Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

The Dark Ages of Drug Treatment in Russia


Josephine Huetlin

It is bad enough that the Russian government denies opium users one of the most effective dependency treatments – methadone, a drug used to treat people dependent on heroin. Now, Russia’s government is targeting drug users who sue for their health rights in court.

Alexey Kurmanaevsky, a social worker, found this out the hard way.

Kurmanaevsky has a long history of opioid dependence. He has repeatedly sought help from Russia’s public clinics, but frequently relapsed into drug use shortly after – not surprising as treatment in these clinics ignores scientific evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

As a result of injecting drug use, Kurmanaevsky is HIV positive.

Between 2011 and 2014, he and two other Russians struggling with drug dependence filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that banning opioid substitution therapy violates international human rights law.

In 2014, the European Court informed the Russian government about the case. The fallout for Kurmanaevsky and his fellow plaintiffs happened rapidly. Kurmanaevsky, at the time in remission, was working as a peer counselor at a state-funded drug rehabilitation center, the Health Country Foundation. One day, his boss called him to say that a government official had been in touch. The official told his boss that Kurmanaevsky’s employment at Healthy Country “damaged” its reputation. His boss then ordered Kurmanaevsky to withdraw the European Court case and publicly admit that he had been mistaken regarding substitution therapy. Otherwise, he had to cut ties to Healthy Country.

Kurmanaevsky refused and lost his job. The other applicants to the European Court were also pressured to drop the case by authorities, they said. When the employer of one of them, a nongovernmental organization, refused to yield, the organization suddenly faced inspections and fines that have paralyzed its work.

Evidence is mounting that Russia’s punitive approach to drugs does not work – the number of drug related deaths has remained steady recent years and 70 percent of Russia’s inmates are drug users. At the same time, the government has grown increasingly intolerant of critics. Using vaguely worded anti-drug propaganda laws, it has censored public discussions regarding substitution treatment.

Now it has also evidently decided to go after those who go to court to protect their rights.

But Kurmanaevsky is going forward with the case. He hopes the European Court of Human Rights will decide in his favor and force Russia to enter the 21st century when it comes to treating opioid dependence.


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