The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Brittney Griner highlights Russia’s inhumane drug policies

Brittney Griner, a WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, is escorted to a court hearing outside Moscow last week. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Niko Vorobyov is a Russian-British freelance journalist and author of the book “Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade.”

When basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted in Russia of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced to 9½ years in a penal colony — for inadvertently carrying a vape cartridge containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage — the world was right to condemn her prosecution as a purely political farce.

But the case was also a reminder of Russia’s inhumane and rotten drug policies.

Griner is now living through a similar nightmare alongside tens of thousands of Russians convicted of drug possession and trafficking under draconian statutes known as “the People’s Laws” because of the number of people imprisoned under them. Altogether, drug violations account for over a quarter of all Russian prisoners.

On paper, small amounts of certain substances for personal use are decriminalized in Russia and are an administrative offense punishable by a fine. In practice, however, researchers have discovered that cops most often find just enough drugs to push for a serious sentence, a statistical anomaly that could be explained only by the consistent planting of evidence. Most often, this is done to either meet quotas or shake down their marks for a bribe. An “on-the-spot fine,” as it were. Those who can’t pay end up in Russian prisons, where torture and tuberculosis are everyday phenomena.

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Once the system labels you a “narkoman” (drug addict), your life becomes much more complicated. One particularly cruel story stands out in my mind: A young woman who dreamed of becoming a mother was told to get an abortion because she was HIV-positive, depressing her to the brink of suicide.

When she found out it was possible to give birth to a healthy baby, even with HIV, the doctors called her an irresponsible junkie and an unfit parent. She held firm and had a healthy baby girl, found a job, gave up heroin and filed a complaint against the doctors. Then, when it seemed like things were finally going her way, the police framed her for drugs. She was released just in time to be reunited with her daughter, but the inconsistent HIV treatment she received while imprisoned wore her body down. She died a few months later. Her name was Oksana Shpagina, and there are many stories like hers.

Occasionally, drugs find their way to the pockets of dissidents and journalists, like the case of reporter Ivan Golunov. In a rare instance of justice prevailing, Golunov was freed after a media storm, and the cops responsible for his ordeal were locked away themselves. But who were the masterminds behind the smear job? Are we supposed to believe the low-ranking officers planned to frame an investigative journalist all by themselves? We don’t know. Still, the high-profile saga failed to bring about any changes to Russia’s stubbornly prohibitionist and corrupt system.

The Russian government has even outlawed methadone, a substitute for heroin globally recognized for helping wean drug users off the hard stuff. Methadone has been available in Ukraine since 2003, but after Crimea came under Russian control, drug users there were cut off from methadone treatment. Some hopped back on the needle, others overdosed or killed themselves. Hundreds of Crimea’s registered methadone patients likely died within a year. The same fate likely awaits the residents of occupied Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, according to official data, more than 1 million Russians are HIV-positive. A third of new cases in 2020 came from injecting drugs, and the number of overdose deaths doubled from 2019 to 2021.

And yet, most Russians seem to support zero-tolerance policies. Of course, Russia is not unique on this. But in many countries, the approach to combating drug use is evolving. Many states in the United States have legalized cannabis and are allowing research into psychedelics. There’s still a lot to dismantle in the criminal and cultural approaches to drugs, but at least Americans are having the debate.

In Russia, we cannot even get accurate information about drug use because of laws against “narco-propaganda.” NGOs are fined for giving safety advice to drug users; saying anything other than “drugs are bad” is basically a crime. You can even get in trouble for wearing a hat with a marijuana leaf.

Russia’s drug laws are cruel and an integral arm of the authoritarian state. Griner’s case has amplified that. It should also open our eyes to the drug war’s global toll on freedom and public health. Sadly, Russia is far from the only abuser. There are drug users all over the world in desperate need for compassionate addiction treatments. There are people languishing in prisons for possession and nonviolent offenses.

Let Griner go — let them all go.

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