Chronicles From Moscow: The Drug Situation in Russia
I had a bad feeling when I was smoking my last doobie on Canadian soil just before embarking on my adventure behind the iron curtain. I didn't know what to expect in that country, cradle of Communism, so I prepared myself well, packing everything that I could need to fulfil my mission. “Goodbye BC bud” I thought while the last puff of smoke was leaving my lungs in my friends Jason´s car as he was taking me to the airport.
“Russia dude, that is on the other fucking side of the world.” he told me like a divine revelation suddenly had struck him. But he was right. It's like the bizarro world of the Super Friends cartoon. It was because of this twisted logic that I had a bad feeling. I was not mistaken. This is my story.
Moscow is a monumental city. It is chaotic and cosmopolitan. It is a huge and unique metropolis with a very particular mentality and more than 9 million people, probably 10 million people if we count the metropolitan area. Moskva, as it is known in Russian, its full of cliches and unbelievable situations.
The visitor has to plan ahead of his trip. The Russian Federation requires visas of its visitors. These can be processed in the Russian embassy of your country and the price varies depending on the length of time you want to stay in the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). But before you can apply for a Visa, you must have an invitation from a Russian. Any travel agency can help you.
On the other side of the world, one has to rearrange his brain to understand the culture, and a good example of this is the Cyrillic alphabet. It is crucial to learn at least to read it if you want to explore the city without getting lost. So while you are waiting for your invitation and your Visa, I strongly recommend you to learn how to read it.
Moscow is a place where tough laws exist, but they can be bent by the common transaction of the bribe. The most accessible drug is alcohol. It is everywhere and in different kinds and formats. You can buy alcohol at newspaper kiosks, crepé ( bliny) stands, 24 hours stores (24 Yaca), in the metro stations, and anywhere else - you name it. You can see the majority of the population walking in the streets with a beer in their hands. It seems that this refreshing beverage is treated like soda. In summer you can see boys and girls at 10am with their Baltika Pivo, one of the country's most popular beers, in their hands. Vodka, as it is well known, is the favourite strong beverage and its price ranges from a few cents to dozens of dollars.
According to local sources (not able to supply me with product, by the way) prices fluctuate between 1,000 and 1,500 Roubles (between $30 and $40 CDN), that is if you have a local friend or your on a CSKA football team. If you are a stranger and speak with an accent, a matchbox (between 4 and 5 grams) will cost you more that 1,500 Roubles if the dealer is a good guy. Be prepared to pay 15 dollars a gram on average. It is very risky to sell marijuana in Moscow, so dealers don't risk their skin by selling small quantities like just one gram. They go for the matchbox, which sometimes can reach prices of up to $70 - about $45 an eight.
In Russia, cannabis is supposed to be decriminalized in small quantities, up to less than 6 grams per person, but nevertheless, possession is still illegal by law and it can be punished with fines up to 1,500 dollars and sometimes jail time. Penalties for possession between 7 and 20 grams varies between one to three years. We found some examples, like the case of Valentín Ostroukhov, who spent a year and a half in jail for buying 10 grams. My Russian contact warned me of the danger.
“If they (the police) realized that you are a foreigner, the bribe will be automatically higher,” he said. “Foreigners are an easy prey for them and they ask for their documents quite often and if they have some marijuana on them, then they are in danger. They will feed on your fear.”
I was a target for them. Even on the first day of my staying in Russia, after successfully completing an important mission in Cherusti, on the outskirts of Moscow, the cops stopped me while I was driving a LADA. I did not have any weed or alcohol in my veins. In Russia, drinking and driving is severely punished; there is zero tolerance for it. I wasn't impaired, but they got me for speeding. They knew I was a foreigner, but with a Mexican passport and a journalist's credentials; they also knew I would not have any money for them. So they let me go. It happened again and again, but I was always let go because I didn't have any money or anything on me. I was not worth the trouble.
Police in Russia can stop you and ask for your documents for no reason. You can be picking daisy in a park or caressing a statue of Lenin or you can be just existing in a Moscow street and a cop can ask you for ID. It is their right. Although cops in Canada want to do the same, it is an illegal practice, they need to have a warrant or believe that you commit a crime, and for this they need evidence - if you violate a traffic law for example, they can ask for ID. In Russia, this is not the case. They can ID anybody, anywhere. The police presence is very heavy, it seemed like half the population was a policeman or a security guard.
“If a cop stops you and you have drugs with you, your best option is to try to reach a monetary deal with him in that moment”, Alexander, a professional gambler, told us. “In the best of cases you will have to pay a bribe that can go between a $100 and a $1000 depending on the quantity and the kind of drug that you have with you. If you have more than 10 grams of marijuana you have to be prepared to leave $1000 in the pockets of the constable.”
My contact maked me more paranoid by adding, “What I know, some police can stop you to ask for your documents and plant drugs in your pockets or in your car and threaten to lock you up if you don't pay. If you look like a potential smoker you need to exceed in your precautions, especially if you have dreadlocks or look like a hippie. Police don´t like hippies here.”
“The safest thing to do is to smoke inside your house and with people that you know well and trust,” a girl we met named Natasha told us, “or in a private party, but even there people are very fearful, you don't know who can be one of the guests. In my experience Russians are very careful to buy too. They just buy from well known people or friends of friends.”
It seems that the paranoia in Russia is well justified, police are always lurking around despite though you don't feel an open repression like in Communist times. But it is there.
“I was smoking with another friend, she is more experienced than me,” Natasha said. “We were in her car and told me to be careful when passing the joint, police look for the action of passing the spliff from one hand to another, they would immediately know we are not smoking regular cigarettes”.
She adds that there have been several cases of some US citizens that have been detained and jailed for drug trafficking. To add insult to injury, police can even conduct urine tests if they believe that you are driving under the influence of a narcotic. President Dmitri Medvedev even proposed a law to introduced urine tests in schools. The law didn't fly because it would be relatively easy to alter the results by for example, asking a clean friend to pee in your bottle, so the Russian authorities concluded that it would be a waste of money. But in June of 2000, the Duma (Russian parliament) modified the law making illegal for all kiosks, book stores and internet websites to disseminate information about drugs. This ban includes production, preparation, use of drugs and all the benefits of medicinal plants.
The music scene in Moscow is extensive and the variety of bars is ample. Some of them are very trippy, with modern decor combined with communist nostalgia and old paraphernalia. Venues like Proyect OGI, Bilingua, B2 or Gogol offer some of the best underground music, ranging from ska and afrobeat to acid jazz and gypsy music. Of course they have rock and roll, drum and bass and even Russian garage.
There are some big festivals and great bands that come to play in parks like Novelle Vague and Manu Chao. I even participated in an African Music Festival. Among the surprises I had on my trip was the discovery that Ska-p, the best known ska band in Europe, was coming to play to Moscow. Ska-p is well known for their anti-prohibitionist stand. I managed to get an exclusive interview with the vocalist, guitarist, and composer Pulpul before the concert. It was even more surprising to see more than 5,000 Russians singing their songs and jumping around to the rhythm of this band who is originally from Madrid, the capital of Spain. It was one of the best concerts I have ever been to. Among other things, I asked Pulpul about his opinion of legalizing marijuana.
“La Marihuana,” I said to him.
“La hay buena y la hay mala.” he answered, playing with words in Spanish: There is good and there is bad...
“In your opinion, should it be legal?” I asked him directly.
“All drugs must be legalized. Prohibition is no solution. Let me tell you, in my neighbourhood, in Vallecas, in Madrid, you go down to the street and you can get all the drugs that you want. Now the problem is the conditions, the quality and the prices. Drugs exist everywhere, we live with them, they are among us, they are always there, you cannot make them disappear, so the best way to ease the pain of the addicts is to legalize all drugs. We must follow a path of freedom and liberties.”
During the concert I interviewed a couple of the fans, but nobody took out any weed or gave me a tip of where to buy. Nobody smoked during the concert, even though I saw some T-shirts with cannabis motifs. Everybody was smoking cigarettes and even some kids set on fire a bottle of vodka. But no weed. Fear is in the air.
There is always police presence in the festivals, the night clubs and discotheques where young people gather and use chemical drugs like ecstasy and speed. Sometimes police raid the clubs and search everybody, sometimes with tests included. The agents of the Federal Bureau of Drug Control block the exits of the hall and nobody can go in or out. A medical exam takes approximately one hour. Doctors make express tests to detect consumption or traces of drugs in the patrons of the night clubs. The investigators frequently find synthetic drugs. Drug dealers get rid of the merchandise as soon as they spot the police in the club; however, there are always arrests being made and people getting sentenced to several years in jail.
Speaking of hard drugs, more than 50 tons cross the Russian borders every year. At the beginning of the 1990s, drug traffickers created the known North Route that they use to smuggle drugs from Afghanistan to Europe. This route goes through the Russian territory and leave a trail of bribes along the way.
For a long time, it was thought that there were no humans taking hard drugs in the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain also protected the Soviet citizens from the threat of heroin. After the collapse of the USSR and the opening of the borders the situation changed. To take hard drugs became fashionable among young people.
The Russian TV channel Russia Today has a documentary called The Route of Death that I translated into Spanish. In it we see the experience of one Russian mother, Elena, who lost her only son Vladimir to the claws of heroin. Vladimir tried heroin for the first time just before he finished school.
“You are looking into the eyes of your son, but he is not looking at you, he is looking through you. He cannot see you. He wants to ask for money, looking around to see what he can sell to buy drugs for his next fix,” recalls Elena.
Vladimir took his own life.
Russia, like the rest of the world, has a drug problem and despite all its efforts the drugs are there to stay.
But Russians are extreme. The same documentary also shows an institution dedicated to rehabilitate drug addicts. The addicts end up collaborating with the police to capture the heroin dealers. Lets see the story.
In the small town of Izoplit in the outskirts of Ekaterimburg, there is a rehabilitation centre that was founded by the non-profit City Without Drugs. A very special method of treatment is applied here. There are no medications here. The first phase is called the quarantine. Alexei is going to spend 27 days in the quarantine. The main objective of the initial phase is to get rid of the withdrawal symptoms. To stop patients from hurting themselves or others, they are handcuffed to their beds. The first 27 days they are only fed bread and water to clean their system. It is worse than being in jail. They do it “to get used to a sober life”. After that they are in 'voluntary confinement ' for a whole year.
Currently there is a lot of money in Russia and young Russians like to consume and live fast; they are fairly new to capitalism and it is spreading like wild fire through the country, especially in Moscow where you can see fancy cars and expensive clothes everywhere. Drug dealers do not want to miss out on this big market. Mafias are moving the products.
The border police that operate in the strip that adjoins with Kazakhstan are the most active against drug trafficking. Most of the illegal drugs that get into Russian territory come from Afghanistan and go through several of “the Stans” countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan before coming over this border.
Despite all these efforts, 90% of the convicted Russians that are brought to justice with drug related charges are common users like bankers, lawyers, students, athletes, the grandma that lives above you or the mechanic that fixes your car. The real Russian mobsters are never caught. Police can conduct urine or blood tests if they suspect you are under the influence of a narcotics. In this war, the losers are the civil population and the big traffickers keep on earning easy money. There is a lot of money to be made and there is a lot of poverty as well in modern Russia, also victims of this greedy capitalist system. A lot of people are seduced by the easy money. There is a lot of wealth to be shared in the drug business among producers (which earn the least amount of money) runners, smugglers, resellers, dealers and their respective bosses and their families.
According to official investigations, in Afghanistan, a kilogram of heroin costs $2,000. In Russia, drug dealers sell a kilo for $50,000. In its final destination, Europe, the price of the Afghan heroin can reach $80,000. The heroin crossing the borders is hidden in stomachs, nuts, gas tanks, or any method that smugglers can think of. For example in the Summer of 2008, three passengers from a flight coming from Tajikistan were detained. The suspects were sent to get X-rays taken and other medical procedures. The results were positive: “A total of 266 bags of heroine were found in their stomachs during the examination. That is more than two kilograms of heroin. Sometimes that could be lethal for the smuggler,” declared Larissa, a spokesperson from the Customs Department at Domodedovo airport.
At the end of my staying two-and-a-half months and accomplishing several missions, I knew my gut feeling was real. I went to a lot of bars and restaurants of several social classes (lots of them in modern Moscow) I went to parties and met Latins, French, Africans and of course many Russians. I went to a couple of cities outside of Moscow like Vladimir. Nobody ever offered me a joint. My Russian contacts didn't want me to smoke either because of the nature of my mission and the danger that comes with cannabis or hashish consumption in the ex-Soviet Union.
At the end, I left on a bus towards Latvia. I was wondering how would it be in that Baltic country and would soon find out. The nightmare started in Latvia...
Stoner's Mini Dictionary
Weed: trava, dudka, chai (té).
Hydroponic: Gydra, gydrapon.
Bud: boshki, bohi, shishki (flores).
Dry hashish: hashish tverdy, tvardovski.
Soft hashish: miagky, plastic, plastilin.
Ok, lets smoke: Davai dunem/nakurimsja.
I would like to smoke weed: Ja hochu nakuritsa ("shishki” flowers).
Remember: If you must smoke in Russia, only buy from people you know. Never smoke outside or in front of unknown people.
This is an adaptation of an article that appeared in Cañamo magazine in Spanish. This version have been modified for Canadian audiences.