Putin declares war on drug barons

Weapons of mass destruction in irresponsible hands are very dangerous, and international terrorism is no less frightening. However, a syringe with heroin, ecstasy pills and other drugs are no less of a threat to Russia's national security. The drug barons (or "narco-mafia" as they are known in Russia) are determined to launch a true onslaught against the country's future, and it must be stopped.

Discussions at the Tuesday conference of the Russian federal drug control service went along these lines. Apart from the top brass of the power structures and the foreign ministry, Vladimir Putin attended the session.

The president had every reason to call for urgent measures. The situation in Russia with regard to this evil is nearly catastrophic. Over the 1990s, the number of registered drug addicts increased nine-fold and now exceeds 450,000 people. The number of unregistered drug victims is estimated at another 3-5 million. A parliamentarian once said with sad irony that drug addicts could easily clear the 5% hurdle and form their own faction in the State Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament).

This is all the more true since Duma factions are in no hurry to improve the law on drugs. This law envisages a ban on drug use, but provides no punishment for it. The implications are clear.

As a result, Russian drug addicts are growing younger. Education Minister Andrei Fursenko admitted at the conference that every third teenager in Russia, i.e. four million people, had tried drugs. The most terrifying statistic is that the heroin-abuse rate has risen from zero to 28% since the 1960s. Consequently, the death rate has soared too. Famous Russian sculptor Mikhail Shemyakin seemed to have hit the point when he erected a monument to a monster with a syringe in a central Moscow square.

Among other things, the attack on the drug barons is hampered by psychological stereotypes dating back to Soviet times. For an ordinary person, a drug addict is more of a criminal than a patient. Hence, the attitude to modern anti-drug measures. Hardly had a few mobile posts for exchanging used single-use syringes for new ones been opened in Yekaterinburg, when 11 professors from the Urals State Medical Academy published a furious open letter: "This should be stopped and closed, what have we come to!"

Against this background, it is clear why Russian law enforcers have so far managed to seize only 10% of illegally smuggled drugs. Any Russian will need less than an hour to buy any type of drugs - be it at a market place, at a disco or even a school corner.

Vladimir Putin demanded that the situation be changed. He said, "It is not the leadership of the country that is awaiting [the changes], but the country itself."

The president's appeal was meant for his creation - the federal drug control service. This is the world's largest structure of its kind, which employs 40,000 people, whereas a similar US service has only 10,000 staff members. Mr Putin placed a person from his entourage - Colonel General of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Viktor Cherkesov - at the head of the department. At the Tuesday conference, he wanted to hear his account for one year of work.

According to the general's report, a great deal seems to have been done in this area.

Officers of the state drug control service have seized 27 tonnes of drugs, and uncovered 30 underground labs and 600 other facilities illegally producing such substances, and destroyed 40 hectares of marijuana and opium poppy fields. Nonetheless, these figures have failed to impress Mr Putin. He made it clear that these were only haphazard achievements that failed to form an organised, complex, comprehensive fight. Drug dealers should be prosecuted, financial channels of drug business destroyed, the relevant legislation upgraded, medical rehabilitation for drug addicts introduced and preventive education measures for healthy people carried out, all in parallel, the president demanded.

Education Minister Andrei Fursenko concurred with the president, pointing out one circumstance that is new to Russia but familiar to the West: the thing is that drug addiction is seen as an attribute and a privilege of wealth. Only an aggressive education campaign waged from childhood can change these stereotypes, said the minister. In his opinion, the attempts to combine the notion of a successful career and drugs should be counterbalanced with the slogan, "Life Without Drugs is Cool!"

All this is certainly true. And Vladimir Putin is quite correct when he calls drugs one of the most serious threats to Russia's national security comparable to international terrorism in scope. At the same time, the president knows better than anybody else: he is faced with too many intertwining tasks that can overlap one another. For example, the fight against poverty that he launched earlier could contradict today's attack on the drug mafia, as greater prosperity could increase the drug consumer market.

There is another ordinary question that was not asked at the conference: where will we find the money to combat this evil? Last year, the Russian budget could only afford to allocate $239 million. In comparison, the United States allotted $33 billion....

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Author`s name Editorial Team