The first step is denial

Russia blames NATO policies for its heroin crisis. But is Afghanistan just a scapegoat for a broader problem?

The first step is denial

Robin Hammond/PANOS;

Since taking office 2½ years ago, Russia’s drug czar Viktor Ivanov has been shuttling between Moscow, the United States and Europe, to make the case that NATO’s counter-narcotics approach in Afghanistan is “misguided” and the cause of a 40-fold increase in opium production that threatens to turn Russia into a nation of heroin addicts. Just over a year ago, Ivanov, director of Russia’s Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics, was in Washington telling an audience that the war in Afghanistan created the “perfect conditions for the rise of a global narco-state,” of which Russia is the “main victim.”

But Russian NGOs and health professionals are questioning whether Afghanistan is their country’s main drug problem, or just the government’s No. 1 scapegoat. Anya Sarang, president of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice, which advocates harm-reduction policies, says that most of the addicts her organization sees throughout the country have switched from heroin to homemade substances synthesized from opium-based pharmaceuticals like codeine tablets. She says these rough toxic mixes are behind the rise among narcotics users of thrombosis, a condition in which a clot develops in blood vessels, and osteonecrosis, a disease that leads to the breakdown of bones.

This new trend is well known to the Russian government, according to Dr. Vasya Vlassov, a public health specialist and a professor at Moscow State Medical University. The authorities have reacted vigorously to it by regulating or outlawing a number of normally legal prescription drugs that have become popular with addicts, says Vlassov. “They brought to the court dozens of veterinarians” charged with using common anaesthetics, and “strongly attacked drugstores” for selling what would have been legal, over-the-counter medicines, he added.

Even Ivanov noted last September that “the quantity of codeine-containing medicines sold by chemists has increased by almost 900 per cent over the last five years,” according to Russian news agency Interfax. The homemade drugs, he added, were 15 to 20 times more toxic than heroin. But Ivan was speaking in Russia, and to a Russian audience.

When the Kremlin talks drugs abroad, little of the recent spread of these narcotics comes up in conversation, say experts. The recurrent narrative has been that “Russia is drowning in heroin,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, and an expert on drugs in Afghanistan. Moscow blames NATO’s decision to stop eradicating poppies in Afghanistan for contributing to the enormous flow of heroin—70 metric tonnes a year by the United Nations’ estimates—that floods the Russian market, says Felbab-Brown.

Because there is no evidence that heroin is being routed away from Russia, the growing popularity of codeine tablets may simply reflect a new fad among the addict population, says Felbab-Brown. Drug scenes all over the world change quickly, with fashion rather than availability or price often determining which substances are more popular, she adds. Derivatives of prescription drugs have been big in the U.S. and Europe for a while, and Russia could be following that trend.

There’s no question that Russia has a heroin problem. In fact, the UN estimates that around 1.5 million Russians are addicted to the drug. But the emergence of another serious narcotics epidemic unrelated to Afghanistan challenges the notion that all the reasons for Russia’s addiction problem lie abroad.

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