Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Mirroring America: Why Russia’s War on Drugs Will Fail

Politicians and media outlets throughout Russia and the West continue to find solace in illuminating the others failures and hypocrisy. When the United States finally acknowledged that the Iraq War was not the “slam dunk” it was expected to be, the Kremlin was primed to remind the world that it had predicted such an outcome. A similar ‘tsk-tsk’ response was elicited from Moscow after the intervention in Libya and the Boston Marathon bombing, among others.

Russian critics have always been quick to assail Americans as “immoral” and “openly racist” – iterations commonly found on media comment boards and further reinforced by polls conducted by Russia’s state-owned Public Opinion Research Center – while remaining willfully indifferent to the inter-ethnic violence slowly spreading across Russia and Central Asia. They lambast Western criticism over Russia’s news outlets being controlled by the state, pointing to the fact that the United States’ PBS, England’s BBC, and Canada’s CBC are also state-run broadcast organizations heavily funded by their respective governments. Critics become incensed when their counterpoint falls on deaf ears in the West, primarily because they remain ignorant of the fact that editorial control, not funding, is at the center of Western criticism towards Russian media outlets.

For Russia and the West, decades of criticism driven by nationalistic narratives have not only created a short-sighted ‘us versus them’ worldview but also hampered both sides ability to learn from history. Both sides have spent a great deal of time watching the other but they have learned very little. Russia has been positioning itself to tackle the growing drug epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but it has been doing so by mirroring the same failed policies implemented by the West over five decades ago.

Systemic Failures

With convictions reminiscent of the Nixon administration, Russia is following the United States’ lead in implementing their own War on Drugs, which is predicated on the false belief that drug use and addiction reduction will occur if the state implements strong laws against traffickers, dealers, and addicts alike. Blind ambition and misguided conviction created the failed War on Drugs initiatives that plagued the western hemisphere, and now Moscow is poised to make the same mistakes with the expectation of achieving different results.

Drug wars – coordinated efforts between the military and police that focus on supply-side reductions without properly addressing the demand-side of the black market – are favored policies by officials because it is easy to score political points by targeting people who lack real public leverage. Similar to what was witnessed in the United States for decades, politicians, public servants, and media outlets celebrate when drugs are taken off the streets yet very few acknowledge that these operations only reflect short-term success.

All markets, whether formal or informal, have feedback loops. Drug raids do not satiate demand; they only constrict the supply and cause the substance’s price to increase on the black market.

In thus, when joint military-police operations are initiated the state is negatively impacting one criminal organization, though arrests, while rewarding the other criminal organizations, through higher drug value and revenue. Moreover, when drug prices increase on the black market addicts will commit other crimes in order to fund their habit; an outcome with which the United States is still coming to terms.

In combatting the drug epidemic, the United States initially funneled large sums of money and resources into the nation’s criminal justice and healthcare systems which was eventually proven to be ineffective in reducing the demand for illegal drugs. Russia is currently at this stage implementing strict policies for healthcare facilities and draconian laws that perpetuates the notion that people can be scared straight.

What Russia needs is more educational and treatment programs if they want to reduce addiction levels and undermine criminal enterprises. It has taken Western government’s decades to understand that managing a population’s drug use is far less destructive than fighting to eradicate it completely and that prohibition and strict enforcement only further exacerbates the nation’s problems. Russia refuses to accept this knowledge as fact. Rather, it prefers to make the same mistakes as its predecessors and seemingly finds comfort in following the West down this well-worn path – inevitably ending their own drug war in a similar, disastrous conclusion.

The New Anti-Drug Crusader

“In a quarter of a century, we have not been able to counter the catastrophic growth of the illegal drug trade and the narcotization of the population,” lamented Viktor Ivanov, Director of the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), “we haven’t created anything since getting rid of the [Soviet-era] ‘medical work therapy centers.’” Ivanov’s outlined proposal to mirror Soviet-era labor camps as a means to rehabilitate drug addicts illustrates how Russia is replacing the United States as the world’s foremost anti-drug crusader. These “therapeutic centers and communes,” as they have more recently been described, have been five years coming in a country that recognizes the growing drug epidemic but has, until recently, spent scant resources curbing it.

Moscow’s tendency to link drug addiction with criminality has led to policies that not only perpetuates inefficient drug-control practices but also further exacerbates the problems facing the country. One such practice is the banning of methadone clinics as well as clean needle exchanges, which, according to the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has caused HIV infections to increase from 170,000 to 1.2 million people over the past decade.

Russia’s regional influence has led the country to export these policies with similar effectiveness. Prior to Russia’s incursion into the Crimean peninsula, the region was seeing a decrease in its HIV population because of its treatment programs and facilities. When Crimea was formally annexed by Russia, Moscow’s ultra-strict anti-drug initiatives were implemented outright and the region’s exchanges were shut down. These closings have been blamed for the deaths of recovering drug addicts – primarily from overdose and suicide – and are expected to increase HIV infections. What Crimea is witnessing is only the beginning of the health and social problems it will face if these laws remain in place.

Steadfast in the face of mounting criticism, Russia continues push its hard-lined stance in the hopes of convincing more Eastern European countries to adopt similar measures banning opioid substitution treatments and syringe programs. Implementing prohibition initiatives domestically and sending military operatives to Afghanistan to eradicate poppy fields will not save Russia from the growing epidemic.

Inefficiencies in International Coercion

Every year the US State Department publishes the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) where it lists, in detail, the countries that have failed to meet their counter-narcotics obligations. These reports are generated in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and illustrate which aid-recipient countries “met the goals and objectives of the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.” For the United States, a country’s inability to achieve similar hard-lined stances against drug proliferation could mean facing economic sanctions from either the West or inter-governmental bodies, such as the IMF and World Bank.

Western leaders need international cooperation in its campaigns for drug prohibition because of the drug trade’s cross-border distribution. Coercion has been the standard method to achieve support for these Western-formulated initiatives. Most United Nations members have signed off on the 1961, 1971, and 1988 conventions that prohibited laws accommodating recreational drug use, and poorer countries have openly accepted financial aid from the West in return for stricter policies and harsher sentences for drug offenders. These international efforts have afforded Western countries – in particular the United States – the necessary opportunity to fight the war beyond its borders.

Similar to Russia’s proposed initiatives in Afghanistan, coca and poppy crop eradication were the primary programs designed by the United States in stemming the flow of drugs from Latin and South America. These eradication programs expanded the police states throughout the region, and the money generated from drug sales assisted in militarizing the criminal organizations leading to numerous bloody conflicts that destroyed families and communities. With countless lives destroyed and billions of dollars in wasted programs, illegal drugs are cheaper, stronger, and easier to find than in the past and the anti-drug crusaders have slowly realized that their tired rhetoric and policies are ineffective.

When One War Ends, Another Begins

Ethan Nadelmann outlined in his TED Talk “Why we need to end the War on Drugs” the racist history behind the United States’ drug laws. Russia should expect the same fear and paranoia that had shaped American policy for decades to impact the manner in which it conducts itself in its own operations. These programs provided the US government the necessary pretense to construct a puritanical approach to drug prohibition, acting as the catalyst for escalating the drug wars, and Russia is emulating these policies in lockstep.

In the West, the War on Drugs has been deemed a failure and the evolving drug laws illustrate a change in the people’s perceptions. A, albeit slim, majority of Americans want to legalize marijuana, nearly half of the states have medical marijuana, and a recent torrent of articles highlighting the country’s growing addiction to painkillers and heroin all illustrate that the United States has pulled back on their once hard-lined stance against drugs.

America is witnessing a sea change in the way it sees substance abuse and addiction.

Following in Uruguay’s footsteps, Canada and Mexico are considering legalizing marijuana and many other Latin American governments are waiting in the wings to monitor the outcomes of these rulings before implementing similar policies. Many analysts rightfully blame Latin America’s prohibitionist policies – instigated by the United States – on driving the narco violence in the region. Cartels have thrived on the narcotics black market and have become extremely well-financed, international criminal organizations influencing government officials, police forces, and judicial systems around the world. Policy changes can begin stripping away the power these organizations wield.

The changes in drug laws being considered across North and South America mirror the actions taken throughout Europe over the past two decades. Recreational drugs have been decriminalized to varying degrees across Europe; Portugal, for one, has decriminalized all drug use. Western European countries perceive addiction as an illness – a realization to which the United States is slowly waking up – and have setup facilities to assist addicts, such as needle exchanges, methadone clinics, and, in some countries, heroin prescriptions.

The West is toning down its rhetoric at the same time Russia, and many countries in Asia and the Middle East, are demanding a stricter approach in combating these issues. It seems those implementing a New War on Drugs believe themselves to be immune to the trials and tribulations faced by the West. As these new initiatives ramp up we can only expect the same results – increased violence, higher incarceration rates, expanding HIV/AIDS populations, widespread corruption – while failing to reduce the drug supply.