Crimean Heroin Addicts Dying Under Russian Drug Laws

By McCarton Ackerman 08/07/14

The Russian takeover of Crimea has left heroin addicts without the quality treatment options they once had as part of the Ukraine.

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Russia's drug czar Viktor Ivanov. Photo via

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is having a direct effect on the region's more than 800 registered heroin addicts, who are now receiving inadequate care because the former Ukrainian republic has been forced to adopt Russia’s draconian drug laws.

Crimea had been using OST (opioid substitution therapy) and needle exchange programs with great success, resulting in a reduced number of drug-related crimes and deaths. But since being forced to abandon these policies on May 1, more than 20 of the registered heroin addicts have died, three of whom took their own lives. Several others have been jailed for substance abuse, while dozens more have fled the country to seek better treatment.

Pavlo Skala, the program manager for the International Aids Alliance in mainland Ukraine, said that Russia’s rehab policies promote total and immediate abstinence from drug use regardless of a patient’s physical dependence. His own research has found that 90% of patients relapse under this method. Although Skala is hosting and treating 56 Crimean patients, roughly 70% will have to leave because they don’t have the ability to stay in the mainland. He predicted that “dozens more will die before the end of the year” as a result.

Despite the UN and World Health Organization praising OST as “one of the most effective treatment options for opioid dependence,” 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.”

Staged protests for the reinstatement of OST programs have since taken place in the city of Kiev, while the International HIV/AIDS Alliance is also campaigning for Russia to repeal their drug policies. The number of HIV cases in Russia has increased seven-fold in the last decade, from 170,000 in 2004 to 1.2 million today, with intravenous drug users remaining the most at risk.

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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.