Abstract – Atmospheric Pressure: Russian drug policy as a driver for violations of the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Mikhail Golichenko and Anya Sarang

Health and Human Rights 15/1

Published June 2013


Background: Responding to problematic drug use in Russia, the government promotes a policy of “zero tolerance” for drug use and “social pressure” against people who use drugs (PWUD), rejecting effective drug treatment and harm reduction measures.

Objective/Methods: In order to assess Russian drug policy against the UN Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, we reviewed published data from government and non-governmental organizations, scientific publications, media reports, and interviews with PWUD.

Results: Drug-dependent people (DDP) are the most vulnerable group of PWUD. The state strictly controls all aspects of drug dependence. Against this background, the state promotes hatred towards PWUD via state-controlled media, corroding public perception of PWUD and of their entitlement to human rights. This vilification of PWUD is accompanied by their widespread ill-treatment in health care facilities, police detention, and prisons.

Discussion: In practice, zero tolerance for drug use translates to zero tolerance for PWUD. Through drug policy, the government deliberately amplifies harms associated with drug use by causing PWUD (especially DDP) additional pain and suffering. It exploits the particular vulnerability of DDP, subjecting them to unscientific and ideologically driven methods of drug prevention and treatment and denying access to essential medicines and services. State policy is to legitimize and encourage societal ill-treatment of PWUD.

Conclusion: The government intentionally subjects approximately 1.7 million people to pain, suffering, and humiliation. Aimed at punishing people for using drugs and coercing people into abstinence, the official drug policy disregards the chronic nature of drug dependence. It also ignores the ineffectiveness of punitive measures in achieving the purposes for which they are officially used, that is, public safety and public health. Simultaneously, the government impedes measures that would eliminate the pain and suffering of DDP, prevent infectious diseases, and lower mortality, which amount to systematic violations of Russia’s human rights obligations.