Putin’s Losing War: Russia’s Massive, Worsening Drug Problem

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Even if the president’s son wasn’t taking meetings with Russians offering to“help” with our democratic process, there would be much in common between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Donald Trump’s United States.

Like us, Russia sports a heroin crisis spiraling out of control—and like us, tough-guy posturing, a reliance on retrograde, fantasy-world “science,” and confronting drug use like an armed conflict with a hostile foreign power has made the situation far, far worse.

But take heart, Americans: We are already great, at least in comparison to the grotesque situation unfolding around drug use in Russia.

Drug use exploded in Russia following the downfall of the Soviet Union—which makes total sense, given the socialist state’s guarantee of jobs and education for whoever wanted it, a development that hews closely to the United States, where methamphetamine and opiates both have taken over areas with limited economic opportunity. The number of drug addicts increased by almost 10 times in the first 18 months of post-Soviet “economic freedom.”

Since then, the situation has only deteriorated.

Russia has the highest number of heroin users per capita of anywhere in the world, according to a Brookings Institution review. Since 2001, more than 500,000 Russians have died from heroin overdoses, according to official Russian sources, and Russia now has a needle-sharing AIDS crisis. (That, too, will be familiar: A small town in Indiana along the Kentucky border suffered a similar explosion in HIV infections, after the local health clinic—a Planned Parenthood, as it happened—closed down.)

It should be noted that Russia’s substance-abuse problem isn’t limited to illegal drugs.

Last winter, dozens of people died after drinking an “alcohol substitute” marketed as, among other things, “bath oil.” (In America, we’re much more advanced: We peddle dangerous chemicals as bath salts.)

The Russian attitude towards drugs is one of crime and punishment: Using drugs is a crime, and it will be punished.

As VICE reported last year, typical “treatment” for drug addicts can involve being told your body will combust if drugs are used and being flogged with a whip. It’s not unheard-of for Russian drug police to raid a nightclub, piss-test everyone inside and throw the chemical violators in prison.

And guess what? It’s not working!

Remember “krokodil,” the ersatz heroin that turns users’ skin hard and scaly before it rots away? (Of course you do.) It’s a Russian innovation.

In Moscow, one of the world’s most expensive cities and home to one of the world’s biggest concentration of billionaires, you can see this market at work in parks, alleys and other public places. At night, these areas are lit up like “fairy forests,” as if overwhelmed by an invasion of fireflies, as the Moscow Times wrote last week.

Instead, it’s the blue light from smartphone screens, as drug users fish around in flowerbeds, looking to pick up zakladki: industrial-strength plastic bags filled with drugs, ordered over the dark web in Silk Road-like marketplaces, paid for in Bitcoin and outfitted with small magnets so they can be affixed to metal fixtures like drain pipes and light poles.

In America, policing dark web drug marketplaces has proven next to impossible.

After federal drug agents arrested Silk Road’s founder in a San Francisco public library in 2013 and shut down the website, several imitators popped up—with more drugs, available for less money.

Most of the fentanyl that could be poisoning every street drug available in the U.S. is sold via the dark web, according to law enforcement. In Russia—well, they can’t figure it out either, leading the people who live near the parks where the zakladki are dropped to take matters into their own hands, patrolling the dead-drop zones and taking photographs of the seekers and their cars, sharing the results with police.

As anyone who’s tried to single-handedly overpower market forces can tell you, that’s a losing prospect.

Russia’s narcotics industry made $25 billion in profit in 2016, according to the nation’s drug czar. Profit. One typical man involved in the drug trade interviewed by the Moscow Times sounds all too familiar: Formerly unemployed, living in a decaying old industrial town, where his role as a logistical middleman—like an Amazon fulfillment worker—brings him a monthly salary 30 times the average take-home pay of honest working stiffs.

And there’s honor here, also hewing to supply and demand: Drug purity and quality is zealously controlled. When one speed producer employed by “Sergei” starting cutting his pills with aspirin, Sergei fired him.

Last year, Vladimir Putin responded to this crisis by disbanding his version of the DEA, dissolving the Federal Drugs Agency and relieving its leader, a longtime Putin associate named Viktor Ivanov, of his official duties. Was that where Trump got the idea, since abandoned, to dissolve the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy?

Either way, there is plenty else both countries would recognize.

In Russia, there is near religious opposition to needle exchange.

In America, it’s still forbidden to accept federal money and run common-sense harm-reduction programs like needle exchange.

The official Russian attitude on drugs isn’t unlike denying climate science and insisting climate change is a hoax, said Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program at the Open Society Foundations, in comments to VICE.

We in America wouldn’t know anything about that…

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