Saturday, February 28, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Illegal Use of Prescription Medicines Adding to Russia’s Drug Problem

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 28 – Heroin originating in the poppy fields of Afghanistan still constitutes the greatest narcotics danger to public health in the Russian Federation, according to a Moscow commentator. But increasing misuse of prescription medicines imported from Asian countries is now adding to that overall “threat to the [country’s] national security.”
In an article posted today on the website of the Strategic Culture Foundation, Aleksandr Barentsev says that the use of illegal drugs is now killing as many as 30,000 Russians a year, twice the officially reported “losses of the Armed Forces of the USSR over the entire ten years of the Afghan war!” (
Most of the opiates originating in Afghanistan come into Russia from “the countries of the near abroad,” with “60 percent” of the total transiting Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan.” And while much of the flow is intended to go on to Europe and the West, the Russian domestic “market” for these deadly drugs is increasing.
According to official health ministry statistics, in 2000, 198 of every 100,000 residents of the Russian Federation were drug dependent. Now, that figure has risen to 250 per 100,000, an increase of 25 percent. And the country’s Security Council predicts that the total number of drug addicts in Russia will reach more than four million in the next decade.
The influx of such drugs not only poses a direct threat to the health of the Russian people, Barentsev says. It also constitutes a threat to law and order in the country. According to him, drug trafficking now ranks second among the activities of organized crime, and at least some of the profits from this sector now support extremist and terrorist activities.
The rising tide of heroin addiction and marijuana use has attracted a great deal of attention in the Russian media and from the Russian authorities, the Moscow analyst continues. But neither the media nor the government has paid much attention to a related threat: the increasing misuse of prescription medicines containing strong drugs.
Many Russians who would never think about using heroin or any illegal drug nonetheless now routinely abuse prescription drugs. But the exact size of this problem, Barentsev continues, remains unknown because “however strange it may be,” the government does not know even keep statistics on such misuse of prescription medicines.
Indeed, he says, the only “exceptions” to that seemingly all-embracing official and media silence involve reports about “well-known television figures and artists, about whom one simply cannot keep quiet.”
The problem of illegal use of prescription medications has long attracted attention in Western countries. As early as June 2002, a meeting of the World Health Organization on Malta not only spoke about the threat of what it called “pharmacological terrorism” but specifically urged the Russian Federation and the CIS countries to take against it.
There have been a few seizures of such drugs, many of which are diet pills from China and Southeast Asia, but “unfortunately,” Barentsev continues, these occasional “successes” have done little to prevent “the growing narcotization of Russian society.” Indeed, by focusing only on specifically illegal drugs, the authorities may have led some to misuse prescription medications.
The use of illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription medications, the Moscow writer says, is currently concentrated among students, young people and professionals, precisely “that part of Russian society which is linked to hopes for the reform of the country and its future” as a dynamic society.
Like other specialists in this area, Barentsev argues that the regime must, especially given the misuse of otherwise legal medications, focus on education and youth unemployment rather than on seizures of illegal drugs alone, as Moscow has been doing most of the time up to the present.
But at least one official this week has decided to try to combine forcible seizures with programs to help reduce unemployment. Astrakhan oblast head Aleksandr Zhilkin has called for using some of the government’s anti-crisis money to pay unemployed people there to search for and destroy marijuana plants growing in his region (
Zhilkin argues that such a program would kill two birds with one stone, but the region’s politicians and journalists are not so sure. Aleksandr Kamanin, who heads the pro-Kremlin United Russia fraction in the local legislature, says that he does not think this is an appropriate use of Moscow-supplied funds.
He told the Regions Club news agency that he had great doubts that the authorities would be able to control what those involved might do, suggesting that some might in fact destroy the marijuana but others might use it themselves or even sell it on the streets of the cities of the oblast to make money.
And Astrakhan journalists were equally skeptical. Maksim Tersky, the editor of the weekly “Fakt i kompromat,” said that the authorities should rely on militia officers trained to fight drugs rather than get more young people involved, wasting government money and quite possibly leading to an upsurge in the use of such drugs.

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