The Spice of life – and death


The drug of choice for young people in Russia has the innocent name ‘Spice,’ but its effects can be fatal.


Ekaterina Loushnikova
6 November 2014

I have only tried drugs once in my life. I was on holiday in the Egyptian resort of Khurgada and a young man with eyes as black as olives offered me some hashish to smoke. I agreed out of curiosity, although I knew you could go to prison for it in Egypt. But the hash was mixed with too much tobacco and I didn’t feel any euphoria, or indeed any buzz at all. They say it starts working the second time round, but back in Russia no one has ever offered me anything to smoke. My colleagues and friends prefer alcohol as an aid to relaxation; soft drugs are more popular among teenagers and students. My VKontakte social network friend Daniil is only 15, but his experience of narcotics is much wider than mine. He began smoking spice when he was just ten, and his parents were totally unaware of it, as is often the case.

Spice is a smoking mixture of herbs with the addition of chemical additives, modelled on the compounds found in cannabis, and synthesised in secret laboratories (assumed to be in Southeast Asia); for distribution in Russia and Europe. The chemical formula changes constantly, and its effect on the human organism is little understood.

This autumn, Russia has seen a veritable epidemic of poisoning caused by psychoactive smoking mixtures: official figures put the death toll at over 40, with more than 2000 people being treated in hospital, all of them aged between 15 and 30.

Daniil’s story

‘Your brain switches off; it’s like you’ve drunk five or six litres of vodka. You switch off from everything else’.

‘I started smoking spice when I was ten, but some kids start when they’re eight,’ says Daniil. He is an ordinary, quiet-looking boy – nothing at all like a hardened drug fiend. ‘The first time, friends on the block gave me some to try. We smoke, we laugh, we have fun, we get high; all kinds of fantastic things come into your head. So you want some more. You get properly hooked after a couple of weeks, and then it’s hard to stop. Your brain switches off; it’s like you’ve drunk five or six litres of vodka. You switch off from everything else – school, sport – you don’t give a damn. You get up in the morning and all you can think about is where to score some more.’

‘And where did you get it from?’ Daniil doesn’t give a direct answer. Friends brought it round. But I didn’t really need to ask; living in a working class suburb of Kirov I was well aware that a school kid can buy spice just about everywhere – from an older student dealing in the school toilets, or from a friendly barman in a cafe; and outside their own block of flats, where you can find posters with dealers’ contact numbers on the front door.


Spice advertisement in Kirov. Photo: Loushnikova (c)Adults wander by, oblivious to the poster, but any teenager knows you just have to text a number to get the price, the weight and how to pay (at a paypoint machine or over the phone), and then you’ll be told where to collect your ‘smoke.’ The packets of spice are hidden in secluded spots – doorways, building sites, parks; dark corridors in old factory hostels, children’s playgrounds, and bushes. Confidentiality is strict - no one knows anyone else by sight: neither the wholesale trafficker, nor the dealer, nor their clients. There are just numbers, nicknames, code words and signs – an imaginary, illusory world for the selected and the initiated. There are even specialised forums where young users share their experiences online:

‘The chemicals were strong ones, we all smoked together; smoked neat it just killed everyone, you get pleasantly high and dissolve into space, so I spent the first 39 minutes reassembling my body from parts spread around the flat and couldn’t work out why my brother needed a nose like that! Then we all just cracked up and laughed and couldn’t stop laughing!’

‘It smelt familiar. The mix was based on camomile. It burns nicely. It sounds like a bonfire or like burning hay. If you inhale it deeply four times, then over the next five minutes you gradually start to get really high. You enter a state of euphoria. You feel on top of the world, all that is missing is a girl. The euphoria comes in wave after wave, you could crap your pants from happiness! I wish my dealer success and prosperity and I’ll be in touch again soon!’

‘So how much does a fix cost?’ I ask Daniil. ‘200-300 roubles a gram [$4-$6] ’, he replies. ‘You can spend 1000 a day. But people always give me it for free because I’m very small.’

‘I spent the first 39 minutes reassembling my body from parts spread around the flat’.

The mother’s tale

Daniil’s mother Marina tells a different story. She’s a young, fair-haired woman, a single parent divorced from Daniil’s dad. She works in building management and has a cleaning job in the evenings as well to make ends meet. Tired and stressed out, it took her a long time to notice that there was something odd going on with her son. ‘I’d come back in the evening and he’d be asleep already. Then in the morning he’d get up and apparently go off to school, but in fact he was roaming the streets. Then he’d apparently come back from school, and go straight to sleep again. I wondered whether he was ill, but then he started openly smoking at home and I realised what was happening. He became aggressive and uncontrollable, and would steal money out of the flat, and mobile phones. “I’ll take all your stuff,” he would say, “your laptop, your computer, the TV. I need a fix!!!”

'He became aggressive and uncontrollable, and would steal money and mobile phones out of the flat.’ (Daniil’s mother)

Sometimes he would disappear for a couple of days; I was out of my mind with worry! One day his dad came and handcuffed him to a radiator, but he managed to escape and ran off again. So one morning we just sat him in the car and took him to the children’s rehab centre in Ukhta, over 700km away. He spent four months there, and came back a different person. Now he’s doing well at school, going to the gym, he has a girlfriend. One day he said to me: “Thanks for saving me; I wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I wouldn’t have lived to see my next birthday.”’

There are tears in Marina’s eyes as she tells me this. Many of her son’s old friends are just memories now; and VKontakte pages. The pages are still there, but the people aren’t – just photos with mourning ribbons and messages for the dead person from family and friends.

A chemical weapon 

All spice’s victims have been aged between 15 and 30. Some of them passed out and didn’t wake up, some choked on their own vomit or died in terrible convulsions in a rented ‘addicts’ flat. The symptoms may have been different but the cause of death was the same: poisoning by an unknown psychoactive substance.

All spice’s victims have been aged between 15 and 30.

According to the Russian Federal Drugs Control Service (FSKN), a new form of spice has now become widely available.  It contains a chemical described as causing nausea, vomiting, convulsions, psychiatric disturbance, respiratory failure and, in some cases, death. This version of the drug was synthesised only recently and so is not on the official banned substances list. So dealers themselves had no idea how much should go into each ‘fix’ and mixed it with herbs and weighed the result by eye, going by their own taste and how generous they were feeling, with some adding a soupçon of rat poison for an extra high. The largest number of victims of this dangerous mix – 14 dead and 700 treated in hospital - came from the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region and our Kirov Region. And the real figures might be higher, as the number of known victims is still growing.

This new spice is many times more terrible than heroin: addiction happens more quickly, its effects are more violent. It particularly affects the brain and nervous system; the user simply becomes increasingly slow-witted. ‘It’s effectively a chemical weapon,’ Dr Aleksandr Metelev, a narcologist in private practice told me. Recently, he has had no cause for complaint about a lack of patients. So how is it used, I asked him. ‘Some people sprinkle the compound over an ordinary herb mixture, such as you get in camomile tea, for example, and smoke it as a joint; some dissolve it in salt and shoot it up into a vein; others make so called ‘stamps’ – they soak paper in it and stick it onto their skin. Initially, a small dose of spice will have a positive effect: laughter, euphoria, pleasant hallucinations, a flying sensation. People feel all-powerful, happy, ready for anything – but the laughter can be followed by death.’

‘It’s effectively a chemical weapon’.

Can someone cure themselves of addiction, I asked Dr Metelev. ‘That’s like asking if someone can cure themselves of appendicitis. Does he have enough willpower? No, because it’s not a question of willpower: he needs a surgeon and an operation. And an addict also needs a doctor.’  

Why spice and not vodka?

Russia, I suggested, has usually been thought of as somewhere where strong alcohol is the narcotic of choice, so why is there suddenly a fashion for soft drugs? ‘People are the same everywhere,’ said Aleksandr Metelev. ‘They all want to get high! It’s part of human nature, and it’s impossible to eradicate it – you may as well try to put Communism into practice. And Russians are no different from anyone else. Adults can go to a shop and buy vodka, so they drink vodka. School kids can buy spice, so they smoke spice. And thanks to the media – the more articles and TV shows there are about the dangers of narcotics, the more patients for us narcologists. Some people have only to watch something on TV to come running for treatment!’ 

Kirov resident Andrei Kashin has become a national TV personality after appearing on a popular chat show about spice – his younger brother Roman died after becoming addicted to the synthetic smoking mixture. He was twenty-three, and used to smoke spice with his mate, 17-year-old Kirill, in their factory hostel. One day they both passed out after a session, and Roman just didn’t wake up. Kirill was luckier, and survived. Andrei is inclined to blame Roman’s death on Kirill, as he thinks he was a dealer, but also on the police, who haven’t done anything about arresting him. He is even more fed up with journalists poking their noses into things that are none of their business. ‘I’ve had it up to here with you lot! Stop turning it all into a show! Yesterday my parents got summonsed to the Investigative Committee; and for what? There’s this young investigator sitting there, who knows nothing about the case. My mother tells him that we even have a printout of all the phone calls he had that day, and they were all from the same number. The cop was amazed – “You’ve got a printout?” The police are totally useless... they do nothing and don’t want to do anything, they just want the case closed!’   

Spice - just like lemonade

At the offices of the FSKN, they tell me that the law enforcement agencies are in a difficult position where the drug is concerned. Russia has no quick response system for new types of narcotic. The drug may be new, but the regulations are old. And according to the regulations, there is no limitation on the sale of the new spice with its ‘enhanced’ chemical formula. ‘Should we also arrest you for buying lemonade in a shop?’ FSKN officer Tatyana Beltyukova asks me. ‘Can you really make that comparison?’ I reply, indignant at the thought. ‘I can’, she tells me, ‘because neither lemonade nor spice is on the list of substances banned in Russia. We recently arrested a group of drug dealers who were selling the new type of spice in the Kirov Region, but we were only able to charge them with an offence because we found ordinary plant-derived drugs on them as well. Otherwise we’d have had to let them go!’

Russia is one of the attractive countries in the world for drug traffickers.

Asked how that problem might be solved, Beltyukova says that FSKN head Viktor Ivanov has been trying for several years to get permission for the Service to ban new drugs with immediate effect. ‘At the moment it takes at least a year for a drug to go through all the necessary testing, and for all the agencies concerned to come to a conclusion, at which point it’s already out of date. The chemists in the secret labs will have synthesised another, newer drug that can be distributed and sold more or less freely. Russia is one of the attractive countries in the world for drug traffickers! Every year we seize up to 20 tonnes of synthetic narcotics, but you can imagine how much more gets through.’


A volunteer removes an advert for Spice in Kirov. Photo: Loushnikova (c)I asked Tatyana to take me on a night raid on drug dens, but got a categorical refusal; it would be much too dangerous.


A local organisation called Stop-Narcotics is however glad to take me on a peaceful raid they are organising. Our mission is to paint over all the posters with dealers’ contact numbers on them. I’m the oldest member of my team; the rest of the anti-trafficking squad are aged between fourteen and twenty. ‘We have to look round that school,’ says senior school student Masha knowledgably, ‘they’re all into smoking there.’ And sure enough, the garage nearest the school has a notice reading ‘Smokes’ and a number, which we paint over. We find another poster on the wall of a block of flats, and one at a bus stop; and by the end of the evening we have ‘neutralised’ 50 posters. The most difficult one to deal with is on a privately-owned pharmacy – the law doesn’t allow us to touch ‘private property,’ and the owner’s representatives, two elderly women pharmacists, are not keen to help us. ‘What do you want to paint on our wall? Paint over an ad for spice? What on earth is that?’

By the end of the evening we have painted over 50 posters with dealers’ numbers.

Eventually, after long negotiations and a call to the owner, we get permission to paint over the pernicious poster; and as we have run out of paint, my young colleagues go off to the gym to play volleyball, and I head home to warm up. As I approach my building I get a surprise: a young girl with bleached white-blond hair is sitting on a wooden crate outside the entrance, swaying from side to side. She looks about 16, and says she is waiting for her brother, but for some reason he has not turned up. An elderly neighbour is fussing around her. ‘You see, Katerina,’ the old man says to me, ‘I came out for a walk, and here she was, sitting here giggling and talking to herself. Then she went into the hallway and leaned against the radiator. “I’m hungry, granddad,” she says. So I brought her a sandwich. First I thought she was drunk, but it was funny, she didn’t smell of drink. Then I noticed that she had fallen over, and picked her up, but she just fell over again. I’ve phoned the police – I didn’t know what else to do.’

The police, when they arrive, evidently don’t know what to do either. ‘I can’t charge her with anything. I suppose I could take her down to the station and put her in a cell; maybe she’ll come round – just so long as she doesn’t go and die on me!’ says the anxious young lieutenant. ‘That would mean trouble for the whole unit.’ Two cops take her by the arms and lead her away. She can barely walk; her handbag falls to the ground and a fluffy toy falls out of it onto the street: a little pink mouse with a red heart on its chest. As it hits the ground, it suddenly starts to sing: ‘Don’t worry, be happy!  Don’t worry, be happy!’ The girl turns round and picks up the toy. She laughs, as though she really is happy... I haven’t seen her since. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.


The Russian government has finally responded to the crisis. Vladimir Putin has introduced a bill to the Duma that will ban spice. The new law will make the selling of all psychoactive substances a criminal act, and it will also give the FSKN the power to add new drugs to the list of banned substances without going through the long bureaucratic procedures in place until now. The bill will be rushed through parliament and should be law in the very near future.

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