Lawmakers in the former Soviet Union are seeking to impose harsher criminal penalties for drug-related “propaganda,” especially online. Their efforts are ostensibly supposed to keep people from promoting drug use. But local advocates fear that this approach will persecute those doing harm reduction work for people using drugs or living with HIV/AIDS.
On March 3, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association (EHRA) published a review of legislative efforts in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan targeting drug-related “propaganda.” In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has urged lawmakers to adopt new anti-drug propaganda measures. In October, he demanded that they “Introduce amendments to the Russian Federation law to establish criminal liability for inducing others [to use], or for promoting … narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or their analogs using the Internet.”
In response, state lawmakers introduced a measure that would punish drug-related “propaganda” with a fine of between RUB100,000-500,000 ($1,500-7,500); or a fine equal to the defendant’s income for three years; or a sentence of between 2-5 years in prison. For propaganda spread through the internet or digitally, fines and sentences increase dramatically.
EHRA explains why these proposed laws may be problematic: “The ‘rubber’ definition of the prohibited drug propaganda may be applied to any opioid substitution therapy advocacy: ‘It is prohibited to promote any benefits of using particular narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, their analogs or precursors, as well as new potentially harmful psychoactive substances, and plants used as a source of drugs, that suppress a person’s will and can become detrimental to a person’s mental or physical health.’”
EHRA clarifies that existing criminal statutes on drug-related “propaganda” are rarely enforced. But it cites recent examples of two websites that published articles about harm reduction practices for synthetic cathinones and the economic effects of marijuana legalization, respectively, and were fined by the Russian government.
EHRA describes some of the more concerning outcomes if lawmakers pass the new proposals: “The new regulations would be used in a systematic way to ‘tighten the screws’ and to prosecute for publishing items featuring international practices and experiences in the spheres of decriminalization and legalization of drugs, substitution therapy, criticism of criminal investigations of ‘drug smuggling’ in relation to the delivery of medicine shipments from abroad, etc. […] It is worth noting that the existing legislation and judicial practice in Russia provides all the necessary tools that the authorities may need for the implementation of the ‘strict’ scenario.”
Similar legislative efforts in Ukraine commenced in January, but don’t go as far as the Russian proposals. “It is highly unlikely that [the Ukrainian proposals] can be applied to restrain harm reduction programs and other social programs developed for people who use drugs (including opioid substitution therapy programs) in Ukraine,” EHRA states.
However, EHRA cautions that the Ukrainian provisions, if passed into law, could still target those who advocate for drug policy reform or disseminate writing and media focused on people who use drugs. “These regulatory provisions could be potentially harmful to freedom of speech if used to restrict public debate on socially important issues […] Participants of such public discussions on acute issues may face criminal charges which can be arbitrary as it is undertaken at the discretion of the law enforcement agent.”
In Kazakhstan, lawmakers have already passed new drug “propaganda” measures into law. EHRA predicts that these will have little effect on existing harm reduction work in the country. But as in Ukraine, they may undermine free speech rights of organizations or activists who speak about drug policy reform: Drug “propaganda,” per the Kasakhstan measures, now includes “information on narcotic drugs with the aim to develop positive or tolerant attitudes towards illicit trafficking and drug use among any groups or persons.”
Harm reduction advocates worldwide should be sounding the alarm about political efforts to suppress speech or activity that can save people’s lives—especially in countries with such significant substance use disorder and HIV infection rates.