Pubdate: Wed, 17 Jul 2002
Source: Moscow Times, The (Russia)
Copyright: 2002 The Moscow Times
Section: Page 3
Note: From Combined Reports (AP, MT)


A small but vocal political group called for the legalization of marijuana 
and hashish Tuesday, sparking an angry response from the country's top drug 
expert, who said such a step would be terrible for Russia.

Members of the Transnational Radical Party held what they called a "street 
referendum" on Pushkin Square, extolling the virtues of legalizing light 
drugs and asking people whether they favor it.

"Hemp and its derivatives are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco," said 
Anatoly Khramov, head of the party's Moscow office.

"Light drugs remain under the control of mafia structures and bring them 
tremendous profits," he said, arguing that marijuana should be made legal 
to take it out of the criminal realm.

Khramov called for three basic changes to drug-related legislation: to free 
drug users from criminal liability; to make a clear distinction between 
"hard" and "soft" drugs; and to provide free medical treatment and 
rehabilitation to addicts.

Under existing law, people charged with obtaining and keeping even a small 
amount of marijuana face up to three years in prison. Distribution can 
bring sentences of seven to 15 years.

Tuesday's street action prompted an angry response from Nikolai Ivanets, 
the Health Ministry's top drug abuse expert. Speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, 
Ivanets warned that legalizing "light" drugs like marijuana would be a 
"danger to the nation."

"It would be terrible if this is allowed," Ivanets said, adding that "from 
the medical point of view, marijuana opens the way to other harder drugs" 
that are more addictive.

Drug use, especially of harder drugs like heroin, has exploded since 1991, 
leading to a sharp rise in AIDS cases among addicts who share needles.

A recent poll of 1,600 people conducted by the All-Russia Public Opinion 
Center found that 99 percent of those surveyed said the country's drug 
problem is "very serious" or "serious enough." Only 1 percent called it 
"not very serious."

The marijuana survey was the second headline-grabbing public action by the 
Transnational Radical Party in as many days. On Monday, members of the 
group boarded a Moscow riverboat and, just as it passed by the walls of the 
Kremlin, unfurled a banner calling for immediate peace talks between 
President Vladimir Putin and Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.

The party complained that Moscow authorities had denied their request to 
hold Tuesday's event for the whole day, instead limiting it to several 
hours. In a statement carried on its web site, the party said it had filed 
a complaint in city court.

Valeria Konovalenko, 20, a psychology student and cigarette smoker, said 
she signed against legalization. "I think there are enough amusements for 
young people and nothing good will come of legalizing marijuana. It's bad 
for your health," she said.

Nikita Karpov, a 17-year-old law student, voted for legalization because he 
considers marijuana a soft drug. "It should be like in the Netherlands," he 
said. "If they legalize it, there will be fewer users."

State Duma Deputy Gennady Raikov disagreed: "It would be something awful if 
drugs were legalized in Russia. You have to take into account the culture 
and mentality of a people -- not compare them to, say, Holland."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Ariel