Perspectives on illicit drugs in Russia

Posted: December 5, 2011 at 4:11 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:55 am

Russia Far East map

Author: Aaron Beitman, PhD Student,  University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Political Science

In recent years, Russia has faced a growing drug problem within its borders. Drug abuse rates have been much higher than those in Europe and drug trafficking remains a highly lucrative enterprise.

For years TraCCC has engaged in research efforts to better understand the dimensions and challenges of illicit drug use and trafficking in the Russian Federation. Dr. Louise Shelley, TraCCC’s Director, produced this informative report from 2006 on the drug trade in Russia. Highlighting the role of organized crime in Russia’s drug trade, the report provides important context for the research showcased in this post.

TraCCC’s Vladivostok Center has an excellent track record ofgenerating groundbreaking research on organized crime and corruption in the Russian Far East and was responsible for administering the grants competition that produced the research discussed here. The grants competition winner, Roman Dremlyuga, is a research specialist at the Center for Drug Abuse and Destructive Influences Prevention at Far East Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.

One of the main conclusions of Mr. Dremlyuga’s research is that Russia’s drug issues are a threat to national security and should be conceptualized as such by authorities. Opiates in particular are highly problematic as the Russian domestic opiate market has been valued at $12 billion or roughly 1/5 of the world market. More than 70% of the drugs entering the Russian market are produced abroad. Alongside synthetic drugs from Western Europe (coming through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States) and cocaine from Latin America, opiates from Afghanistan present the biggest problems.

Across Russia, anti-narcotics efforts are hampered by a shortage of qualified personnel familiar with fighting financial crimes, organized crime groups, and drug crime. In addition, the absence of an effective legal base to guide efforts to control drugs and combat drug trafficking complicates the situation further. According to experts, only 10-15% of all estimated drug crimes are detected by authorities. It is therefore unsurprising that law enforcement confiscates roughly 7-10 kg out of every 100 kg of drugs passing through Russia.

The Russian Far East is particularly affected by high levels of drug use and drug trafficking. Analysis of the dynamics of drug crimes in the Russian Far East suggests increasing instability, a trend that has only continued to grow over the past ten years. Primorsky Krai, Khabarovsky Krai, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Amurskaya Oblast are particularly affected by drug-related crime in this area of the country.

Russia Far East map












Map courtesy of Wikipedia

According to official statistics, Primorsky Krai is among the top ten hot spots in Russia in terms of drug use and drug crime. Data from a survey of 167 law enforcement officials in Primorsky Krai conducted by Mr. Dremlyuga and his team provides telling information about the region’s anti-narcotics efforts. While a majority of respondents believe that the fight against drugs needs to remain a top priority, 67% found that anti-narcotics efforts must be drastically improved. Interestingly, 77% of respondents believe that criminal punishment for drug-related crimes is too soft and that the institution of the death penalty for such offenses would have utility.

Due to its climate and environment, Primorsky Krai is an excellent place for growing marijuana. Cultivation and processing of marijuana have reached such a level that the drug has become the main source of income for many rural inhabitants. Faced with high unemployment, rural inhabitants have begun planting it directly on their private plots. The fact that these residents can derive regular and substantial income from this activity virtually ensures that rural inhabitants will not be leaving the drug business anytime soon, barring the development of other alternatives.

This proliferation of local drug cultivation has taken place with the active participation of organized crime groups, which have regularly pushed local inhabitants into the drug business. Moreover, analysis of official statistics and operational indicators from law enforcement indicates that transnational crime groups have taken advantage of permissive conditions in Primorsky Krai to stoke local demand for drugs. Long established as a transit territory for illegal drugs distribution in the Russian Far East, Primorsky Krai has also become a key transshipment location for drugs headed to Korea, Japan, China, and Europe.

Mr. Dremlyuga also offers a few recommendations for improving anti-narcotics efforts in Russia. Below are a few of the most salient suggestions:

  1. Create rehabilitation centers for drug users, which in addition to criminal punishment, provide medical and psychological care, job training, and social reintegration training by highly qualified staff.
  2. Raise the financial penalty threshold for drug traffickers, so as to link financial crimes and drug trafficking more closely together.
  3. Individuals arrested for minor drug crimes, such as purchase of drugs for personal use, should undergo medical treatment in rehabilitation centers, in tandem with prison sentences or not, depending on the case.
  4. Finally, anti-narcotics policy should be reoriented to reflect the existence of organized drug crime groups; corrupt relations between citizens, government officials, and the justice system; and suppression of procedural and administrative offenses committed by government officials in support of drug crimes

Ultimately, any changes in Russia’s anti-narcotics policy, on either the federal or regional level, require a great deal of political will. At the same time, reports about a new synthetic drug called Krokodil’ have added to worries about the devastating effects of drugs in Russia. Perhaps these stories will convince Russian leaders that now is the time undergo reform of anti-narcotics policy.

Write to traccc at