Heroin of Our Times

Russia’s struggle with Afghanistan extends beyond the Soviet Union’s 1979 – 1989 occupation.  Today, it comes in the form of heroin, derived from Afghanistan’s opium poppies, flowing north through Central Asia.  Afghanistan is the source of around 80% of the world’s heroin, and Russia is the largest market.  Russian authorities estimate that 30,000 to 40,000 Russians die yearly to Afghan opiates, and that two and half million are addicted.  A central goal of Russian foreign policy has been to sever the drug trade from Afghanistan, but domestic policy has failed to reduce growing demand.

The Soviet Union’s collapse brought weaker border controls and a relaxing of authority, allowing youth with little entertainment and few employment opportunities to try heroin.  While concentrated in Siberia and the Far East, the epidemic has spread throughout Russia.  Typically, heroin travels from southern Afghanistan to Tajikistan, then through Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan.  Kazakhstan’s immense borders, nearly 7000 kilometers with Russia alone, make interdiction exceptionally difficult.  About 95% of opiates that reach Kazakhstan are successfully shipped on to Russia.  Currently, most shipments are small, but are increasing with time, suggesting growing concentration and capacity among trafficking groups.  Different organizations control various legs of the journey.  For instance, Tajik families use ethnic connections with northern Afghans to trade weapons for opium poppy or processed heroin, before selling their cargo to Russian criminal organizations operating in Kazakhstan.  The difficult terrain of Central Asia – Turkmeni deserts and the mountainous east – deters not only drug enforcement officials, but traffickers as well.  Most travel across the border at official crossings is done in private vehicles or small trucks, using bribery to pass through unhindered.  While the land route is the most common, heroin sometimes travels via Turkmeni or Kazakhstani ports on the Caspian Sea to Russia.  Russia has exerted itself diplomatically to halt the supply of poppies at the source and improve interdiction along these routes, but has failed to reduce demand domestically.

Image Courtesy of Defence Images, ©2010, some rights reserved.

Image Courtesy of Defence Images, ©2010, some rights reserved.

Since the US intervention in Afghanistan, Russia has pushed for the destruction of opium production.   Viktor Ivanov, the Director of the Federal Narcotics Service of Russia, has argued that severing the Taliban from its funding through the drug trade would expedite the war dramatically.  NATO has remained skeptical, arguing that the opiate trade was only one source of revenue among many for the Taliban.  Nevertheless, there were some success stories for the policy: a 2010 joint raid by Afghan troops, NATO Special Forces, and Russia drug enforcement agents destroyed four drug laboratories and one billion dollars of opiates.  US planes also sprayed herbicides on several major poppy plantations during 2007-2009.  However, the US has largely remained intransigent, unwilling to divert combat troops to eliminate poppies or to alienate the Afghan farmers growing them.

Russia has had more success in intercepting heroin shipments, and promoting cooperation among the Central Asian republics.  Using its Soviet-era ties, it was able to create a military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), encompassing all of the Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan left in 2012).  The CSTO has allowed for joint Special Forces training and cooperative drug busts that now frequently yield above 100 kilograms of opiates.   The US was willing to share border security equipment and expertise with Central Asian nations, but Russia, wary of increasing US influence in the region, demanded that aid be directed through the CSTO.  America refused, and the measure came to nothing.  Existing funding and technical cooperation is usually mitigated by extensive corruption among Central Asian border guards.  Thus, day-to-day heroin shipments continue largely unhindered, punctuated only by relatively large busts by Special Forces.

Russian has played an active role abroad in combating its heroin crisis, but its measures at home range from nonexistent to counterproductive.  Draconian punishments prevent addicts from seeking aid, while police corruption prevents effective enforcement.  The state does not fund any needle distribution or exchange centers, which reduce the chance of HIV transmission through shared needles, and the few operated by Western charities are frequently harassed by authorities.   Russia is one of three countries in the world to ban the use of methadone for drug-substitution therapy.  Methadone, an opiate, is used to wean addicts off of heroin.  This offers addicts a substitute that can only be administered in controlled doses by medical professionals.  It also diminishes the excruciating effects of heroin withdrawal.  Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s drug enforcement agency, believes that methadone use is simply exposing heroin users to another addictive substance.

In the end, a different alternative may be the major disruption to the Central Asian heroin trade.  Rising heroin prices and pervasive joblessness in the impoverished Russian provinces has led to the creation of a cheaper substitute drug: Krokodil.   Krokodil is named after the Russian word for crocodile, because it causes users’ skin to turn green and scaly with gangrene.  Glassy eyes and brain damage are also common; prolonged use results in death.  Most ingredients are easily accessible: gasoline, lighter fluid, eye drops, and red phosphorous from matchboxes.  New legislation has prohibited over-the-counter sales of codeine tablets, the final component, but they are still readily available in pharmacies and easily obtained through bribery.  The recipe can be found online.   More potent than heroin, cheaper, and simple to make at home, Krokodil is a powerful danger to the Central Asian opiate trade and Russia’s health.

Opiate use in Russia, whether with heroin or Krokodil, poses a long term threat to its great power aspirations.  Death via overdose, AIDS from shared needles, or the horrifying effects of krokodil kill more Russians per year than died in the entire Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.   These deaths, concentrated amongst the young, exacerbate the aging of society and Russia’s low birth rate, increasing the absolute decline in Russia’s population.  The drug trade furthers criminality and already endemic corruption within Russia.  Russia’s inability to stem the flow of drugs northward through Central Asia casts doubts on its power projection abilities.  There are no easy solutions – Afghan leaders will have little incentive to destroy opium crops or narcotics laboratories after NATO leaves, Central Asian borders will remain porous for some time, and the Putin administration’s suspicions of Western charities prevents large-scale aid from abroad.   Eliminating counterproductive policies like the ban on methadone would be a good first step.  For now though, Russian drug officials will continue to cry Krokodil tears for the affliction of addicts in need of help.