Poppy seed and mushrooms: Oryol's drug problems

The Oryol Region in central Russia has been fairly successful in dealing with its drug problems, but the approaches need coordinating, says Elena Godlevskaya, and not everyone has an interest in improving the situation
Elena Godlevskaya
14 June 2010

In Oryol the peak of drug distribution and the fashion for heroin among young people was in the late 1990s. Drugs could be bought on the street, at schools and universities, and in clubs and discos. At that time local organized crime groups were not involved in dealing. Some of the leaders of these groups were even in charge of certain districts of the city, where they took the initiative in closing down outlets selling drugs. Large consignments of drugs came in mainly via gypsies and Azeris. Local newspapers maintained that the police were also involved in selling them to young people.

Staff changes in the drug control department of the Regional Department of Internal Affairs brought about a new situation. Working almost 24 hours a day, the department managed to shut down the main delivery channels of heroin into the region. Hundreds of drug dealers of various levels were put behind bars. Judges handed down tougher punishments for drug dealing, which resulted in considerably fewer outlets and a reduction in heroin use.  Street crime figures also improved.  

The Oryol Region is today considered to be relatively trouble-free. The main problem is the sale of poppy seed and marijuana derivatives, and the virtually open sale of wild poppy seed. This contains a large percentage of poppy straw, and is sold at markets in Oryol as a food product.

Poppy seeds containing narcotic substances appeared at retail outlets selling dried fruit around three years ago. The sellers had the necessary certificates of quality, and it was hard to find fault with them, as the Russian Standards, Metrology and Certification Committee had issued no ruling on allowable percentages of impurities in poppy seeds. It was simply that poppy seed for pies and buns cost 300-400 rubles per kilogram, and wild poppy seed cost four times as much. The Standards Committee only clarified the situation in 2008: poppy seed had to be pure. One dried fruit merchant was immediately arrested, and then a second. The first was sentenced to 10 years for distributing poppy seed containing narcotic substances and for organized crime in December 2009. The second dealer is still under suspicion. Drugs police seized 1.5 tons of wild poppy seed from him and sifted out 50 kg of poppy straw. Both sellers are Azeris with Russian passports. There are only two outlets left in Oryol selling this poppy seed, but it is already clear that they will also be closed down soon.

The official number of drug addicts in the Oryol Region is around 800. They may receive medical assistance at a state institution, the regional drug dispensary, and at a rehab centre, the NGO “Transformation”. The drug dispensary has an intensive care ward, where people are treated for overdoses and withdrawal, a treatment ward for scheduled hospitalization, and a clinic. The rehab centre is one of 300 in Russia. It is run by former drug addicts, rather than doctors, and has premises in two two-storey private houses. Here addicts can receive counselling from a psychologist and there is active use of work therapy. The addicts themselves decide how long they will stay at the Centre:  some for just two weeks, others for the rest of their lives. There are currently 27 people living there.

Despite the availability of treatment and rehabilitation, 9 people died from drug overdoses last year, and 3 the year before. Before this, the figure was zero for three years in a row. But the figures clearly don’t reflect the real situation. The regional drug dispensary has its own figures, as do the forensic medical experts, the First Aid service, and the regional AIDS centre. People working in the field complain that there is no coordination of information about addicts in the region. No effective assistance can be expected from the local authorities.  At the regional legislative assembly the draft of a local law has been gathering dust for some years.  It deals with the prevention of drug crime and was proposed by the drug control department. For three years the authorities have been unable to resolve the question whether to destroy a field where hallucinogenic mushrooms grow. No one knows how these mushrooms appeared in central Russia. They have now spread over 5 hectares on the outskirts of Oryol and dozens of addicts have been arrested at the site by the police and the militia. The problem regularly appears in the media, especially as there is a school nearby. But no one is doing anything about it.  The official reason given is that no one can ascertain who owns the land.  The unofficial reason can only be guessed at.

The majority of the region’s drug addicts are young and unemployed. They are driven into the world of illusion by hopelessness and a complete lack of any prospects.  Oryol has seen a huge drop in industrial production (last year by more than a third), there is a low level of business activity and the standard of living is one of the lowest in Russia.

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