HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Anti-Drug Laws For Drug Dealers
Pubdate: Thu, 16 Feb 2006
Source: Moscow Times, The (Russia)
Copyright: 2006 The Moscow Times
Author: Masha Gessen


The Russian government has once again reversed itself on the subject
of drug enforcement, drastically lowering the amounts of illegal drugs
that are considered "large" -- large enough to land a person behind
bars. Why does this matter?

Arresting and jailing drug dealers is fair: Hardly anyone would argue
with that. Some people even think it's effective in preventing drug
use. Suppose that's true. Now consider the way it's done in Russia.

A few years back, I spent time with people staffing buses that
distribute clean needles to drug users (buses like these operate or
have operated in a number of cities, but the Moscow government has
banned their use here). There were a couple of things that I saw over
and over again, in different cities.

The buses generally parked in specific locations in the cities --
usually near a large green market -- where drug users tended to
concentrate. This was where drugs were sold. Just as you would expect
near a market, there were usually a fair number of police. They knew
the bus; they knew the drug users; most of all, they knew the drug
dealers. That did not interfere with the drug trade in any way. It
did, however, hamper the needle-exchange efforts at times: Many of the
users would not carry used needles with them, for fear of getting
busted by police while they were in plain sight. As a result, some of
these buses had to give up on needle exchange in favor of clean-needle
distribution. The police preferred to arrest users rather than dealers
because the dealers shared their profits with the police in exchange
for protection.

Five years ago, I visited a women's penal colony in the Kemerovo
region. I was doing a story on women who had killed men who had abused
them, so I had looked for a colony where women were serving murder
sentences. Many of them were in for multiple murders or repeat
offenses. Most of them were more or less the kind of women I had
expected to meet: badly battered by poverty, alcohol and men.

But there was something odd about this penal colony. Take the local
radio service: It was staffed by cheerful young women who spoke an
educated person's Russian. As it turned out, these were college
students serving time for drug possession. As I looked around, I
realized the population of the colony was split roughly in half: the
hardened criminals, many of them murderers, and the college students
busted for carrying marijuana, ecstasy or other illegal drugs. The
colony's administration confirmed that the split was roughly 50-50.
Women in both groups were serving very long sentences, ranging to
seven or eight years.

This was a couple of years after Russia had toughened its drug laws,
lowering the minimum punishable dose to such a level that virtually
any user could land behind bars. By 2004, the Justice Ministry
estimated that 300,000 people were serving drug-related sentences in
Russian prisons.

That year the government -- responding in part to pressure from the
Justice Ministry, which was fighting prison overpopulation -- raised
the minimum punishable doses of illegal drugs, essentially ensuring
that users who had no intent to sell would not be arrested. The police
were incensed, arguing that some dealers took to carrying amounts just
below the punishable level -- but still sufficient to satisfy between
one and nine users. In other words, the police complained, they were
being prevented from arresting users and small-time dealers and forced
to focus on real drug dealers, whom they didn't want to touch with a
10-foot pole.

The more-liberal policy lasted less than two years. The minimum
punishable dose has been lowered again -- in most cases, by more than
50 percent. The dose is not quite as low as pre-2004 levels, but still
low enough to put even casual users at risk. The police must be happy.
Prisons should be bracing for an influx of inmates.
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