Russia is the world's biggest target market for heroin distribution, and consumes one-fifth of all heroin produced globally, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported last week. Now, every third person killed by the drug is Russian.
More than 90 per cent of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan, and the drug then floods into Russia across Central Asia's porous borders.
President Dmitry Medvedev has called the drug trade from Afghanistan "a threat to national security". With an estimated 2.5 million Russian addicts, heroin has created a "lost generation" here, Federal Drug Control Service chief Viktor Ivanov said last week. The UN findings prompted discussion of several new anti-narcotics bills in the Moscow City Duma and the Federation Council, but many remain sceptical that they will have any positive impact, or that the bills will even see the light of day.
An estimated 30,000 Russians die from heroin overdoses each year - more deaths than the Soviet Union suffered during its entire military campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Given Russia's demographic crisis, the 80 Russians dying from heroin overdoses per day also has serious implications for the country's economy, since the victims are largely of working age.
A demographic report by the United Nations Development Programme earlier this month argues that by 2025, Russia's population will almost certainly have dropped below 140 million, and could fall to as low as 128 million. Although the report cited alcohol abuse and a low birth rate as major factors, Russia's HIV/AIDS epidemic "due to the high levels of drug addiction" was also cited as a contributing factor.
Russia has often been criticised by European addiction specialists for banning the use of methadone, a heroin substitution drug commonly used in the West to wean addicts off the drug.
Sergei Polyatykin, head of the No to Alcohol and Drugs Programme Fund, said that the lack of methadone treatment was not the biggest problem. "The main point is that too many drug addicts are victimised in Russia. They don't have the means to get treatment and rehabilitate themselves, because state programmes and money are practically non-existent.
So it's very difficult for a person to give up," he said.
The Federation Council proposed that teenage addicts be legally required to follow anti-addiction courses until the age of 18 (up from 16). The rationale is that "doctors and teachers believe that ages 16 to 18 are the most dangerous for developing a dependency on harmful drugs," Federation Council Senator Lyudmila Narusova told Kommersant.
But Polyatykin remains unconvinced. "Up until 18, it's not about treatment, but rather about providing people with a social purpose for a sober way of life, skills, alternative behavioural stereotypes and the ability to live without drugs," he said.
Other, somewhat unambitious anti-narcotics proposals submitted to the City Duma by the capital's police force included making healthy lifestyle advertising at nightclubs mandatory, and introducing regular drug testing for nightclub staff. Increasing public awareness is clearly important, but testing is unfeasible. "Testing staff for drugs would simply be illegal," anti-narcotics campaigner Lev Levinson told Kommersant.
Levinson was sceptical about imposing anti-addiction treatment on older teenagers, pointing out that without their active desire to participate, "treatment would probably make them worse."
Currently, almost nine out of 10 heroin addicts return to drug abuse within a year of leaving rehab.
Reducing heroin addiction, however, also requires reducing supply. Narcotics traffickers are able to take advantage of rampant border corruption. Ivanov recently highlighted the lack of effective border control as a major problem, but also blamed NATO forces for doing "next to nothing" to halt drug production.
The spike in heroin production in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 has been a major source of tension between Moscow and Washington. While eradicating opium fields deprives Taliban forces of funding for their insurgency, it also drives local farmers toward the Taliban, since it deprives them of their main source of livelihood. In a major policy shift, Washington said in August that it would be targeting Afghan drug lords, rather than poppy eradication. But it remains to be seen whether this will reduce the flow of heroin into Russia.