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The Russian People’s Initiative Against Strict Drug Law, Article 228

Russia has – per capita – the highest number of people imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe, most of whom are convicted under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code – nicknamed the “people’s” article because of the large number of people imprisoned under it. According to newspaper Vedomosti, young people between 18 and 29 constitute the largest group of people convicted by Article 228.

Elena from Moscow, an activist from the reformist movement People’s Initiative against Articles 228 and 228.1, told TalkingDrugs that her son was arrested while in possession of 55 grams of amphetamines that he manufactured for himself.

This piece was originally published in Russian for TalkingDrugs.

He had problematic drug use and was charged with drug possession, however, a week prior to his court hearing, his case was re-evaluated by prosecutors; he was instead charged with “preparation to sell”, and was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison. A very similar case was described in a story by the Russian online publication, Snob.

“With our laws, there’s no need for prosecutors and investigators to provide evidence of the fact of selling drugs in order to convict a person”, Elena claims. “In 2006, […] the Supreme Court […] clarified the articles of the Criminal Code and de facto equalled ‘a preparation or an attempt to sell drugs’ with ‘selling drugs’”.

Following this change, Elena says, young people began to receive increasingly draconian sentences. “There are around half a million such cases in Russia, but official statistics try to hide this figure,” she added.

According to data gathered by the People’s Initiative activists, one in 30 young people in Russia has been convicted under Articles 228 and 228.1 of the Criminal Code. According to official data from the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia and the Court Department of the Supreme Court, people incarcerated for drug offences make up around one third of all inmates in Russian prisons.

According to the People Initiative’s manifesto “Enough!” hundreds of thousands of young people often go to jails because of false accusation, and for crimes which do not harm public order. Activists state that the sentences that many receive are not proportionate to the crimes committed; the sentences run counter to principles of humanity, they say, and often violate human rights. The group’s activists also claim that mass falsifications of evidence take place during drug cases.

Despite the vast number of convictions for drug crimes in Russia, the movement for reform is not particularly large. Elena says that parents whose children are currently imprisoned for drugs are very scared and often do not have expertise to analyse the situation critically, or to fight for the changes. But there continue to be activists who are eager to get to the roots of the problem, and to help their children as well as other young people.

Olga from Moscow has been waiting for her son to return from prison for two and a half years. When he was 19, he was arrested with two grams of hash and imprisoned for five years.

“During the court hearings I started to dig into the legislation details, found similar cases of other young people, and was shocked to realise that there is an entire system, which works like a conveyer. There’s nothing you can prove and there are no rules in this game. Normal, home-raised children go to jails for huge sentences,” Olga told TalkingDrugs.

“Yes, there are parents, who are ready to fight for their kids. They seek each other’s support, they file appeals,” she added, “but in my memory there was not a single case, when somebody was released [early] from prison [because of their family’s appeals]”.

Activists of another campaign group, “STOP 228”, are now providing legal aid to people whose relatives were imprisoned for drug crimes. They also gather and publicise recommendations for the reform of Russian drug legislation, and organise rallies and protest actions. 

Olga believes that the state’s implementation of Article 228 in Russia is partly political.  “Effectiveness of the law-enforcement in our country is measured by the number of young people put behind iron bars,” she told us. “When thousands and thousands of well-educated and smart young people receive such draconian prison sentences, it is genocide, and a wish to control the whole generation. The regime is scared of them, because all revolutions are made by the young.”

In this regard, Olga sees direct connection between political actions and rebellions in Russia which mostly involve young people, and the recent searches for drugs, conducted in high schools and universities across Russia, as well compulsory testing for drug use among students. For example, according to newspaper Коmmersant, students of the St. Petersburg State University of Telecommunications state that they are forced by university staff and police officers to sign an agreement for “voluntary” drug testing, and are threatened with fines and expulsion from the university if they fail such tests.

“Repressive drug policies does not lead to a decrease in drug use, because people who use drugs need support and treatment, not imprisonment”, Elena says. “In Russia, all unofficial types of treatment of drug dependency are very costly, and most of the families cannot afford them. If someone who uses drugs opts to visit state drug rehabilitation centres instead, they will be forced to register as “drug users”, preventing them from getting a job or a driver’s license.  The scariest possibility is that you can then be stopped by the police and given a criminal punishment any day”.

“Under this situation, people simply do not reach out for medical and social support,” Elena warned. “Only the decriminalisation of drug use and personal drug possession, as well as the introduction of accessible rehabilitation programs for young people, can change this situation”.

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