Russia Seeks International Anti-Methadone Coalition Ahead of UNGASS

Russia could be looking to build an international coalition to whip up support for ending access to methadone in the run up to the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

Russian newspaper Kommersant reported earlier this month of a written exchange between Russia and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the latter's position on opioid substitution therapy (OST). According to Kommersant, Russia's State Duma -- parliament's lower house -- is concerned with WHO's advocacy of OST medications such as methadone in light of Russia's annual contributions to the UN agency.

Methadone, a drug that Federal Drug Control Service Director Viktor Ivanov recently described as a “murderous treatment” that “violates the right to health,” is banned in Russia, with its use and/or distribution punishable by up to 20 years in prison. WHO list it as an essential medicine and the agency reiterated its stance in support of OST in its reply to Russia.

Conflict between WHO and Russia over methadone certainly comes as no surprise. However, concerning is news in the Kommersant article that Russia is seeking to amplify its opposition to OST ahead of next April's UNGASS through building a coalition against these vital medicines.

An official from the State Duma told Kommersant that such a coalition may include certain Arab states which similarly oppose OST, while Anya Sarang, head of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, suggested that within the region countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- both of whom already don't allow OST -- could be potential allies.

Concerns have been raised, though, that participating states in the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union like Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Kazakhstan, may also be persuaded to follow Russia in condemning OST. Georgia and eastern Ukraine, whose national policy landscapes are heavily influenced by prevailing drug use and treatment discourses in the region, could also be impacted.

Russia's vehement opposition to proven harm reduction measures have been disastrous, with the methadone ban, lack of access to clean needles and syringes, and the severe human rights abuses perpetrated against people who use drugs creating a public health crisis. For example, since 2010 the number of Russians living with HIV has nearly doubled from 500,000 to 930,000, AFP reported. Vadim Pokrovsky, head of Russia’s Federal Aids Center, blamed the country's conservative policies, including the lack of OST and sex education, for this and told AFP that the number of people with HIV could rise to three million in the next five years.

If Russia is able to expand its political and economic influence regionally and convince states to clamp down on OST there is a huge risk that its health crisis could be replicated in other countries that currently implement harm reduction. It will be vital, therefore, that any coalition that comes to fruition before UNGASS be forcefully opposed by UN member states to ensure Russia's pseudo-science on OST isn't able to proliferate.