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Brave young people had enough of harsh drug laws in Belarus and fight back. They found allies in the mothers of drug convicts, who went on hunger strike to demand an end to the war on their sons.

Drugreporter: How would you describe the illicit drug market in Belarus? What are the most popular substances – and are there new trends in the market?

Piotr Markiełaŭ: Before 2014, when the sadly famous law №6 “On urgent measures to counter illegal drug trafficking” was signed by the president, synthetic cannabinoids, also known as “spice”, were extremely popular and accounted for up to 90% of the market (data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Today their popularity has decreased mostly because of the media that covered a number of incidents, when people gouged out their eyes or jumped from the roofs under its influence. Marijuana, hash, amphetamine, and opium subsequently made a comeback. Synthetic stimulants (like alpha-PVP) still remain quite popular and are sold on most of the online markets. Another common phenomena is buying prescribed medicines (like Tramadol), that are sold to feigning patients.

Drug laws are quite draconian in Belarus. Can you explain us what sanctions people face if they are arrested for drug use? Were there any changes in the legislation recently?

Today every third prisoner in Belarus is convicted under article 328 of the criminal code, “Illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, their precursors and analogues”. It is the most popular reason for going to prison, responsible for approximately 15 thousand people in prisons and penal colonies.

Article 328 implies imprisonment for up to 5 years for manufacture, processing, purchase, storage, transportation or shipment of any amount of the controlled substance with no intention to distribute, up to 10 years with intention to distribute, and up to 25 years when the crime is committed with aggravating circumstances. 8 years in prison is a common term for people who visit a friend’s house with 1g of marijuana to smoke together, which counts as distribution. No fact of distribution even has to be proved. The judge often decides that the accused had an intent to distribute based on the fact that scales or plastic bags were found during the search. I can remember the case when a student was imprisoned for 12 years for buying 2 pills of ecstasy for her friend.

Another widespread practice is the recruitment of the people caught with drugs by the police in order to get more people arrested. Under the law, cooperation with the police can exempt an individual from punishment. Very often police incite these desperate people, over which hangs the threat of 10 years in a penal colony, to provoke their friends to buy illicit drugs. People who “actively contributed to identification and suppression of crimes” are intimidated by the police and can help to catch 10 or more drug buyers. Police officers are interested in arresting more people as it is an easy way to move up the career ladder.

Belarus inherited the old-fashioned “narcologist” system from the Soviet times, with inpatient detox treatment and not much emphasis on social reintegration and harm reduction. What is the situation now, what services do drug users have access to?

Some people, that have addiction disorders connected with opioids, can receive methadone therapy. There are a number of state and private rehabilitation centres in the country which are forced to share information about their patients with the police. No harm reduction is offered by the state though. Several non-governmental organisations provide injecting drug users with clean needles and syringes at no charge. These organisations are operating in difficult conditions, when the police can catch an addicted person near the entrance.
The fear of being arrested often stops people from visiting these organisations, contacting drug treatment institutions, or calling an ambulance in case of an overdose.

What is the situation in prisons? How are prisoners who use drugs treated; do they have access to treatment?

The penitentiary facilities follow the words of the president, that ordered them “to create [for] drug prisoners intolerable conditions so that they asked for death”.

The prisons and penal colonies in Belarus are in terrible condition. Prisoners live in dirty barracks. The food is very low quality. People there have one toilet for 25 or more persons. The guards constantly humiliate convicts. People who are condemned for drug-related crimes are made to wear distinctive clothes and are treated especially severely. They are forced to work for the state and paid $1 or less a month. No treatment is provided for people who have addiction disorders.

After several years in such conditions, youngsters who were caught smoking marijuana, adopt the prison culture and become very hard to reintegrate back to the society.

Your organisation launched a campaign, Legalize Belarus. What are the aims of this campaign and what activities are you undertaking?

Legalize Belarus is aimed at educating people about drugs and advocating for law reform.

We organise lectures and training, raising awareness about the inhumanity and inefficiency of the war on drugs, talking about psychoactive substances and addictions, and working closely with journalists, trying to reduce the number of hate speech appearances in the media.

To promote our petition for the abolition of criminal penalties (decriminalisation) for drug trafficking in small amounts, we organised several street actions, and were punished for that. After we went to the Parliament building to take a picture with the letters of the word “decriminalisation”, 2 of us were arrested and 4 activists were fined 900 EUR in total for an “unauthorised meeting”, though the whole event took approximately 1 minute.

How is the campaign received by the media and the public?

Our main achievement today is that the problem began to be discussed publicly. Fighting “drug is evil” and “drug addicts are not humans” stigma is difficult. Generally, our activities meet strong resistance from Belarus’ intolerant authoritarian society. We are often denied the right to rent premises for our events. Sometimes people call us “drug activists” or “drug addicts” and accuse us of promoting illegal drugs. However, every day more and more people change their minds and support us.

We are mostly covered by the independent media, which is interested in solving the appalling injustice and massive human rights violations that are happening in the country. On the other hand, state media issues lying propaganda reportages with an intention to spoil the image of our movement and democracy and pro-liberty activists in Belarus in general.

Have you received any feedback from the government?

Several officials recently publicly admitted the problem and expressed the need for reform. It is necessary to understand that in the authoritarian state much depends upon the decision of the president and the narrow ruling group. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is the biggest governmental organisation and the only one that stands against decriminalisation. They receive enormous funding, which is a common thing for authoritarianism: there needs to be strong police in order to control the power. The police is interested in leaving everything as it is, otherwise they lose workplaces.

On April 27 a group of mothers of drug convicts started an indefinite hunger strike, demanding a personal meeting with President Lukashenka. What do they expect from meeting with the president and how do you see their chances of getting there?

On the day after the group of mothers of drug convicts started the hunger strike, they were invited to a meeting with the head of the presidential administration. The mothers demanded that a group of high officials were present at the meeting: the minister of internal affairs, the head of the investigative committee, the chairperson of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, chairpersons of the two chambers of the Parliament, and the director of the National Centre of Legislation and Legal Research. The starving protesters said they won’t stop the hunger strike before the meeting presumably takes place on 2 May.

The mothers insist on personal meeting with President Lukashenka as they believe he “does not have all the information about the problem”. Besides that, they demand the establishment of a commission to review the cases under article 328 and make changes to the article.

Interview by Peter Sarosi for DrugReporter.