Crimean Addicts Continuing to Die Over Lack of Treatment Options

By McCarton Ackerman 01/29/15

In less than a year since Russia took over Crimea, over 800 addicts have died from suicide or overdose.

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More drug addicts than ever are dying in Crimea because Russia has banned opioid substitution therapy, making it virtually impossible for people living in this area to get the therapy they need.

Crimea had previously been using OST with great success and had reduced the number of drug-related crimes and deaths as a result, but were forced to abandon the practice on May 1, 2014. Eighty of the 800 registered heroin addicts in Crimea have since died, mainly from suicide and overdose.

An addict named Andrei, who appeared in a video appeal last April to keep OST going in Crimea, died in a suicide attempt last month. Several others have been sent to jail for drug abuse and dozens more have fled the country to search for better treatment options.

The ban has also begun to effect Ukraine, with the government there ceasing distribution of OST drugs in the rebel-held eastern part of the country. Nearly 300 patients have already lost access to treatment and another 550 could be cut off by next month.

“People were participating in the program for many years," said Igor, a Russian OST patient and activist. "These people got used to getting vital medicine legally, and then in one day, they became illegal, and to deal with their pain they had to begin breaking the law. The drug addict doesn't do it to get pleasure, but just to survive."

The ban on OST has also effected the rise in new HIV cases. The number of HIV cases in Russia has increased five-fold in the last decade, from 170,000 in 2004 to 864,394 in November 2014. However, the actual number is likely greater than the official number since only a fraction of HIV cases are reported.

OST involves patients receiving methadone tablets as a safer substitute for heroin, as well as buprenorphine to help ease their dependence. The patients are also medically supervised as they reduce their intravenous drug use. Both the UN and World Health Organization have praised OST as “one of the most effective treatment options for opioid dependence.”

But despite sound medical evidence in support of the treatment, these statements have been dismissed by Russian officials. Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Anti-Narcotics agency, argued in 2011 that there are “no clinical trials to prove the effectiveness of the method.” He also stated last March that methadone “became a source of criminal incomes” as addicts “distributed [it] as a narcotic drug in the absence of proper control.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.