A year ago this week, DRCNet reported – and we believe we are the only US media outlet to do so -- on dramatic reforms in Russia's criminal code. Under those hard-won revisions, drug users who formerly faced years in prison for simple drug possession now face only "administrative sanctions" if caught with less than ten times the government-set "average dose." People can possess as much as 20 grams of marijuana or one gram of heroin without fear of a being charged with a serious crime. Since the law came into effect, some 32,000 people have received lighter sentences and more than 12,500 have been released from prison.
The Russian drug agency, which fought bitterly against the new law last year, delaying its implementation for two months with endless haggling over "average dose" levels, now complains that the "average dose" measure is too difficult to work with and that the law has undermined law and order. That is debatable, but what the law has clearly undermined is the Russian narcs' ability to create impressive statistics by arresting drug users. According to the Russian government, drug arrests dropped by more than 30,000 compared to the year before the law took effect.
Russia's parliament, the Duma, could consider the proposal by the end of the month, and Russian and international supporters of the reform are sounding the alarm. At an April 27 news conference held to denounce the changes, Lev Levinson, head of the New Drug Policy Program at the Institute of Human Rights, warned that the measure would result in an "unwarranted increase of criminal liability for ordinary drug users," who benefited dramatically from the reform. It is only the "self-interest of law enforcement agencies" that is driving the bill forward, he said.
Levinson cited the progressive stance President Vladimir Putin took on the issue last year, reminding his audience that Putin had introduced last year's bill. And Putin's position has not changed, Levin said, quoting him as saying "It is impossible to solve this problem with prohibition alone" in a recent speech. "What is now happening in the government is in direct contradiction to the president's statements and the interests of our society," Levinson said.
"This proposal has to go to the legal committee of the Duma, and that could happen any time," said Anna Moshkova, program officer for the Open Society Foundation's International Harm Reduction Program, which has sounded the alarm bell internationally on the proposed changes. "We are not sure how quickly they will act, but they want to do it as quickly and quietly as possible," she told DRCNet.
"We are trying to generate some noise, trying to delay the process," she said. "Lots of people have been responding to our call, and there are groups and individuals doing private advocacy, but we won't know until next week what impact we've had."
Moshkova, too, cited the Russian drug police as behind the changes. "The state drug control agency did not want this reform in the first place and has been lobbying all along to get the law changed again," she said. "They say it's not a good idea, but it's really because Putin is personally supervising the agency and asking for results, and they are in hot water because their numbers are down. They want to be able to arrest more people," she said.
The president is placing conflicting demands on the drug agency, suggested Moshkova. "Putin clearly stated that he wants the law to clearly separate drug users from traffickers; he was heard, and that's how the law got changed last year. But he is also applying pressure on the drug control agency to get more results," she said. "We need to get this message to Putin: What is the process where your vision is not being taken seriously? Why do these people have the power to change the law without evaluating how it has worked?"
While reformers and harm reductionists are working to limit the damage, some sort of change for the worse appears likely, Moshkova said. "The law will change," she said flatly. "We don't believe we can stop this completely. But if we can at least delay the process and have some open discussion and independent evaluation, we can at least lessen the harm."