Moscow's Pushkin Square was the scene of a "street referendum" on legalizing marijuana and hashish on July 16. Members of the Transnational Radical Party (http://www.radicalparty.org), an Italy-based international political grouping with members in the European Parliament, took to the streets to extol the virtues of legalizing cannabis and ask passersby whether they, too, favored changing Russia's stiff drug laws. Under current law, simple possession of marijuana can bring a three-year prison sentence, while trafficking offenses can bring up to 15 years in prison.
"Hemp and its derivatives are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco," TRP Moscow office head Nikolaj Khramov told the Moscow Times. "Light drugs remain under the control of mafia structures and bring them tremendous profits," he said, suggesting that legalizing cannabis would remove it from the criminal realm of the black market.
But while the street theatre emphasized the status of cannabis, the TRP enunciated a broader, three-point agenda for reform in Russia. Drug use should not be a crime said Khramov; a distinction between "hard" and "soft" drugs must be made; and medical treatment and rehabilitation for addicts must be made available.
The Russian government's top drug abuse expert was having none of it. Nikolai Ivanets of the Russian Health Ministry told the Times that legalizing marijuana would be "a danger to the nation." Ivanets then resorted to the "gateway" myth: "It would be terrible if this is allowed," he said. "From a medical point of view, marijuana opens the way to harder drugs."
Even if Ivanets is misguided regarding the link between marijuana and other drugs, he should be concentrating on the harder drugs. Russian heroin injectors are fueling a dramatic increase in AIDS cases, the global conference on AIDS in Barcelona heard two weeks ago. Russia has the highest rate of new AIDS cases in Europe, researchers announced at the conference. And alcoholism remains at historically high levels.
At least one Russian parliamentarian thought Russians couldn't handle a regulated and controlled drug market. "It would be something awful if drugs were legalized in Russia," he told the Times. "You have to take into account the culture and mentality of a people -- not compare them to, say, Holland." But perhaps the Russian people have a higher opinion of themselves than some of their leaders.
The TRP and Russian political leadership have a history. In July 2000, representatives of the Russian Federation tried have the Party stripped of its consultative status at the United Nations, using their stance opposing drug prohibition as the rationalization (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/146.html#radicalparty). In fact, the Kremlin's real problem with the Radicals was that they used their UN status to provide a forum for officials of the Chechen government to denounce human rights abuses by Russian forces in the civil war.
In addition to continued advocacy for the Chechens (Chechnya's Health Minister was a guest at the Party's General Council in Rome last week), other TRP causes include freedom of research, the International Criminal Court, providing a voice for abused, unrepresented minorities such as the Christian Vietnamese group the Montagnard and the muslim Uyghur group in northwest China, and democracy and rule of law overall.