Moscow's Only Harm Reduction Program Is Being Fined

By Maggie Ethridge 12/21/18

The harm reduction program came to the attention of the Russian government due to its pamphlet providing safety advice about bath salts.

people in Moscow, Russia, a city where the harm reduction program is under attack

The only harm reduction program in Moscow has been fined for what the government is calling “drug propaganda.” The small and dedicated group, The Andrey Rylkov Foundation (ARF), has been fined 800,000 roubles.

The ARF provides the heroin-addicted population of Moscow with life-saving clean needles, HIV prevention and harm-reduction advice. Like many harm reduction programs here in America, the ARF was built on the idea that reducing the risk of disease and death for those addicted to injecting heroin keeps them alive and safe until they are ready to attempt sobriety.

The ARF also provides condoms and naloxone – or Narcan as it is better known – for reversing a potential opioid overdose.

The ARF came to the attention of the Russian government due to its pamphlet providing safety advice about synthetic cathinones (in slang, bath salts). The pamphlet, published in a newsletter for drug users called Hats and Bayan, advised users that if they took this dangerous drug, to begin with a small dose and to ingest water, pills and vitamin C along with it to assist in the body’s processing of the drug. The newsletter did not tell people to take the drug – it simply gave safety advice to people who had already decided to use it. 

Vice stated that Amnesty International described the fine as “suffocating” because it will kill the organization if they cannot raise the amount of the fine by Christmas.  

It is largely the spread of HIV that brought the ARF to life. Russia is currently the single largest heroin market in the world. Heroin from Afghanistan began to flood Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and on the heels of the drug crisis was an HIV crisis brought on by the sharing of dirty needles.

And just like here in America, the deadly drug fentanyl is dramatically increasing overdose deaths in Russia. Anya Sarang, president and co-founder of the ARF, told Vice, "Last year the number of ODs sharply went up, possibly because of fentanyl. We can’t say for sure, because there’s no official data, but the number of times someone's called and told us they’ve had to use naloxone has doubled. So more people are overdosing."

In The Moscow Times, Masoud Dara, HIV specialist at the WHO, noted the importance of programs addressing the issue, "HIV starts off [in] key populations — meaning drug users, commercial sex workers and men having sex with men — but after that it [increases] exponentially... if there is no more intervention.”

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.