National Drug Master Plan or the African Common Position developed ahead of the UNGASS2016.

One could go even further and question why such a dialogue would even take place between Africa and the Russian Federation, a country known for some of the most harmful drug policies in the world. One analysis concludes:

“The government intentionally subjects approximately 1.7 million people to pain, suffering, and humiliation. Aimed at punishing people for using drugs and coercing people into abstinence, the official drug policy disregards the chronic nature of drug dependence. It also ignores the ineffectiveness of punitive measures in achieving the purposes for which they are officially used, that is, public safety and public health. Simultaneously, the government impedes measures that would eliminate the pain and suffering of DDP, prevent infectious diseases, and lower mortality, which amount to systematic violations of Russia’s human rights obligations”
(Golichenko & Sarang, 2013)

Draft Declaration of the Second International Conference “Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue”

A draft Declaration of the Second International Conference “Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue was released to certain official prior to the event. I have not seen the final declaration, but the draft the Russians proposed will give an indication of current or future intent. A  brief analysis of the 16 points that make up the draft Declaration of the Second International Conference “Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue” shows the declaration is ill-informed, contradicts the National Drug Master Plan and should the recommendations be adopted, they would present a significant risk to many South Africans, particularly those who are already vulnerable because of their economic, health and social status.

The document is typically prohibitionist and completely ignores the current trends in Drug policy reform. As such, it seems to reinforce the submission that the South African Ambassador to Vienna submitted in place of the Common African Position for the UNGASS Regional Contributions document. This was done despite the long consultative and inclusive processes that took place over many months in order to reach the consensus as expressed in the Common African Position. The side-lining of the Common African Position was even more perplexing considering the South African Deputy Minister of Social Development chaired the technical committee that drafted the Common African Position. (See here for Health-E’s report on this )

Below are some comments on the “Declaration of the Second International Conference “Russia-Africa Anti-Drug Dialogue”.

Point 2 notes “the growing challenge of production of new psychoactive substances not included in international lists and threatening the lives and health of drug users.”

New Psychoactive Substances (NPSs) are often also known as “legal highs” (UNODC, 2013a). The name itself demonstrates that the production of these substances is driven, in part at least, by the prohibition of other substances, the effect of which the users of new psychoactive substances are attempting to approximate, while avoiding being classified as “criminals”, vulnerable to arrest and criminal sanction (Fraser, 2014). As the 2008 UNODC World Drug Report states: ‘If the use of one drug was controlled, by reducing either supply or demand, suppliers and users moved on to another drug with similar psychoactive effects, but less stringent controls’ (UNODC, 2009). Since the 1980s chemists have been slightly altering molecular structures to specifically create legal substitutes for illegal drugs (Siegel, 2005). To attempt to list all these substances would be impossible, as the number of new substances is increasing each year. The prohibition of all NPSs would not be practically possible and in all likely-hood only fuel the creation of further NSPs, and possibly increase risk. This view is supported by the fact that the number of NPSs on the global market more than doubled between 2009 and 2013 (UNODC, 2013b). To attempt to outlaw these substances by defining effect or pharmacological action would have to be so broad so as to include drugs such as coffee, sugar and chocolate.

While some NPSs are believed to be more dangerous than their “traditional” counterparts, particularly in respect of cannabinoids and their synthetic analogues, there are still fewer fatalities related to NPSs when compared to illicit drugs (Fraser, 2014). To add a new target in the war on drugs would be futile, particularly considering the fact that NPSs are by definition a rapidly moving target.

Currently NPSs are not a major presence in South Africa or Africa, and one wonders why they take a position of such prominence in an African position statement. One of the exceptions which is sometimes classified as an NPS, is Ketamine. It is an exception because, while Ketamine is not a major drug of abuse in Africa, it is an essential medication in under-resourced settings. To reschedule Ketamine, as has been suggested by China, another BRICS partner, would have severe implications for the performance of life saving surgery on the continent. (see )
To read more on this subject:  Fraser, F. New Psychoactive Substances – Evidence Review, Scottish Government Social Research, 2014

In Point 3: Stresses “the need to address the world drug problem by implementing a comprehensive approach to drug supply and demand reduction, rehabilitation and re-socialization of drug users and implementation of alternative development programs, designed in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Alternative Development, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 18, 2013.”

For almost a century there has been a focus on controlling the availability of drugs through supply reduction. This has clearly not worked. The principle tenant of supply side reduction is that reduced supply will increase prices and reduce availability of drugs. In a recent report by the London School of Economics Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Use, they state: ‘The supposed efficacy of supply-side enforcement is now contested across the supply chain in most markets for most substances. In mature markets, there is surprisingly little evidence that marginal increases in enforcement raise equilibrium prices. The overall market impact of more-intensive supply-side measures is generally limited.’ (Collins et al., 2014)

While the principle of “alternative development programs, designed in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Alternative Development” may sound appealing, closer examination shows that this 2013 document has been criticised for being seen as “complimentary” to law enforcement and crop eradication. While alternative development efforts are theoretically attractive options, the reality is that crop production simply relocates.

Effective drug policy cannot be seen through the binary position of supply reduction and demand reduction. There will always be drugs, indeed they are “manufactured by processes embedded in narcotic plants” and both man and animals has sought to alter states of consciousness since the dawn of history (Siegel, 2005). In other words, there will always be a supply, and there will always be a market.

The South African NDMP specifically recognises that there are complexities and acknowledges:

  • Harm reduction is key component of a balanced national drug policy framework.
  • Demand reduction has to address issues of poverty, development, education and advocacy
  • It emphasises the need for evidence based policy and states: “Given the extent of research on the drug problem, evidence-based (or evidence-informed) approaches to the development of drug policy can and should be the primary basis on which policies are selected and applied.” As such, the evidence for supply reduction interventions is very poor.

The concept of “rehabilitation and resocialisation” for all drug users misunderstands the very basics of drug use: It is only about 10% of drug users who become problematic drug users. The driving belief would be that drug users are neither “habilitated” or “socialised”. This is certainly not true – one only needs to look at alcohol use to understand this. Similarly, “rehabilitation”, in whatever form that may be, does not address the systemic issues that often drive drug use within South African communities.

The concepts of “rehabilitation” and “resocialisation” are particularly worrying when they are positioned within the framework of Russian drug policy. It is common practice in Russia to use treatment methods that include flogging, beatings, imprisonment, electric shocks and other human rights violations. Over 90% of drug treatment patients return to using illegal drugs within a year (Merkinaite, 2012).

In points 3, 4 and 5: Places significant emphasis on crop eradication and calls for a significant reduction of these crops by 2025. It frames this within the context of alternative development.

Crop eradication has virtually no impact on drug supply to consumer markets, is not cost effective and increases regional instability (Mansfiled, 2011). If crops are reduced in one area, there is increased production in other areas. In the South African context, the eradication of Cannabis crops through the indiscriminate spraying of glyphosate has been an annual feature of the local war on drugs, paid for by the United Nations (“Police Helicopters Destroy Dagga Plantations and Communities,” 2015).

This statement calls for eradication to take place in the context of alternative development (AD) in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Alternative Development, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 18, 2013. Unfortunately this document differs from the initial draft, and as such AD initiatives are often out of sequence, conditional and complement eradication, all of which significantly reduce efficacy. While AD can help cultivators of these crops find alternatives, this is not a simple task, is of limited scope and does not reduce production on a global scale.
For further information:

Point 7 promotes continued criminalisation of drug users by describing decriminalization and legalisation attempts as “unacceptable”.

What is unacceptable is the harm done by current drug policy, much of this due to the criminalisation of drug users and prohibitionist policies. Countries as diverse as Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, Uruguay, the Czech Republic and others have implemented various form of decriminalisation or legalization at a regional or national level. Not one of the “experiments” has resulted in greater harms caused by drugs. The opposite is true. There have been numerous well documented benefits including reduced problematic drug use, reduced incidence of infectious disease, reduced criminal justice costs, increased uptake of treatment, reductions in crime and increased social integration (J. Buchanan, 2004; Julian Buchanan, 2015; Drug Policy Alliance, 2015; Global Commission On Drug Policy, 2011; Rance & Treloar, 2015).

Organisations such as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, UNDP, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, West African Commission on Drugs, United Nations Human Rights, Organisation of American States, the Global Commission on drug Policy and others have all called for alternative approaches to drug policy based on health and human rights.

In the face of this evidence, while each country must find their own path, it is short-sighted, unscientific and indeed unacceptable to make the presumption that decriminalisation is “unacceptable”.

Points 9, 10 and 11: Promotes and increased investment in the War on Drugs through specialized mechanisms of international cooperation and specialized funds, further law enforcement co-operation, increased controls, and increased securitization, including monitoring of telecommunications networks, with special focus on the internet.

The so-called war on drugs, an ill-conceived attempt to rid the world of drugs deemed to be illegal – a status earned not through science but through political and discriminatory motivations – has been an abject failure. Despite huge amounts of spending on trying to control the supply of drugs, the consumption of opiates, cocaine and cannabis has risen globally by 34,5%, 27% and 8,5% respectively between 1998 and 2008 (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011).

Current annual global spending on drug law enforcement is in excess of US$100 billion (The Alternative World Drug Report, 2011). Not only has this massive investment not yielded results, but it has caused innumerable harms. Internationally the current policies have undermined development and security, caused deforestation and pollution and created and enriched criminals (Count the Costs, 2012). On a country and individual level these policies have threatened public health and impacted heavily on the human rights of millions of people (Collins et al., 2014; Merkinaite, 2012; Oliveira, Kundrat, Ocheret, Torreele, & Verster, 2013; Transform, 2012).

The recommendation to increase the securitization based on the alarmist warnings related to terrorist groups is counter-productive. The war on drugs itself has threatened international security and has had a particularly devastating effect on transit countries. In his 2011 report on drug securitisation, Danny Kushlick concludes: ““It can be argued that the apparently successful global securitisation of drugs constitutes one of the greatest threats to international and human security.”(Kushlick, 2011).

Point 12 and 13: Describes a treatment system with a singular focus on abstinence based treatment that regards all drug use as problematic and a prevention system focused on anti-drug messaging.

The very approach described here has resulted in numerous deaths, the spread of HIV, the spread of Hepatitis C and numerous other health consequences. This has been clearly demonstrated by the implementation of Russian drug policy in the Crimea and Ukraine, which has caused an increase in drug related deaths.  From Drug Reporter and available in full at:

“Crimea is a region which has suffered a lot from the HIV epidemic fuelled by the sharing of needles and syringes among the estimated 14,000 injecting drug users who live here. Unlike their peers in Western Europe, where government investment in harm reduction programs has been able to halt the epidemic, drug users in Crimea have only recently obtained adequate access to evidence-based programs. Opiate substitution, as in Russia, was banned – until after the Orange Revolution, when the situation changed. The Ukrainian government, with the support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tubercolosis and Malaria, scaled up harm reduction programs. Now, 800 former injecting drug users have legal access to methadone and buprenorphine – drugs on the List of Essential Medicines approved by the WHO. In consequence of this new approach, newly registered HIV cases have dropped significantly. There is clear evidence that the lives of people in opiate substitution treatment have changed for the better: many of them have a job, a home, and a family. Unfortunately, this success is now endangered by the military occupation of Russia.

Mr. Viktor Ivanov, head of the Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics, has announced that one of the priorities of the occupying Russians is to shut down opiate substitution programs (OST). He claims these programs pose a grave danger to public health. Actually, he’s been repeating the same lies about OST for several years now.”

This is the same Ivanov who is currently in South Africa telling African’s how to approach our unique issues regarding drug use.

Finally, in point 16, they consider it appropriate to bring our consolidated position to the UN

It is not in the least appropriate to bring a position that has been drafted in line with the Russian Federation’s repressive and harmful policies that have directly resulted in the deaths and human rights abuses of many people, in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea, to the UN and present it as an Russian-African joint position. This is even less appropriate when it contradicts the South African National Drug Master Plan and the Common African Position for UNGASS. To allow this uncontested would be to endorse this position and recognise it as legitimate. To implement such a plan in South Africa would cause immense harm to our communities, particularly those who are already vulnerable.

Buchanan, J. (2004). Missing links? Problem drug use and social exclusion. Probation Journal,51(4), 387–397.

Buchanan, J. (2015). Ending the Drug Prohibition with a Hangover? British Journal of Community Justice13(1), 55–74.

Collins, J., Quah, D., Becerra, L., Caulkins, J., Csete, J., Drucker, E., … Ziskind, J. (2014). Ending the Drug Wars. London.

Count the Costs. (2012). The Alternative World Drug Report. Counting the costs of the war on drugs. Retrieved from

Department of Social Development, & Central Drug Authority. (2013). National Drug Master Plan 2013 – 2017. Pretoria: Department of Social Development.

Drug Policy Alliance. (2015). Approaches to Decriminalizing Drug Use & Possession. New York.

Fraser, F. (2014). New Psychoactive Substances – Evidence Review. Scottish Government Social Research 2014, (September 2014), 27. Retrieved from

Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2011). War on Drugs.

Global Commission On Drug Policy. (2011). War on Drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Retrieved from

Golichenko, M., & Sarang, A. (2013). Atmospheric Pressure: Russian drug policy as a driver for violations of the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Health and Human Rights Journal, (december), 97–107.

Kushlick, D. (2011). International Security and the Global War on Drugs: The Tragic Irony of Drug Securitisation, (February), 1–12.

Mansfiled, D. (2011). Assessing Supply-Side Policy and Practice : Eradication and Alternative Development. Geneva.

Merkinaite, S. (2012). A War Against People Who Use Drugs: The Costs, EHRN, 2012 | Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN). Retrieved from

Oliveira, M. D. De, Kundrat, P., Ocheret, D., Torreele, E., & Verster, A. (2013). The Negative Impact Of The War On Drugs On Public Health : The Hidden Hepatitis C Epidemic, (May).

Police Helicopters Destroy Dagga Plantations and Communities. (2015). Retrieved March 9, 2016, from

Rance, J., & Treloar, C. (2015). “We are people too”: Consumer participation and the potential transformation of therapeutic relations within drug treatment. The International Journal on Drug Policy26(1), 30–6.

Siegel, R. K. (2005). Inoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances (2nd ed.). Rochester: Park Street Press.

The Alternative World Drug Report. (2011). Retrieved from
Transform. (2012). The War on Drugs: Undermining Human Rights. London.

UNODC. (2009). 2008 World Drug ReportTrends in Organized Crime (Vol. 12).

UNODC. (2013a). The challenge of new psychoactive substances, 3–55. Retrieved from

UNODC. (2013b). World Drug Report 2013. Vienna.


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