The Russian heroin epidemic, widely reported on in the media, and the resulting proliferation of HIV through shared needles, have been called a threat to national security by Russian officials. Yet the Russian government has been severely criticized for its handling of the problem. Though statistics vary, it’s clear that between 1.5 and 2 million Russians are heroin addicts, with a percentage of population that’s about eight times higher than in EU countries. The Federal Antinarcotics Service, a Russian agency, reports that Russia now uses more heroin than any other country in the world, and the incidence of HIV is growing rather than abating as it is in most other countries. It’s not that the government is ignoring the problem, but critics say its drug policies may be exacerbating the national dilemma.
Human Rights Watch recently released a report on the Russian drug epidemic stating that Russian policies for treating drug users “deliberately ignore the best available medical evidence and recommendations.” For instance, there are no nationally sponsored needle-exchange programs to address the spread of HIV. Methadone is banned in Russia so there is no methadone substitution program to help wean users off of heroin. Independent agencies geared to help addicts are typically shut down by the government. Addicts seeking help are put on a state “narcological register,” available to the public and used by police who often find cause for arrest. Some say that medical care for drug users is inferior and that addiction is not viewed as a disease by most Russians, as it is in many Western countries, but instead is considered a moral travesty. Critics say these policies and attitudes discourage addicts from seeking help.
The world watches as Russia addresses its catastrophic drug epidemic. The saddest fact of all: Most of Russia’s heroin addicts are aged 18 to 39 – a generation lost to heroin.
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