Panic in Gorky Park

By Dirk Hanson 04/21/11

Russia's president finally acknowledges his country's appalling rate of opiate addiction. His solution? Drug-test schoolchildren and jail everybody else.

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Russia: It's not just for vodka anymore.
Photo via addiction-dirkh.blogspot

Everybody knows about the drinking problem in Russia—vodka for everything! Beer with a beer chaser for dinner!—but few Westerners know that Russians are also the top consumers of heroin in Europe and no. 3 in the world behind only Iran and Pakistan. For years, Russia has been flooded with cheap opium from Afghanistan, smuggled in through Tajikistan and other countries along Russia’s “virtual borders” in Central Asia. What began as a trickle of addicted Russian soldiers during the Afghan war in the 1980s has reached epidemic proportions. And now Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in a remarkable break from historical precedent, has come clean about the country’s drug problems in a government meeting in the Siberian city of Irkutsk—a city identified by Russian officials as a prime haven for drug abuse. Medvedev made the astonishing admission that at least 2.5 million Russians are currently classified as drug addicts. The number is certainly higher than that, but the State Council presidium meeting in Irkutsk issued a statement acknowledging that “the annual economic damages from the spread of drug addiction in Russia makes about 1 trillion rubles, or more than 2% of GDP.” Medvedev's remarks come after he took to the airwaves earlier this month to denounce the nation’s drinking problem as “a national disaster,” as The Fix reported. The Russian president, predictably, announced a “get tough” policy, including a call for mandatory drug testing in schools and other measures destined to cool the hearts of civil libertarians. “Unfortunately,” Medvedev said, “the situation is such that we will have to go along this path.” Whether or not that is true, it’s undeniable that “this topic used to be taboo, which should definitely be broken, “ as Medvedev told the Russian Mothers Against Narcotics Association.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]