Issues of Drug Abuse in Russia

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Substance abuse is a constantly escalating problem in Russia. To date, approximately 2.5 million[1] Russian citizens are battling an addiction to drugs alone with little to no resources for treatment. Apart from dependency, an estimated 8.5 million are abusing illicit narcotics and psychotropic drugs.[2] Alcoholism is also a serious issue, with more than 20 million Russians being dependent on booze.[3]
Russia Drug Abuse stat

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol or an illicit drug. The signs and symptoms of substance addiction include:

  • Failure to decrease substance abuse or quit altogether
  • Using to avoid experiencing symptoms of withdrawal
  • Continual use of the substance despite the occurrence of negative consequences to the user’s health, career, family, etc.
  • Withdrawing from social activities that the user once enjoyed, and opting to use drugs or alcohol instead
  • Risky behavior while under the influence
  • Denial
  • Maintaining a large supply of the drug yet still being preoccupied with securing more and always having access to it
  • Legal ramifications do not persuade the user to stop or cut back
  • Using more of the substance than they used in the past in order to achieve the same effect
  • Troubles with money due to overspending on drug or alcohol supplies
  • Secretive behavior[4]

Alcohol in Russia

With Russia producing a significant portion of the world’s vodka, it stands to reason that the clear and potent intoxicant is popular among Russians, but what cost does overindulgence come at? In 2011, each Russian adult consumed about 13 liters of pure alcohol, and eight of those were liquor — primarily vodka.[5] Alcohol abuse and dependency are significant issues in Russia, and the consequences can be dire. Every year, over 23,000 people die of alcohol poisoning in Russia, and another 75,000 meet their demise due to alcohol-related diseases.[6]

The picture of addiction in Russia isn’t a pleasant one, and many would agree that being a citizen of the country might be risk factor for addiction in and of itself. Addiction plagues many, but certain individuals are at heightened risk. Children of alcoholics, for example, are at a nearly fourfold increased risk for alcohol dependence as an adult.[7] It is presumed that there are both genetic and environmental precursors in said situations, the latter of which is clearly predominant in Russian culture. Among young Russian men, experts believe 25 percent won’t make it to the age of 55 if alcohol consumption continues at the same rate it has been.[8]

Popular Drugs Among Russians

Unfortunately, it is the harder substances that are most popular in Russia, and injection is the primary method of drug abuse. In fact, there are more injection drug users per capita in Russia than most other parts of the world.[9] Of the staggering number of people addicted to drugs in Russia, 90 percent are using heroin.[10] The majority of the opioid substance supply is being trafficked in from Afghanistan, where nearly 75 percent of the global heroin supply is produced.[11] Of the 375 tons of heroin that Afghanistan produces, 21 percent of it ends up in Russia.[12]

Heroin in russia stat
Heroin is a highly addictive substance that can trap some users in a cycle of abuse after only one exposure. An estimated 100,000 Russian citizens lose their lives to heroin use and abuse every year.[13] The lack of education and needle-sharing intervention programs in Russia has helped contribute to the growing epidemic of HIV diagnoses in the nation. In 2009 alone, there were 60,000 newly diagnosed HIV infected individuals in Russia, up eight percent from the year prior.[14] In addition, 90 percent of injection drug users in Russia have hepatitis C.[15]

Another popular drug is krokodil, with about one million avid users of the drug living in Russia.[16] The drug burst onto the scene in 2002 as an alternative to heroin that could be easily concocted by anyone with a codeine supply. Since then, it has grown to be increasingly more common among youths. Composed of toxic ingredients like paint thinner and iodine, krokodil is referenced as a “corrosive acid with opiate effects,” and regular use of the drug can put you in your grave within two years’ time.[17] In the first quarter of 2011, Russia’s counternarcotics agency intercepted 65 million doses of the drug.[18]

Spice is also gaining some ground in the Russian drug market. Known by many names, the synthetic drug is an alternative to marijuana — a composition of dried leafy material that is sprayed with a synthetic THC chemical-copycat. Spice is increasingly producing greater risks and more serious side effects than natural cannabis demonstrates. At least 24 Russians have died and another 700 have been hospitalized due to using spice.[19]

Mental Health

Whether aware of an illness or not, about 165 million Europeans struggle with mental health disorders.[20] Elaborating on that, 43 to 120 of 100,000 European citizens were determined to have both a psychiatric diagnosis and substance abuse problem — a dual diagnosis situation.[21] Mental illness isn’t embraced by Russians. In Russia, it is common for the mentally ill to be placed in boarding homes with others who have difficulty caring or providing for themselves, such as the elderly or physically disabled. Many spend years and even lifetimes trying to cope with symptoms on their own — a feat that often leads them to supplementary self-medication practices, like drug or alcohol abuse.

Russian Laws

The earlier in life one starts using, the more likely it is that they will be an addict someday; this is especially true when it comes to alcohol. Actually, people who start drinking before they’re 15 years old are five times more likely to be an alcoholic or alcohol abuser someday than those who abstain until they’re 21 years old.[22] Data like this makes Russian drinking laws questionable since citizens begin drinking around the age of 11, on average.[23]

Russia drinking age

It’s been easy for kids to drink booze, because there is no legal drinking age in place. Additionally, although minors aren’t allowed to buy alcohol, most claim they’ve never had a problem doing such, noting that regulations for alcohol sales aren’t very stringent. While there isn’t definitive evidence that heavy alcohol consumption is a precursor for criminal behavior among the Russian population, there is a statistical significance between the two, with an approximate 0.25 percent escalation in homicides associated with a one percent escalation in regional alcohol consumption.[24]

It is quite likely that this fault in the Russian legislation contributed greatly to the rampant alcohol abuse and addiction among Russian youths. Hence, the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in recent years, and alcoholic beverages like beer — that were formerly considered as food in the eyes of the law — were upgraded to an alcohol status.[25] In addition, alcohol can no longer be sold between 11 pm and 8 am or at all by street vendors.[26]

Crime in Russia stat

With limited border control and a large illegal immigrant population, Russia’s legislation for the regulation of drugs isn’t much better. Recent reforms to drug crime penalties mean people who possess small amounts of illegal drugs are no longer faced with the prospect of doing any time in jail. Among the 850,000 people in Russian prisons and jails, approximately 200,000 to 300,000 are there for drug crimes,[27] and the majority of them are there for trafficking-related acts. Of the 108,700 Russians convicted of drug-related crimes in 2013, 18-29 year olds accounted for 66 percent of them.[28]

The exportation of synthetic drugs from northern Russia via online purchases is completely legal due to the lack of restrictions and drug policy in the country. Other drugs — like prescription phenazepam — are following suit and being purchased by people all over the UK and other parts of Europe where the drug isn’t controlled.[29] While the possession, transportation, and manufacturing of marijuana has remained illegal in Russia, all counts have been decriminalized except for the sale of illegal substances. Thus, amounts below six grams with no intent to sell are only punishable by small fines. That being said, penalties for the trafficking of other substances are increasing — potentially the only plus side to the drug reform currently taking place in Russia.

Russian Drug Culture

Alcohol Vodka

Binge drinking is commonplace among Russians, with one study reporting six percent of females and 44 percent of males consuming at least 25 cl of vodka in on sitting, and three percent of females and 31 percent of men admitting to doing such at least once per month.[30] Drug overdoses have tripled in Russia since 2012.[31]

Overall, drugs and alcohol are embraced in Russia. Not only are treatment options limited, but preventative measures don’t account for much either. There are no structured program models advocating for drug and alcohol abstinence in Russia like there are in America. You won’t visit Russian elementary schools and hear anything along the lines of “just say no.” Alcohol consumption is a part of daily life. The lifestyle trickles down through every generation and has only seemed to propagate itself since the decimation of the USSR.


Options for drug and alcohol treatment in Russia are limited. The withdrawal process is the first step and detox isn’t comfortable, especially for the common heroin addict. A reported 90 percent of heroin addicts who complete treatment still relapse afterward.[32] One treatment method for heroin addiction is the administration of naltrexone — an opiate antagonist that inhibits the brain’s ability to feel the effects of opiate drugs by essentially blocking the impact such drugs have on opiate receptors.

A 2013 clinical trial based in St. Petersburg, Russia, churned out impressive results. An implanted device released a continual dose of naltrexone to patients participating in the trial, and over 50 percent of them maintained abstinence over the six-month trial period.[33] Despite the popularity and efficacy of methadone in other nations, it is banned for use in Russia. Even speaking about the drug in attempts to promote it can be punishable by the law.

Treatment options for other drug addictions, in addition to heroin, are sparse. There are only a handful of government-run facilities and they carry other risks as reports of physical abuse and unfavorable medical practices — like the heavy overmedication of patients — continue to rise to the surface. Privately run substance abuse facilities can cost as much as $230 per day, something most Russians just can’t afford.[34]

Among alcohol abusers specifically, there is the risk of delirium tremens, which is a condition that can bring about hallucinations, an anxious mood, a disoriented state of being and tremors. DTs is most common in individuals who consume four to five pints of wine, seven to eight pints of beer, or one pint of liquor daily over the course of many months, as well as those who have endured an alcohol habit or dependence for over a decade.[35] The addition of benzodiazepines as a treatment mechanism during alcohol withdrawal has aided in significantly decreasing both the occurrence of DTs and the risk of fatality due to it.


[1] Mirovalev, M. (2012 July 12). “Russia Drug Abuse Top Problem, According to Poll.” Huffington Post. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[2]Over 8 Million Russians are Drug Addicts-Govt Report.” (2013 Sept 17). RIA Novosti. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[3] Fedun, S. (2013 Sept 25). “How Alcohol Conquered Russia.” The Atlantic. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[4]All About Addiction.” (n.d.). Medical News Today. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[5] Mazumdar, T. (2014 Jan 31). “Vodka blamed for high death rates in Russia.” BBC News. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[6] Villarreal, R. (2013 Feb 7). “Last Call: Russia Aims to Sober Up With Proposal To Raise Drinking Age.” International Business Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[7]A Family History of Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?.” (June 2012). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[8] Villarreal, R. (2013 Feb 7). “Last Call: Russia Aims to Sober Up With Proposal To Raise Drinking Age.” International Business Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[9]International – Russian Federation.” (n.d.). Drug War Facts. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[10] Mirovalev, M. (2012 July 12). “Russia Drug Abuse Top Problem, According to Poll.” Huffington Post. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[11]Heroin production hits record levels in Afghanistan – study.” (2014 May 1). RT. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[12] Ferris-Rotman, A. (2011 Jan 25). “Special report: In Russia, a glut of heroin and denial.” Reuters. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[13] Balmforth, T. (2013 Oct 21). “Russia’s Heroin Habit.” Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[14] Schwirtz, M. (2011 Jan 16). “Inadequate Fight Against Drugs Hampers Russia’s Ability to Curb H.I.V..” The New York Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[15]International – Russian Federation.” (n.d.). Drug War Facts. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[16] Castillo, M. (2013 Oct 22). “Krokodil use reportedly spreading: What makes dangerous drug so addictive?.” CBS News. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[17] DiSalvo, D. (2013 Dec 10). “Why are millions addicted to a drug that eats the flesh off their bones?” Forbes Magazine. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[18] Shuster, S. (2013 Dec 5). “The World’s Deadliest Drug: Inside a Krokodil Cookhouse.” TIME LightBox. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[19] Noack, R. (2014 Oct 23). “’Spice’: The new drug craze that is killing people in Russia.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[20] Kelland, K. (2011 Sept 4). “Nearly 40 percent of Europeans suffer mental illness.” Reuters. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[21]Co-morbid substance use and mental disorders in Europe: a review of the data.” (2013). European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[22]Frequently Asked Questions and Facts.” (n.d.). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[23] Villarreal, R. (2013 Feb 7). “Last Call: Russia Aims To Sober Up With Proposal To Raise Drinking Age.” International Business Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[24] Pridemore, W.A. (December 2002). “Vodka and Violence: Alcohol Consumption and Homicide Rates in Russia.” American Journal of Public Health. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[25] Kostyukov, D. (2012 Dec 31). “Beer now considered alcohol, not food, in Russia as new restrictions take hold.” NBC News. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[26] Villarreal, R. (2013 Feb 7). “Last Call: Russia Aims To Sober Up With Proposal To Raise Drinking Age.” International Business Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[27]Russia’s New Drug Law in Effect: No Jail for Drug Users, Greater Penalties for Drug Traffickers.” (2004 Mar 12). Accessed October 25, 2014.

[28]Russian Drug Service Sees Overdoses Triple.” (2014 July 7). The Moscow Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[29]Warning over legal Russian drug phenazepam.” (2011 July 2). BBC News. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[30] Bobak, M., McKee, M., Rose, R. & Marmot, M. (June 1999). “Alcohol consumption in a national sample of the Russian population.” Journal of Addiction. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[31]Russian Drug Service Sees Overdoses Triple.” (2014 July 7). The Moscow Times. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[32] Jesudason, T. (2014 Aug 5). “Crimea’s Heroin Addicts Are Dying Under Russian Drug Laws.” Vice News. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[33]Naltrexone Implant Outperforms Daily Pill in Russian Trial.” (2013 Nov 22). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[34]Millions of Russian Drug Addicts Have No Rehab, Little Hope.” (n.d.). The Fix. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[35]Delirium tremens.” (n.d.). Medline Plus. Accessed October 25, 2014.


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