Russia can do nothing about the supply of heroin to its citizens

The Russian Government thinks that drug use is “one of the biggest and most serious threats to our country’s development and our people’s health.” Dmitry Medvedev said this early this month at the international forum Drug Production in Afghanistan: A Challenge to the International Community. Russia is used to dealing with threats with a tough approach.

When there was a wave of kidnappings in Lebanon during the 1980s, those groups which chose to kidnap Russians soon found that they were dealing with an enemy who did not shirk from the use of violence to make a diplomatic point. Consequently Russia didn’t have a Terry Waite or a John McCarthy and the Russian Government seems to remain committed to a tough approach to many issues.

This month’s forum in Moscow on Afghan heroin production highlighted how weak Russia’s hand really is when it comes to tackle its citizens’ appetite for heroin, if it chooses to continue with its tough approach to drug policy.

What weakness and how did Russia Government signal it? Well think about how little the Russian Government can do about NATO’s apparent inaction on Afghan heroin. It has organised this month’s forum, advertised it on USA Today ranted about some kind of Afghan version of plan Columbia, handed over a hit list of suspected traffickers, talked about ‘counter drug rings’ around Afghanistan.

However the Russian President’s address to the conference made it clear what is really taking place.

Political games around what is without any exaggeration a common global problem are simply unacceptable as they undermine our common international efforts and weaken our entire anti-drugs coalition”.

Stopping the flow of Afghan heroin is not in the United States’ strategic interest. The trade in Afghan heroin hurts Russia and Iran the most, and neither of them are countries friendly to the United States. I am sure that if the Afghan traffickers manage to open up a really lucrative route into China’s emerging market they will be opening bottles of bubbly somewhere in Washington.

United States foreign policy has never bothered with its ‘moral duty ‘ to stop the drug trade when it conflicted with other more strategic foreign policy objectives. A brief look at the long and inglorious history of the CIA’s close working relationship with a narco-traffickers down the years from the Humong in Laos, through to Noriega and on to the Afghans and their battle with the Russians in the 1980s, should make the Russians realise that the hawks in the United States never had any intention of playing fair on this issue.

Perhaps the Russian Government will pin its hopes on assuming the leadership of the “war on drugs”, co-opt the UNODC through placing a Russian to replace Antonio Maria Costa and tackle the supply side problem that way.  This is dependent on any of the countries concerned taking the UNODC seriously. India’s attitude towards cannabis has always been dependent on its role in Hinduism. India is a big relatively powerful country and the UNODC doesn’t bother getting upset about cannabis being sold in shops licensed by the India Government. The Netherlands and Bolivia are relatively small, easy to bully countries and they get lent on quite heavily by the UNODC for any back sliding on coca or cannabis.

The UNODC isn’t threatening the United States over the creeping liberalisation of its cannabis laws and the United States is after all in ‘control’ in Afghanistan. Any powerful state or state with powerful allies has always been able to ignore the United Nations.

The Russian Government is clearly are unable to prevent heroin being smuggled across its borders, if it could it would have already done so.

This all leaves the Russian Government powerless to tackle the supply side of their heroin problem. The Iranian delegation at the 2009 meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs complained to anybody who would listen, that NATO forces would not act on intelligence the Iranians had given them on heroin laboratories or traffickers. Perhaps the Russians need to re-evaluate their strategy, take a leaf out of the Iranian’s book and attempt to tackle their heroin problem on the demand side with some OST and needle exchange.