Russian Drug Users Describe Life and Trends During the Pandemic

September 15, 2020

Drug use is globally interconnected. Just thinking of the routes illegal drugs take up to the point of consumption—from being grown or synthesized in producer countries, refined and produced in secondary locations, then often smuggled across borders and oceans—often makes you wonder, as a drug user, about people elsewhere in the world, doing pretty much what you’re doing.

While the desire for different substances and their effects is near-universal, cultural and policy landscapes vary greatly, which was one reason we wished to present Russian drug users’ experiences to Filter’s readers.

Russia infamously has some of the world’s most draconian drug policies. As one study framed it: “The government’s official policy towards drug use is one of ‘social intolerance,’ which seeks to legitimize and encourage societal ill treatment of people who use drugs.”

Russian harm reductionists face severe restrictions and attacks on their work, including recent efforts to ban harm reduction publications as “propaganda.” People who use drugs face harsh sentences, police brutality and a fast-growing HIV epidemic, particularly among people who inject. Methadone and buprenorphine are banned, and syringe possession is often effectively criminalized. Certain populations, like the LGBTQ community, bear the brunt of such repression.

But another vital connection between the world’s drug users is the solidarity and support we can all share, even while the pandemic prevents us from meeting in person. Organizations like INPUD and PANDA exemplify this, but less formal connections also proliferate. The two of us, for example, decided to collaborate after reading each other’s work online.

The issues faced by people who use drugs in Russia are under-exposed in the West, and we wanted to hear from impacted people themselves. So we came up with a set of questions, translated them into Russian and sent them to three women who use drugs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We hope their stories will serve as a reminder that all of us who use drugs belong to an international community that can become more powerful if truly united.

What has it been like using drugs in Russia during the pandemic?

Sasha is a 22-year-old aspiring website designer in Moscow. She uses mephedrone and cannabis recreationally, and is a drug-user activist in her city.

“The supply of drugs on the market decreased,” Sasha told Filter, “which made some substances very difficult to find, such as ketamine or cocaine. But my friends, who prefer mephedrone, did not notice much difference in the [supply] and price.”

For those unfamiliar, mephedronewith many street names in different places, including “white magic,” “meow meow,” “M-smack” and “MCAT”—is a strong stimulant in the amphetamine and cathinone classes. It’s sold as a fine white powder, perhaps a little yellowish, and can sometimes be identified by a foul smell, variously described as being like stale urine or exhaust fumes. Mixed with other chemicals, it’s one of the components of the varied substances well known in North America as “bath salts.”

Masha, 35, lives in St. Petersburg, where she runs her own webshop selling cosmetics. She is dependent on street methadone.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, many ‘shops’ [drug sellers on Telegram, an online messaging platform popular in Russia] were afraid that their ‘goods’ would not be available,” Masha told Filter. However, “It was just as bad that there was no bus [a mobile harm reduction service]. “And in general, I think people who are dependent on drugs just do not care whether there’s a pandemic or notthey need to get their ‘medicine.’”

Liliya, 22, also lives in St. Petersburg, using both illicit methadone and mephedrone. She has her own channel on Telegram that’s dedicated to people who use drugs. There, she goes by the nickname “Mother of Salts.”

“In fact, the difference is not particularly noticeable,” she told Filter. “In the early days of self-isolation, there were few people on the streets, and the risk of being seen by patrolmen was higher. But now it’s business as usual.”

What trends are you seeing in the illegal drug trade in Russia?

Sasha is a fan of the dark web. In Russia, many sellers have begun stashing purchased drugs in geotagged hiding places for pick-up, making in-person contact unnecessary, and Sasha has been one of the beneficiaries.

“During the epidemic, a very cool function of delivery appeared on Hydra [a Russian dark-web marketplace],” she explained. “To use it, you need to pay five thousand rubles [$67], but the ‘treasure’ [klad, or stash of drugs] is placed as close as possible to the place you indicated. The pleasure is not cheap, but perhaps such a trend is outlined in connection with the pandemic and lockdowns.”

“Product quality is declining, and in the case of opioids, it is consistently kept at a low level that is dangerous to health.”

Liliya’s Telegram involvement means that she knows a lot about current trends in St. Petersburg and beyond.

“The market was filled with synthetic and semi-synthetic substances, such as pyrovalerone, synthetic cathinones, methadone,” she said. “Product quality is also declining, and in the case of opioids, it is consistently kept at a low level that is dangerous to health. In general, the situation [across] Russia is similar, but in regions close to Central Asia, more-or-less high-quality heroin is still found. There is less methadone and mephedrone there; pyrovalerone prevails.”

Pyrovalerone, a cathinone that is occasionally prescribed in some European countries to treat chronic fatigue or suppress appetite, is commonly mixed with mephedrone, to create “bath salts.” It is sometimes also altered and falsely sold as MDMA. People in Russia, like drug users everywhere, are well advised to check their drugs if they can find options such as mailing services.

Sasha, Masha and Liliya all similarly reported that there’s lots of mephedrone, methadone, cannabis, “bath salts,” synthetic cannabinoids, heroin and amphetamine available where they live. But interestingly, none of the three mentioned fentanyl.

How is law enforcement treating people who use drugs during the pandemic?

Sasha in Moscow shared a personal close encounter with the law. “During the lockdown, I ran on the sidewalk at night and the patrol car noticeably slowed down before approaching me,” she said. “I was lucky and they did not come out to inspect and examine me, but that night I saw this car several times.”

Liliya described cops’ attitudes in St. Petersburg in a way that will sound all too familiar to North Americans. “Law enforcement agencies treat such people negatively, both during a pandemic and after that,” she said.

“The main thing is not to catch their eye,” she continued, “because even if you do not have any illegal substances with you, the fact that you are a drug user will not only cause contempt for you, they may also plant drugs on you.”

Are there any harm reduction organizations in your area?

Sasha in Moscow acknowledged that she is a relatively privileged drug user, but noted that her city’s stretched harm reduction services don’t, therefore, prioritize her community. “Since my area is quite ‘well-off’that is, it is located close enough to the centermobile harm reduction [units] do not come to us,” she said. “Moscow is a big city and, first of all, the work of such organizations is aimed at the outskirts.”

Masha and Liliya in St. Petersburg both described the work of Humanitarian Action, a harm reduction organization that provides, among other services, a bus that brings syringes and other resources to drug users. (Filter recently reported on that organization, and Aleksey Lakhov, co-author of this article, is its deputy director.)

“We have an excellent organization which helps drug users a lot [with access to] distributing sterile syringes, ointments, bandages, alcohol wipes, harm reduction booklets, information leaflets about viral hepatitis, HIV and AIDS, overdoses and so on,” Liliya said. “The organization also helps those who wish to take rapid tests for hepatitis, HIV, syphilis free of charge and anonymously, [and] helps and supports everyone who goes there.”

Despite the value of such services—in Moscow, they are offered by the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, which last year launched an innovative chemsex program as part of efforts to improve LGBTQ outreach—they remain far too rare and under-resourced. And legal threats and limitations restrict all of their work.

What is important for the wider world to know about the drug-user community in Russia?

Sasha focused on the key issue of mental health.

“For me, the topic of mental health of people from the drug user community is becoming more and more relevant,” she said. ”Many people needed help even before drugs appeared in their lives. Often people build relationships with psychoactive substances for the sake of self-healing their state of mind. I think that in Russia, a very large proportion of the population is susceptible to mental illness due to the low standard of living and unhealthy family environment.”

Masha responded by talking about the inherent supply vulnerabilities created by prohibition.

“Everything has become very affordable,” she said. “And there are a lot of scammers because of this. There are a lot of ‘one-day shops’ in Telegram messenger that take your money and disappear. Just like in the ‘good old days’ when people with whom you’d been using just took your money to go to the dealer and didn’t come back.”

“Pictures from the ‘90s are alive in the minds of Russian citizensthen, drug users were dangerous and degraded beings in their eyes.”

Liliya wanted to end by reminding us of the harmful stigmatization of drug use—present throughout the world but particularly pronounced in Russian society, thanks largely to government encouragement. Yet she struck an optimistic note about how this is changingat a societal level, if not a policy one.

“People need to know that drug users are, first of all, people too,” she said. “Pictures from the ‘90s are alive in the minds of Russian citizensthen, drug users were dangerous and degraded beings in their eyes.”

“Now the situation, like the picture as a whole, has changeddrug users are, in general, [seen as] part of society.”


Photographs of Humanitarian Action’s mobile unit in St. Petersburg by Artyom Leshko

Aleksey Lakhov & Matthew Bonn

Aleksey has been working in the field of harm reduction, HIV and viral hepatitis prevention for 10 years. He is general manager of the harm reduction NGOs coalition "Outreach" (Estonia), and deputy director of Humanitarian Action (St. Petersburg). He has written about substance use, hepatitis and HIV for Russian media outlets including RIA Novosti, AIDS.CENTER and TJournal. He is in long-term recovery from substance use issues. He lives in St. Petersburg. Matthew is the program coordinator with the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), and a National Board member with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). He’s a research coordinator, freelance writer and current drug user. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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