The Kremlin has long resisted a liberal consensus on drugs – instead favouring a hardline policy of criminalising, penalising, and filling prisons.
It’s an approach that has produced more criticism than success. But on Monday, President Vladimir Putin declared his intention to go further.
In an order published on the Kremlin’s website, Mr Putin called on lawmakers to toughen already harsh anti-narcotics legislation. In and among the suggestions – all certain to be passed by Russia’s tamed parliament – was a proposal to impose jail sentences on those found guilty of “drugs propaganda” online.
Few deny that Russia has a serious drug problem. In the years following the Soviet break-up, as borders became porous and lives became hopeless, addiction rates boomed across the country. In 2013, the government estimated that as much as six per cent of the population had become serious drug users, with heroin and newer synthetics like ‘spice’ the preferred routes to self-harm.
But many are concerned that the Kremlin’s new, even harder hard line will be used to silence opponents of the regime.
Journalist German Galkin, 51, has a good understanding of the risks involved. The editor in chief of LentaChel, a local publication in Chelyabinsk, western Siberia, was found guilty of “propagandising drugs” in May 2018, i.e. while it was still an administrative offence.
His crime had been to write an article about a local alcohol-induced murder. If alcohol leads to violence, he mused, why did it remain legal while cannabis was not? Already well-known to authorities for his independent reporting, the journalist saw the wheels of Russian justice click into action. He was fined 40,000 roubles (£500), more than the average local monthly salary. Of course, under the new proposals, he would have faced a jail sentence.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that Russia is Russia,” Mr Galkin said. He is now pursuing an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights.
In another recent case, the Andrei Rylkov Foundation, a harm-reduction charity, was fined 800,000 roubles (£10,000) for publishing explicit health advice to drug users. The sanction nearly put the charity out of business, as ARF’s lawyer, Anna Kinchevskaya, told The Independent. But it also hit the organisation in other ways, shutting down open conversation about harm-reduction strategies.
“No one will risk anything now,” Ms Kinchevskaya said. “That is perilous in a country such as ours, with its elevated HIV and drug mortality rates.”
Other cases go deeper into the absurd. This summer, for example, authorities in the central Russian town of Cheboksary went after three market traders who were selling clothes bearing images of cannabis. The eventual sanctions were lenient by Russian standards: one man was fined 80 pairs of socks and forced to stop trading for a fortnight.
But human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson says it is hard to ascertain any clear rules in the “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of convictions that have passed his desk over the last few years. Crucially, the definition of “propaganda” has been set so wide that it can be used against anyone writing about drugs.
“It is bound to become a serious repressive instrument against anyone who disagrees with government drugs policy,” he predicted. “It could also be used against anyone doing something as innocent as reposting a rap video.”
Activists also point to the potential for open abuse by corrupted elements of law enforcement. In June, for example, police were caught planting drugs on journalist Ivan Golunov as a way of halting a investigation into Moscow’s funeral industry.
When news of the arrest broke the next day, it seemed certain that the innocent journalist would spend many years in prison. Astonishingly, a spirited campaign by colleagues forced a rethink.
That switch led many to believe the Kremlin would review its entire drugs policy. Such illusions were shut down by Mr Putin in June. Speaking during his annual phone-in show, Mr Putin acknowledged Russia’s “many” drugs convictions. But tolerance was not on his agenda:
“Do we need to liberalise this sphere of our activity? In my opinion, no. And the reason is that this is a threat, a very big threat to the nation,” he stated.
For German Galkin, the comments indicated Mr Putin was “out of touch” with Russia’s reality.
“The president doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said. “All he’s doing is waving his fists left and right, and that isn’t solving anything.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies