Last week, DRCNet reported that a new Russian drug law that would remove the possibility of jail or prison sentences for drug users or possessors had gone into effect (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/328/russia.shtml). We jumped the gun. The law has been delayed for two months while different agencies within the Russian government squabble over what constitutes an "average dose" of various illicit substances, the Russian Harm Reduction Network and members of the Russian Radical Party told DRCNet this week.
Although, as DRCNet reported, the Russian Duma had passed the changes -- amendments to the criminal code of the Russian Federation -- in November, and President Vladimir Putin signed the bill December 11. With the law set to go into effect on March 12 -- 60 days after Putin's signing -- it was derailed by another Duma vote on March 5. In that vote, the Duma gave the government another 60 days to settle the dispute over "average doses."
Under current Russian law, possession of even a single marijuana cigarette can garner a prison sentence of up to three years. But with Russian prisons overflowing and somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 drug offenders contributing to the prison crisis, the Duma and the Russian government have shown themselves open to a new approach to drug use and drug users.
Under the amendments passed in November, the law will make distinctions between users and small-time dealers and large-scale traffickers. The severity of offenses will be determined by the quantity of drug at hand, with possession of up to 10 times the "average single dose" no longer considered a crime but an "administrative infraction." Possession of between 10 and 50 times the "average single dose" is punishable by a larger fine and community service, but again, no jail or prison time. Small-scale dealers will find themselves protected against drug trafficking charges by this second provision -- unless they get caught in the act of selling.
What held up the law is the battle royal being waged by recalcitrant prohibitionists, particularly within the Russian equivalent of the DEA, the Federal Drug Control Service, to define the "average single dose" in quantities so small as to render the reform meaningless.
"The agency responsible for setting new doses is the Ministry of Health," said Vitaly Djuma, head of the Russian Harm Reduction Network, "but using its status as a state security agency, the Federal Drug Control Service (FDCS) tried to push through its own determinations where, for example, a single dose of heroin was 0.0001 gram, thus turning all drug users once again into 'drug dealers.' This could not only nullify the humanizing of legislation by the Russian administration but also directly threaten the safety -- and lives -- of millions of Russians who use drugs."
Under the quantities proposed by the FDCS, the "average single dose" of marijuana would be 0.0015 grams. With a standard joint weighing in at about one gram, possession of a single joint would make the possessor subject to penalties for drug dealing because one gram exceeds 50 doses (0.75 grams) by the FDCS standard. Similar, absurdly low "average single doses" are set for other drugs as well. An independent committee of experts has recommended that the "average single dose" of marijuana be a more reasonable one gram.
"These quantities are unrealistically low and appropriate only for laboratory mice," said Dmitry Zlotnikof of the Russian Radical Party, which has been following the process with great interest. "It is unclear why the government sabotaged itself with these unrealistic doses," he told DRCNet, "but it appears it is because of the lobbying action of the state drug mafia, the presidential elections held last Sunday, and the formation of a new cabinet of ministers."
The Russian Harm Reduction Network, the NAN Foundation, and the New Drug Policy Alliance created the group of independent experts to set more accurate dose levels and to prevent the adoption of the FDCS proposal, said Djuma. "The law was intended as leverage to soften Russia's previous extremely repressive drug policy," Djuma wrote in an e-mail. "We have turned for support to the Ministry of Justice and the Commissioner of Human Rights, and some other high-level officials also supported us," he said.
Indeed, in a March 11 letter to the Russian government, Ella Pamfilova, the Russian Human Rights Commissioner, urged the government to adopt more reasonable standards. "The Commission on Human Rights under the President of the Russian Federation believes that approval of above-mentioned drug quantities would directly distort the will of legislators who introduced a strictly differential approach between drug users and those who deal drugs," she wrote, in a translation provided by Djuma. "The Commission of Human Rights can attract experts who are ready to render assistance in developing the draft list of drug sizes. In this connection, the Independent Expert Council with the NAN Foundation has developed an alternative version of the table. We ask you to take into account the stated remarks when drafting the government's order on approval of the doses table."
Now the government has 60 days to arrive at new standards for "average single doses," and Djuma said it will be settled this time around. "I don't think we will see another delay," he told DRCNet. "This happened because of the presidential election. No one wanted to take responsibility for the tough standards before the elections, and on the other hand, no one wanted to take the risk of being progressive, either. But now there is no possibility that the law will not go through, although it will be a tough issue and whatever doses we might suggest, we will always have opponents in the government."
The issue bears close watching. What could be a groundbreaking, progressive new approach to drug use and drug users in Russia is still in danger of being sabotaged by Russia's drug warriors. When the battle over doses is settle, we will let you know the results.
In the meantime, the FDCS has been stalwart in its opposition to any loosening of laws or attitudes about drugs in Russia. In November, Djuma reported, the anti-drug agency issued a letter in which it referred to harm reduction as "propaganda for drug use" and suggested local FDCS offices file administrative or criminal charges against harm reductionists. The movement orchestrated a protest campaign in response, said Djuma, and as a consequence, FDCS has since said it will not oppose the introduction of needle exchange programs.
But now, the narcs are going after books. According to the Radicals' Zlotnikof and reports in the Moscow Times, the FDCS has ordered that Lester Grinspoon's classic "Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine" be pulled from the shelves as drug propaganda. At a Tuesday news conference, Ultra Kultura, which published the Russian translation, accused the government of censorship.
"Society has a right to access to information," Ultra Kultura editor Vladimir Kharitonov said. "The government is starting to interfere in ways we have not seen for a long, long time."
The narcs don't get it. What they are doing is not censorship, said FDCS deputy director Alexander Mikhailov, drawing a very fine distinction in an interview with Kommersant the same day. "We're tracking adherence to laws and leading an uncompromising battle against drugs," he said. "Censorship is interference in the stage of preparation to publish books and printed materials. We don't do that."
Authoritarian habits die hard. Other sectors of the Russian security services have strongly suggested to book distributors that they not carry "Extreme Islam," by Adam Parfrey, publisher of the US-based Feral House, and "Allah Dislikes America." And the drug fighters are also eying more titles, including Alexander Shulgin's PIHKAL, a compendium of psychedelic recipes, and, less understandably, "Storming Heaven," a social history of LSD by Martin Lee, according to Ultra Kultura.