RUSSIA SEEKS BALANCE IN PENALTIES FOR DRUG USERS
(MOSCOW) Vladimir Loginov, 25 years old but with the tired eyes of a man
much older, sat reading the Russian criminal code and explaining his fate.
He had been arrested on the streets in 1999, accused of possessing
approximately a quarter gram of heroin.
He spent five years and two months in prison. By the time he left, he had
Under a new Russian drug policy, such a bleak journey through the country's
penal system for small-scale drug possession has become much less likely.
After years of harsh penalties for people convicted of possessing small
amounts of illegal drugs, Russia has liberalized policies underpinning the law.
The effect is not legalization, or even free-spirited tolerance. No one
mistakes Moscow for Amsterdam. Possession of small amounts of illicit
substances remains punishable by fines, and possessors of larger amounts or
drug trafficking risk prison.
But the new policies restore a balance between crime and punishment and
protect small-time drug offenders - those caught with as many as 10 doses
of illicit substances for personal use - from prison and its associated
risks. Drug treatment specialists and aid workers describe the change as a
breakthrough that could alleviate prison overcrowding and perhaps the
spread of infectious diseases. "It is a liberalization of thinking, and in
this sense it is a revolution," said Dr. Oleg Zykov, a member of President
Vladimir Putin's Human Rights Commission and president of No to Alcoholism
and Drug Addiction, a nongovernmental organization counseling drug users.
In theory, Russian drug laws already worked much like many laws in the
West, delineating drug crimes by degree. Suspects were charged according to
the amounts of drugs they were accused of possessing, with progressively
stiffer penalties for larger quantities.
In practice, however, it had been almost impossible for a suspect to be
classified as a small-time user.
To determine charges, the police and courts used a table of weights to
classify charges, and critics said weights were set absurdly low.
For example, a "large" amount of heroin, punishable with imprisonment, was
five-thousandths of a gram. "We are talking about dust," Zykov said.
Such policies seemed at odds with the spirit of the law. "The will of the
legislators was distorted," said Lev Levinson, head of New Drug Policy, a
nongovernmental organization. Last year, Putin signed a law amending
drug-possession charges, allowing possession of as many as 10 doses before
risk of imprisonment. This spring, a commission compiled a table of weights
defining 10 doses of heroin as a gram. The threshold for cocaine is a gram
and a half. For marijuana, it is 20 grams, or more than half an ounce. The
table took effect last month by resolution from Prime Minister Mikhail
Fradkov, to the praise of organizations sometimes critical of Russian
practices. "It brings the criminal regulations in the country closer to
those accepted by the world community," said Alexander Petrov of Human
Still, the new practice has divided elements of the government. Last year
Alexander Mikhailov, deputy head of the federal anti-drug agency, called
drugs "weapons of mass destruction." When the prime minister released the
new standards, Mikhailov railed against them. Drug use is generally
considered less common in Russia than in the West. Alcoholism remains the
dominant addiction. But drug use has sharply increased since the collapse
of the Soviet Union, authorities say, and the spread of heroin injection,
with its contribution to a surge in HIV cases, is particularly worrisome.
The problem seems unlikely to wane. Putin noted last week that heroin
trafficking into Russia from Afghanistan had increased since the defeat of
the Taliban in 2001. With heroin having become a permanent part of Russian
life, advocates expressed hope that the new law might allow for the release
of many small-time drug users now in prison, reducing the risks of exposure
to HIV and tuberculosis, which are often contracted in jails.
By one survey, as many as 65,000 people were imprisoned under the old law,
Zykov and Levinson said.