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A DOSE OF DISCORD
The government vs. the State Committee for Drugs Control: checking the possible levels of resistance
The new Russian government headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has spoilt its peaceful image in an unexpectedly tough stand-off with a Russian law enforcement body over one painful issue – the struggle against drugs. The cabinet’s liberal initiatives on drugs have come under rush criticism of the conservatively-minded Federal Service for Control over Drugs Trafficking. Nevertheless, the new liberal norms have practically been legitimized. Their aim is to decriminalize drug consumption.
The first rule written down in the presidential programme for combating the drug business – without which any struggle becomes senseless – suggests that drug dealers are the ones who should be punished while the burden of punishment should be lifted from drug addicts. Out of 82,000 Russian convicts who are currently serving prison sentences on drugs-related charges, 64,000 are ordinary drug consumers who have been convicted for microscopic doses. This weakest section of the drugs market, which is particularly vulnerable in dealing with police officers, should be helped to come out of the dangerous shadow. A correct withdrawal of scattered police detachments from the battlefield of struggle against drugs is also a vital part of the presidential programme. A new body – the State Committee for Drugs Control – has been set up to implement his task. The former security agents formed the managerial nucleus of the new organization, while its investigation bodies were staffed with the best workers of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Bureau. Viktor Cherkesov, one of President Putin’s teammates from St. Petersburg, was appointed to head the new Committee.
The sphere of responsibility of the State Committee for Drugs Control turned out to be wider than just fighting drug trafficking. It also included legal issues such as the creation of a legal framework. However, its new initiatives failed to separate the distributors of drugs from their consumers.
The Russian State Duma passed the bill No.162-23 “On Changes and Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation” late in 2003. The bill came into force on May 12, 2004. The law still classifies the scale of any quantity of drugs as a criminal offence and responsibility for it has even been increased. Concurrently, it radically decreases the responsibility of drug consumers. From now on their punishment is going to be directly proportionate to a dosage that is found on them.
A person carrying no more than ten single doses on drugs in his/her pocket will face an administrative arrest up to 15 days or will go away with a fine. Amounts exceeding ten single doses are punishable by up to ten years in prison. The only thing that was left to do to fully realize the concept was to reconsider an average dose notion. The government instructed the Russian Public Health Ministry, the State Committee on Drugs Control and the Interior Ministry to find an average dose before the new law comes in force.
Until recently, Russian courts have been guided by a table prepared by the Standing Committee for Drugs under the Russian Health Ministry that mentioned 0.5 milligrams of heroin as a large dose.
The State Committee for Drugs Control had prepared a draft list by March. Some of the heroin doses mentioned in that list turned out to be hundreds of times less than the true doses. Doses for some chemical drugs were even less than those that existed in the Soviet forensic medicine. The State Committee for Drugs Control had compiled its list in such a way that by using simple arithmetics it would neutralize the liberalization of the new law.
Alexander Mikhailov, the head of the State Committee for Drugs Control, said that almost 30 percent of the initiated criminal lawsuits would have to be dropped. The problem is not just in lower accountability. The ground has been slipped out from beneath the Committee’s feet. It no longer has the supremacy in making laws in the sphere of drugs. The drama culminated in an open call by the agency’s chief ideologist to preserve distorted figures in the list. “The approval of the list of real doses will enable the distributors to sell drugs, while it’s going to be absolutely impossible for law enforcers to prove the fact of distribution,” the ideologist claimed. Mikhailov often says that Gypsies present the most vivid example of tricky drug dealing because each person in a Gypsy camp has 10 grams of hashish in a pocket. Therefore, one Gypsy camp can be considered as one huge drugs supermarket.
It’s not just that the State Committee for Drugs Control is an ardent supporter of criminal punishment for drugs consumers. Many lawsuits in a host of cases that are now going to be closed have been initiated against real drug dealers. The irony of fate is that big drug dealers often get caught on petty offences. That fact made the work of investigators much easier for it fully relieved the anti-drug bodies from the need to distinguish between the consumer and the seller. Telling the difference between big and small dealers was even a harder job.
The government suggested that law do this job. The list of average single drug doses was altered and was ultimately presented in a form that differed from the initial proposals of the State Committee for Drugs Control. The average dose for heroin is 0.1 grams, hashish – 0.5 grams, marijuana – 2 grams. The new law is retroactive. People convicted on drugs-related charges can appeal to court with a request to revise the sentence.
The State Committee for Drugs Control had had one single chance left to meddle in the process before the list went through the State Duma: amending the Criminal Code. The abolition of an average drug dose could have been one of such amendments. However, the government position was backed up by the president’s legal department, human rights organizations and doctors at drugs clinics. The State Committee for Drugs Control had the support of only some deputies and those who hate Gypsies. The Duma debates ended with a government promise to adjust the law by adding explanations concerning the new liberalization policy and the size of a poppy seed dose. Everybody forgot about poppy in a frenzy of the heated debate.
By Igor Ryabov
/New Times, March-June 2004/
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