As of today, Russian drug
users and people in possession of small amounts of illegal drugs no longer
face any jail time. Under previous Russian law, smoking marijuana
or being caught with as little as one-tenth of a gram of it could bring
a three-year prison sentence. But in a bald reversal of the Putin
government's hard line against drug users enunciated only two years ago,
the Russian Duma approved the changes in November, President Putin signed
them into law in December, and they go into effect today.
At least give the Russians credit for being fast learners. The legislation Gryzlov dreamed of has been tossed in the dust heap of history, and this relatively progressive new law has instead emerged.
Under the package of amendments to the criminal code, distinctions will be made between large-scale drug traffickers and users and small-time dealers. As reported by the Moscow Times, possession of up to ten times the "average single dose" of a controlled substance is no longer considered a criminal offense but an "administrative infraction" punishable by a fine of between five and 10 times the daily minimum wage. Possession of between 10 and 50 times the "average single dose" is considered "possession of large amount" and is punishable by a larger fine and community service, but again no prison sentence. This second measure effectively decriminalizes small-time dealers -- unless they get caught in the act of selling.
Penalties for large-scale drug sales, production, or trafficking, on the other hand, will be increased. And while the amendments to the criminal code eliminated asset forfeiture for almost all crimes, they kept them for drug trafficking offenses.
The radical change in Russian drug policy came as part of sweeping reforms of the criminal code, which also include the strengthening of citizens' protections when facing criminal charges. But the real impetus for the change probably lies in the country's festering, overcrowded, and disease-filled prison system. With some 850,000 prisoners, Russia is second only to the United States in the number and percentage of its people it imprisons, and an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 of them are incarcerated on drug charges.
Russian Deputy Justice Minister Yuri Kalinin told a Moscow news conference shortly before the package passed that it could reduce the prison population by 150,000 by next year. The amendments are "aimed at easing the state's punitive policy, above all with respect to minors, women and persons guilty of insignificant public offences," he said. "The state's criminal policy is being moved towards more liberal punishments and more objective assessment of deeds committed by an aberrant person," Kalinin said.
Russian drug expert Lev Levinson told the Moscow Times that in addition to stopping new drug possession prisoners from entering the gulag, the change in the law could lead to the early release of the hundreds of thousands currently doing time on drug possession charges.
According to official statistics, Russia has seen a nine-fold increase in drug addiction in recent years and suffers 70,000 drug-related deaths annually. State Narcotics Control vice-chairman Alexander Mihailov told a press conference last month that another massive increase could be on the way. "Currently, according to the experts, the number of drugs addicts is nearing four million people," he said.
But trying to stop it by throwing drug users in prison hasn't worked. Give the Russian government credit for seeing the light. Now, if only someone could shine that light on the State Narcotics Control cowboys, who hgave, the Times reports, recently been on a rampage against what they consider pro-drug propaganda. The Russian narcs have been targeting images of marijuana leaves on t-shirts, commercial billboards, and other consumer products.