A response to Bushka Bryndova‘s letter to Vladimir Putin by Czech drug experts and activists
18 November 2014
Dear ENCOD members,
The Czech activists and persons involved in drug policy, signed below, would like to express their concerns over the recent letter to Vladimir Putin, written by a Czech activist Bushka Bryndova, published on the ENCOD website and probably sent in the name of ENCOD to the Russian president.
First of all, as the citizens of the Czech Republic, we would like to correct a false statement about the popularity of Russian president Putin in our country.
In the letter, Mrs. Bryndova says: “I have joined the Facebook group ‘Přátelé Ruska v České republice’ (Friends of Russia in the Czech Republic), a few times mentioned in the Russian media. Its ranks are constantly growing; we have already over 7000 members, which is more than many political parties in our country.”
It is extremely weird to compare number of fans of any Facebook (furthermore FB) page with membership in political parties; however, the statement itself is not true even if we would take this comparison seriously.
The 7,000 members of this particular FB group (most of whom are communist supporters who hate the current Czech democratic political system) is about three times less than, e.g., membership in the FB group of the Czech Green Party – and even this party is one of the minor players if we look at election data in the past 5 years.
Also, recent polls showed that about 65–80 % of the Czechs consider Putin and his regime a significant threat to peace in Europe and a danger to our country. The obvious reason is that overwhelming majority of Czech citizens prefers democracy over a totalitarian political system.
Secondly, the letter is supposed to be a balanced plea to change drug policies in Russia, however, it lacks any sign of critical attitude towards the current drug situation and policies in the Russian Federation. Instead, it praises and fawns on Putin and his regime several times and makes several claims that, compared to the reality, are actually very naïve, to say the least.
One of many striking examples is Bryndova’s request to “adopt the harm reduction programs that have already been established in Sevastopol, Simferopol etc. I am talking about 140 people who were involved in the methadone substitution program. Looking at the situation from a purely scientific, technical aspect, Russia has the opportunity now to take advantage of this situation and carry out a pilot experience that could be of great value to the modernization of its drug policy.”
The real situation is that the Russian government has already failed to use this “opportunity” – utterly and totally. Immediate closure of all the methadone programs in the occupied/annexed Crimea (and the ones in Sevastopol and Simferopol as the very first ones, actually) occurred by 25 May 2014 and led to – at least – 20 deaths of patients of this treatment already.
While the international organizations such as the Council of Europe are not allowed to make any assessment of the situation at the occupied Crimea or even to entry the peninsula (Ritter, C., Welle-Strand, G., Habrat, B., & Pustoslemšek, M. (2014). Substitution maintenance treatment in Ukraine: Humanitarian and medical mission 16 – 21 May 2014 (pp. 32). Strasbourgh: Council of Europe – Pompidou Group), these official data published by authorities of the Russian Federation are most probably heavily underestimated. What is known for sure is that most of the OST patients in annexed Crimea were not provided by any medical service or social assistance, and they continue to pay their death toll.
Do the author and the Steering Committee of ENCOD (who co-signed the letter) not know about the real situation? Or why do they present us with this kind of dramatically late request while in the reality Russian drug policies have already shown their “best” in this region? The deaths and suffering of drug users and their dear ones are to be directly attributed to the Russian “opportunity” to practice their drug policies in a way predicted by major public health scholar and prominent drug users’ rights activist immediately after Russia annexed Crimea (Kazatchkine, M. (2014). Russia’s ban on methadone for drug users in Crimea will worsen the HIV/AIDS epidemic and risk public health (Vol. 348)).
The opioid substitution/maintenance treatment (furthermore OST) is prohibited by a special law in Russia, despite it is globally widely recognized as the most successful and the most cost effective treatment of opiate addiction and problem use of opioids (World Health Organisation. (2014). Consolidated guidelines on HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care for key populations. Geneve: World Health Organisation. – World Health Organisation, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, & Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. (2012). Technical guide for countries to set targets for universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care for injecting drug users – 2012 revision. Geneve: WHO. World Health Organisation, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, & Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. (2008). Principles of Drug Dependence Treatment Discussion Papers (1st ed., pp. 32). Vienna: UNODC.)
Russian system of addiction treatment – so called “narcology” that maintains all the obsolete paradigms of its communists founders – deliberately and systematically misinterprets the global consensus on the effectiveness of OST and loses tens of thousands of human lives every year because of bizarre “narcological ideology” that has nothing to do with either medicine or science.
As for the results of Russian drug policy, it is enough to know that the Russian Federation leads injecting drug use prevalence in Eastern Europe and central Asia at 2.29%, and that from 18 to 31% of Russian drug users are infected by HIV (UNAIDS. (2014). GAP Report (pp. 432). Geneve: UNAIDS.)
This represents probably the largest per capita number of injection drug use worldwide with the Russian population of injectors being most infected by HIV. It is far too obvious that the largest – and still growing – extra-African HIV epidemic that swipes through Russia is a dire and direct consequence of failed Russian drug policy.
The data above clearly show that the Russian drug policy is among the most harmful ones in the world, that it inflicts harms both to the drug users and to the society as a whole, and – taking into account the large migrations both from Russia and into it – it is also endangering the drug using and non-using populations in neighboring and even more distant countries. It is difficult to believe that Mrs. Bryndová does not know these facts that are very crucial for any debate that aims to change the situation for better.
We feel that the whole concept of the letter and the choice of words are based merely on personal admiration of. Mrs. Bryndová to Putin (for whatever reasons) and lacks any evidence-based data, personal experience and reflection of the reality. To a degree larger than small, it resembles the omnipresent communist propaganda of the 1980’s Czechoslovakia (and Soviet Union), as it similarly displays a divine (communist) political leader capable of starting a global change in the course of war on drugs, being so far misled by some bad counsellors – but who, if enlightened, will use its supernatural powers “properly”. In fact, Mr. Putin is one of the most prominent prohibitionists in the global drug policy scene, constantly attempting to block any steps to more sane, more human and more effective drug policies anywhere in the world.
Anyone who wants to get a real picture of what Putin drug policies look like and most likely will until the end of his reign, should read the article “Russia’s Drug Users Have a Right to Needles, Methadone, Dignity” by Anya Sarang, the president of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice in Moscow. Anya Sarang, real Russian field worker activist who works with real, suffering drug users, would obviously like Putin to change the policies at least as much as Mrs. Bryndova and all of us do, yet she shows the need for change by showing reliable facts and valid data rather than naïve and false claims and non-critical admiration of the Russian president.
Besides, Bushka Bryndova contradicts her own words when she criticizes the West and its financial interests: The illicit drug trade is a key engine behind organised crime, and the bulk of its revenues is under control of powerful financial interests well established in the Western World, and then quotes Colorado’s legalization as an example for Putin to follow.
We all agree that the West is far from being perfect when it comes to drug policies and human rights. There is certainly no need to argue over that.
However, we believe that Russia has been not only blindly following the ill-conceived Western drug policies – it has happily adopted them to a full extent when it was directed to a harsher prohibition and more punitive approach, but pretends to be dumb and deaf when the development has turned counterwise. Bushka Bryndova is therefore asking Putin to do the exact opposite of what he personally and his governments have been doing and saying for years.
It is not just the distortion of facts that is alarming. We are also upset by the overall tone of the letter, with statements such as “status of a world power that rightfully belongs to [Russia]”, “[Putin becoming president] was a blessed choice for [Russia]”, and so on. That’s considerably more than just being polite. That is ENCOD’s toadying to a dictator that represents one of biggest current threats to peace. It is evident that Bushka Bryndova admires Mr. Putin greatly. We can hardly understand that (with regard to the opposite views on drug policies, at the very least), but we can and will respect that – it is her personal opinion. However, we are saddened by the fact that the ENCOD Steering Committee supports and endorses a letter that feels like a textbook example of heavily biased pro-Russian propaganda that uses lies as legitimate tools. The fact that the Western countries are far from being flawless is not really an excuse for idealizing and misinforming about the situation in Russian Federation that is, by any indicator, far worse than in the West.
That is why we, the Czech drug experts and activists, feel obliged to reflect on the tone and content of the letter written by a fellow Czech activist, to reject it and to clearly state that albeit signed by ENCOD St. Committee, it strictly contradicts the opinions of Czech activists in the field, and the Czech nation as whole.
With best regards,
Lukáš Hurt, M.A. – activist, translator, editor and journalist, ENCOD member
Hana Gabrielová, B.A. – a former member of ENCOD Steering Committee and activist, ENCOD member
Tomáš Zábranský, M.D., Ph. D. – medical doctor and drug epidemiologist, expert on drug situation in former Soviet Union countries, medical cannabis expert, advocate of rights of drug users and medical cannabis patients
Pavel Kubů, M.D. – addictologist, medical cannabis expert, patient advocate and legalization supporter
Robert Hýsek, M.A. – activist, translator and editor
Lukáš Pokorný – activist and journalist
Michal Řehák, M.A. – activist and journalist
Leopold Svatý – activist and former Drug War prisoner