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 contracted tuberculosis. 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 Rights Watch. 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.