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12 Oct, 2009 09:25

Russia battles Afghan heroin intoxication single-handedly

Next to nothing is being done internationally to tackle drug production in Afghanistan. Russia is taking a stand against the opium flow from Asia alone, states Russia's Federal Drug Control Service Head Viktor Ivanov.

Over the past eight years, the production of opiates in the world's biggest opium producer Afghanistan has grown almost forty-fold, which has hit Russia particularly badly.

RT: How serious is the problem of drug abuse in Russia?

Viktor Ivanov: The best way to assess the level of drug dependence in Russia is to use the data of the Ministry of Public Health and the results of the international monitoring of drug abuse. At present the scale of drug addiction is assessed by the number of drug abuse patients and drug users, which is about 2-2.5 million people. Of course this data is approximate, but it’s close to the real situation.

RT: The majority of banned products are brought to Russia from Afghanistan. Which countries do they come through?

VI: As for the reasons for the drug abuse situation, I would say that the main reason has an external character: an enormous amount of opiate produced in Afghanistan. It’s being brought to Russia across the unprotected, transparent, and I would call them virtual borders which have been established since the Soviet Union collapse. This has led to the drug abuse situation’s structure in this country, which is characterized by the fact that 90% of drug-dependent people use Afghan opiates. Of course the majority of it comes to Russia through the Russia-Kazakhstan border, because we do not have immediate borders with other transit countries.

RT: At present, in Afghanistan, the anti-terror operations under the auspices of the NATO member-states continue. Is there cooperation between the US and the NATO states on one hand and Russia on the other on the issue of drug trafficking?

VI: Yes, I must say that, relevant to Afghanistan, the international community has developed a so-called strategic initiative aimed at fighting the production and trafficking of drugs from this country. I regret to say that these strategies are failing today. So we can talk about the fact that the efficiency of international cooperation in this sphere is exceptionally low. I’ll give you just one example. In 1998, the 20th special session of the UN General Assembly adopted the so-called political declaration on drugs. One of the key statements of this declaration was the statement of necessity to eradicate narcotic plants, among them cannabis, opium poppy, and coca bush.

In March of this year, we discussed the work done in the last decade. Unfortunately, we had to state that this political declaration of the world community had completely failed. Why? Because production of opium poppy has not decreased in Afghanistan, but on the contrary – it has increased threefold.

Afghanistan alone makes twice as much opium as the whole world did ten years ago. So we see how low the effectiveness of this is. Also I need to mention that approaches to fighting drug production in Afghanistan are very different from those that were used in the countries of the so called Golden Triangle back in the 70s.

They are also different from the approach used to fight the drug threat in Latin America, particularly in Colombia. In Colombia, coca crops are destroyed by chemicals spread by jets in the air. Last year these chemicals destroyed 570,000 out of 700,000 acres of crops. This method is not used in Afghanistan.

Instead, so-called mechanical destruction is used – with the help of sticks. Local peasants destroy opium plantations with a stick, a plough or, in better cases, a tractor. International forces don't deal with that. They have removed themselves from the process, placing all responsibility on the local authorities. As a result, last year only 12,000 acres of plantations were destroyed, out of 370,000. So we see that the efficiency of the drug fighting policy in Afghanistan is forty-six times lower than the one applied in Colombia.

RT: Do you think the presence of the international military contingency in the region makes the situation worse?

VI: Just recently a book by David Kilcullen was published. He is a former advisor to General David Petraeus, and before that he worked under Condoleezza Rice. He is a famous analyst and a political anthropologist. In his book, among other things, he says that the higher political tensions are in a region, the higher is the motivation for local peasants to grow drugs.

RT: Afghanistan is not the only country smuggling drugs to Russia. What other dangerous neighbors does Russia have?

VI: I wouldn't put it that way – dangerous neighbors. We need to be friends with our neighbors. As an old Chinese saying goes: a good neighbor is better than a distant relative. So of course we need to build friendships with our neighbors, and we build relations with our colleagues in Central Asia, European countries, with China in the Far East and other countries. Because we have the same enemy – organized crime, drug cartels that produce drugs and traffic them to neighboring countries, as well as sell to their own people. So I can say that we work in close cooperation with our European partners, especially Poland, the Baltic States, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, basically all the European Union and Scandinavian countries, due to the fact that there has been an increase in traffic of synthetic drugs from European countries to Russia. It is because the oil and chemical industry is well developed in European Union countries, drug dealers use that to make new types of drugs.

RT: How developed is the illegal drug industry in Russia?

VI: Two kinds of drugs are produced in Russia. First of all, we have labs developing synthetic drugs. For the most part they are located in large industrial centers – St.Petersburg, Samara, the Urals – places where there are oil and chemical industries; chemistry specialists. Unfortunately, we a see a growing number of young people with chemical degrees producing drugs. The reason is usually because these young professionals are not able to find good employment or well-paid jobs, so they slip into making illegal drugs, which of course brings in more money.

Also, in our southern regions people grow hemp, or cannabis, used to make marijuana, a lighter drug, or a more concentrated substance – hash. It is especially developed in the Far East and in the south of Russia, close to the Black Sea – places with a favorable climate. One of the reasons is when a large part of fertile lands is not used for growing good crops, this is a direct path to illegal drug production. Available fields are soon planted with hemp, and people not working at farms, use these fields to produce drugs.

RT: What improvements need to be made in the work of your service and in legislation as a whole to make fighting drug trafficking more effective?

VI: From a legislative standpoint it is a big program. There is no one magic solution that could be written as a law. It is a whole range of measures. Regulations in the Criminal Law, Criminal Code, Administrative Law, civil legislation and international agreements. So all these need to be in place and work for one purpose – to fight drug trafficking. Take Criminal Law for example.

Today in Russia there are two qualifiers for criminal prosecution for drug trafficking – large amounts and extra-large amounts. They determine the criminal’s punishment. With that, the extra large amount for heroin is 2.5 grams. But the scale of confiscated drugs has a wide range from half a gram to hundreds of kilos.

The social dangers from these crimes are very different, but current legislation doesn't make the distinction. So we proposed that changes would be made accordingly. The higher the social danger is, the higher the punishment should be. It's normal. So if it is in huge bulk amounts with thousands of doses, it needs to be qualified as a highly dangerous crime with punishment from twenty years to life in prison.

RT: What do you think about the recent initiative by the President for obligatory drug screening for students?

VI: I think that some degree of turbulence in our society is due to a lack of information on this innovation. Nobody asks what research is done at the clinical tests of human biological materials – urine and blood. More than twenty different things are tested – red cells and white cells count, bilirubin level and so forth. No one asks for permission to run these kinds of tests. People just give their blood, and it is tested for different things. The same way additional tests could be done on a metabolism affected by drugs. It is absolutely normal. But naturally, information about certain substances in a person's system should not become public – at their school for example. The doctor should keep the patient's confidentiality, and following his oath, give this information only to the patient and his legal representatives in the social sphere – the parents. I think any parent would like to know if their child is sick. So this is nobody else's business – not the school administration, not the classmates.

RT: Do you think the problem is getting worse because of the global financial crisis?

VI: The financial crisis affected all areas of life – a higher unemployment rate, incomes are lower. But incomes of drug dealers have not gone down. On the contrary, they keep growing. We see it in the growing drug pressure on our country. For example, the amounts of Afghani hash that we were able to intercept on its way to Russia doubled. We can draw the conclusion that the demand for drugs is growing here. The amount of heroin smuggled to Russia is also growing.

RT: Do you think it's possible that light drugs would be legalized completely or in part?

VI: While we work here, I don't think it would be possible. We have a consolidated stand on the issue between the political leaders and the specialists from the Health Ministry, as well as my colleagues from the Federal Drug Control Service. Legalization of light drugs is a dangerous slippery slope, because drug addiction may change from one kind of drugs to another. From light drugs to heavier drugs. And then you can't bring the person back. If you are talking about the common practice in the Netherlands, then I can say that it is not a very positive example. The majority of people in Europe, the USA and Scandinavian countries don't think it is a good idea.