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Herb and Spices: Tatarstan's drug problems

In the third of a series on drugs in Russia's regions, Oleg Pavlov reports from the Republic of Tatarstan, 400 miles east of Moscow. While the situation there is certainly not as desperate as it was ten years ago, even government officials suggest as many as 2% of the population are addicted.

"Hello,” I say to the cleaner of our block, checking a glance the contents of her dustbin. No needles this time. She began on the 18th floor, I’m on the second. From 16 floors, it’s a paltry collection: ever since an intercom was installed in our entranceway, things have become much quieter. Not to say you won’t still come across the odd syringe as you’re walking along the path away from the block.

There are 9000 registered drug addicts in Tatarstan, but the real number of addicts is probably ten times higher. Photo (cc) Ben Scicluna

According to official statistics, there are 9,302 registered addicts in Tatarstan. However, you can confidently assume the real number is considerably greater: even the republic’s prosecutor general Kafil Amirov has estimated the figure to be 8-10 times greater (which, given the fact only around 4 million people live in Tatarstan is equivalent to almost 2% of the population). Not everyone is detected by doctors, and not everyone is put on the register. Some are treated anonymously, and some have been “lucky” enough to avoid being detected.

I can’t say any of my friends are drug addicts (the ones who were are long dead), but for my younger colleague Maxim, the situation is different. Maxim knows people for whom marijuana has ceased to be considered a drug – it’s just “a way of being happy”. Harder drugs, he says, are available in nightclubs. In the main, we are talking about “pills” and powdered amphetamines. One “pill” costs about 300 rubles. The going rate for cocaine is 3-4,000 rubles per gram. Maxim says that some nightclubs are open drug-dens. I can believe that. I used to live in a building next door to a nightclub; in the morning, the entranceway was always littered with needles.

According to Maxim, it is now much harder to buy drugs in Kazan than it was 5-7 years ago. No longer can you find strangers offering to sell drugs on the street, and can only get them through people you know well. In other words, anyone simply looking to try drugs has to search hard for them. You don’t see heroin addicts quite as obviously as you used to. You could even say that the police’s hard-line approach is getting some results. But there is still a fair dose of heroin around: last year, police seized more 52 kg of the stuff (most of it originating from Afghanistan), along with 1.5 kg of synthesized drugs and 79 kg of marijuana. Unlike Maxim’s friends, you see, the law still considers “grass” to be a narcotic.

Local police have recently taken an active interest in tobacco mixtures, so-called “spices”. Until recently the substances in these mixtures — many of which have similar effects to illicit substances — were not yet on the list of prohibited substances. A number of drug addicts moved from marijuana and synthetic drugs to “spices”. Now the situation has changed: on 31 December 2009, by decree of the Russian government, the list of narcotic substances was amended. Besides salvia divinorum, Hawaiian rose and blue lotus, the ban extends to the manufacture and distribution of another 23 synthetic cannabinoids found in “spices”. 

Tatarstan was the first region in Russia to introduce compulsory drug testing for all university students (and now for senior school pupils). Last year, 100,200 students were tested, and 72 cases of drug use were detected. The test is compulsory, and students who refuse to take the test are not allowed to take exams. Indeed, one and a half years ago, Mikhail Kinder, a student at the Kazan technical university, refused to take this test and was on the verge of being expelled from university. Kinder sued the university management. Kazan human rights activists have also campaigned against the universal testing. According to Regina Shakirova, a legal expert at the Kazan Human Rights Center, a person should only be tested for drugs if there are good reasons for doing so (for example if specialist thinks someone is behaving in an inappropriate way. In all other cases, universal testing is a violation not only of Russian legislation, but also of international legal obligations. Kinder’s case ended in a peaceful agreement, but the practice of compulsory testing, championed by the region’s political elite, continues

It would be a mistake to accuse authorities of devoting too little attention to the problem of  drug addiction. The problem is that too often they leave attention at the level of words: too many meetings, too little specific action. There are still no effective rehabilitation centers in the region. Colleagues researching a documentary film only found one in the neighboring Samara Oblast. And there is almost no financing of anti-drug programs. Out of the 70 million rubles that were budgeted in 2009, only 12 million actually appeared, and 10 million of this was spent on testing. The remaining 2 million cannot buy much, not even enough money to print decent posters.

There is only one thing that will stop a dramatic rise in drug addiction, and that is prevalent negative attitude of the public towards drugs and people who take them. But how long can this attitude continue?


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