Out of Russia: Marijuana smoke gives only a whiff of the drug problem

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The other day I was walking through a Moscow street market not far from the old KGB headquarters in the Lubyanka when I was stopped short by the unmistakable whiff of marijuana smoke.

In the West such an encounter is not uncommon, but it is still a rare event here. Maybe I had been mistaken and it was only the rich, sweet smell of Turkish tobacco from which most Russian cigarettes are made. I retraced my steps. It was definitely marijuana.

That Russians were cheerily puffing away a few yards from the former centre of torture and repression of the old Communist state was a bold statement of their new-found freedoms, but it was also evidence in support of recent fears expressed by government authorities that Russia is rapidly becoming a centre of drug addiction and trafficking. Officials expect cheap marijuana to be flowing soon from Russia into western Europe.

The Moscow Drug Control Bureau estimates there are now between 5 and 7 million addicts of various drugs, apart from alcohol, in the former Soviet Union, against a mere 1.5 million at the beginning of 1991. The bureau expects the rate of addiction to climb until economic stabilisation is achieved, perhaps in another two or three years.

Although marijuana has been in use for generations in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, the spread to northern cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg has been recent. Marijuana and other soft drugs come up from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

A UN drug control survey in June estimated there were several hundred thousand acres of opium poppies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, mostly grown for medicinal purposes but not under sufficient control to avoid their misuse.

Eighty per cent of all drug dealers caught in Moscow are from Azerbaijan, and the Russian authorities have much less control over the problem than before because the old links between the former Soviet republics have broken down. The Azeri Interior Ministry no longer co-operates with Russia's law enforcement agencies.

Also, the central funds from Moscow, which local police forces used to rely on, have dried up. Police drug units in Kazakhstan are so poor they have been buying themselves truncheons on the black market, and anti- drug patrols often end up stranded, having run out of petrol.

In the Central Asian states, the cultivation of marijuana - with its quick profits in the northern drug markets - is attractive to the growing number of unemployed. One of the centres is the Chu river valley between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where authorities estimate more than 30 per cent of the fertile soil is used for growing marijuana.

In the 1970s, marijuana was sold openly 'by the cup' in the markets in Kazakhstan and was almost as cheap as sunflower seeds. Now it costs 1,000 roubles (about pounds 3) if bought at source in the Chu valley and twice or three times as much a dozen kilometres away. The price increase by distance still makes it cheap in western Europe.

Marijuana is the main but not the only problem. Early this year, according to the drug control bureau, new synthetic drugs began to appear on the market, and Moscow and St Petersburg police have raided several underground laboratories staffed by experts from the huge former Soviet chemical industry.

Police estimate that at least 15 drug rings operate in the Russian capital, where they say the market is controlled by three main cartels. These have, so far, co-existed peacefully. However, police suspect that the involvement of international drug cartels - Italian, US, Pakistani and Afghan - and the competition for the low-priced marijuana on offer is bound to end in gang warfare.

At the moment, Russia is used mostly as a transit route. Drugs from Central Asia have been surfacing in Scandinavia, Germany and countries in eastern Europe. But with more than 2 million acres of wild marijuana plants, and with two acres producing about a ton of drugs, the potential for the former Soviet Union to become a leading drug exporter is alarming.

The law enforcement agencies are fighting for a change in the drug laws, which do not distinguish between pushers and offenders. They also want to revive a drug prevention campaign started three years ago by the Soviet Interior Ministry. It has come to a standstill because of the breakdown of links between the former Soviet republics.

As the UN report pointed out, Russia needs help regulating drugs from the West as well as criticism of its own internal failings. The flow of drugs is never one way. As winter food shortages approach, the most stable commodity on the open Russian consumer market seems to be French medicinal (96 per cent) alcohol, sold as liquor under the brand name of Royal.

There are no statistics yet about how many Russians have died, or become addicts, as a result of drinking foul potions concocted with the help of Royal - but there surely will be.