Russia’s chief specialist on tackling drug abuse reiterated on Friday the country’s reluctance to introduce a Western-style system of needle exchanges for heroin addicts, saying it would do nothing to combat high HIV infection rates.
“We tried this,” health ministry specialist Yevgeny Bryun told journalists in downtown Moscow. “And, strangely enough, we saw a spike in drug use and HIV infections.”
“Russia is very frightened of this system,” he said.
Russia's Health Ministry said last year that HIV infection rates had tripled in areas where foreign-run needle exchange programs were in place.
But non-governmental organizations say the increases are “logical.”
“Of course they discover more addicts and infections in regions with these programs,” Ivan Varentsov, a spokesperson for the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, which provides health information to intravenous drug users, told RIA Novosti. “They come in for testing and treatment.”
“It’s hard to understand the logic sometimes behind Russia’s drug policies,” he added, calling them among the most “repressive in the world.”
Some 30,000 Russians die from heroin abuse every year, according to official statistics. That figure is around one-third of all heroin-related deaths worldwide. Non-govermental organizations estimate that there are up to three million heroin addicts in the country.
Parallel to this, over 100,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in Russia in 2011 and the number of new HIV infections jumped 10 percent. The United Nations says there are now around a million people living with HIV in Russia.
Bryun also criticized the Western model of methadone distribution to addicts. Methadone is a synthetic form of opium used to wean addicts off heroin. Its use in treating heroin addicts is endorsed by the United Nations and scores of countries, including all but three of the 15 former Soviet republics. The other two former Soviet countries without methadone programs in place are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
“This is not treatment,” Bryun said, also arguing that the system had been adopted in the United States as a “cheap option” for addicts lacking medical insurance. “We can get the same results without methadone – so why use it?”
He also argued that addicts were likely to simply sell methadone and use the money to buy heroin.
Russia has also cracked down on organizations that advocate the adoption of methadone as treatment.
The website of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation was closed down by order of the Federal Drug Control Service on February 3 over the site’s alleged “promotion of the use of drugs.”
“They accused us of promoting drug use and selling methadone,” Varentsov said. “This is nonsense.”
The vast majority of the heroin injected in Russia is from Afghanistan. The United Nations says twenty-one percent of the 375 tons of heroin produced annually in the war-ravaged state travel through central Asia before hitting the already glutted Russian market.
Russia’s government estimates that some $17 billion was spent on street heroin last year nationwide.
Russia’s federal drug control chief, Viktor Ivanov, said in February that opium production in Afghanistan went up 61 percent in 2011.
He also said NATO’s efforts to encourage Afghan farmers to give up their poppy fields in favor of wheat production had “failed,” as farmers “gladly take the wheat and continue cultivating opium poppy.”