A New Drug is Killing Belarusian Youth

During the three months of 2014, seven young people in Minsk died from eating blotting paper that contained a synthetic drug. A number of teenagers have also been seriously poisoned and ended up in the hospital in various cities across the country.

After a ban on the free trade of poppy seeds was imposed on 1 January 2014, a synthetic drug, also known as 'spice', has made up 70% of the illicit drug market in Belarus. Due to the ease of creating the new narcotic with information readily available on the Internet, its distribution has become extremely difficult to fight against.

However, the authorities recently launched several legislative initiatives to stop the spread of 'spice'.

New Generation of Drugs

Since 2008, the synthetic drug known as 'spice' coming out of Southeast Asia has flooded Europe's illicit drug market. According to Belarusian law enforcement, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia produce around 800 tonnes of the synthetic drug annually. The substance reaches Belarus either in ready-to-smoke blends, in powder form, on blotting paper or as a pure substance that dealers can prepare for usage domestically.

The success of the spice trade can be attributed to the legal status of the substance in Belarus. Producers create new compounds as soon as the authorities are able to ban the old ones. In order to ban a new compound they have to go through a lengthy legislative process. Until the ban is introduced, dealers can sell them without any fear of legal repercussions or subsequent punishment.

Another reason for the rapid growth of their sale is the ease of selling them through the Internet, the primary conduit of their distribution. Police block web sites which sell spice, but new ones pop-up as fast as they can take them down.

Putting an end to their sale is further complicated by the fact that many of the web sites registered abroad and purchases are made with e-money transfers.

Spice is highly poisonous and inflicts irreversible damage to the health of its users, with the most notable impact being seen on users' brains. As a result of a kind of psychosis that comes about from using the drug, people can become volatile and become a physical danger to themselves and others.

The drug's cooks do not evenly distribute dosages when preparing it, so dosages can vary significantly from batch to batch, making it impossible to predict which one could be fatal to its users.

Hundreds of young people have gone through rehabilitation for their spice addiction in recent years. Many find themselves returning to rehabilitation facilities again and again. And while a good portion of addicts are forced into a rehabilitation programme by their parents, usually law enforcement initiates spice users into a programme of treatment. In 2010 ten patients with what was diagnosed as "acute psychosis" underwent rehabilitation for using the synthetic drug, while in 2013 some 380 people underwent treatment.

School Epidemic

The main consumers of spice are young people, including school and university students. Poppy opiate addicts, on the other hand, were typically age 25 and up. Of the seven who have died as a result of the use of spice in Minsk, all were schoolchildren and students with clean histories and no previous record of drug use or criminal activity. Their sudden deaths has generated shock waves throughout Minsk's community of parents.

Minsk police receive hundreds of calls with reports of school children taking spice. “Children come to their classes high – and these are the best students with a spotless background,” says Liudmila Špakoŭskaja, a doctor at the Minsk Narcological Dispensary. Generally, parents are able to detect the problem only when it is too late.

School employees were afraid to report drug use in the past. They feared their schools garner a bad reputation and being punished for having a poor anti-drug education programme. However, in 2013 police began to realise the seriousness of the problem and started to cooperate more closely with schools. The Ministry of Education also joined the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Healthcare in the anti-spice war in 2013.

Over 26 - 29 March, the authorities held a Belarus-wide "Stop Spice" campaign which informed young people on the medical and legal consequences of using the drug and narcotics in general. Teachers were trained to detect drug use among students and parents were informed on how to restrict access to web sites that distribute spice.

Authorities Declare War on Spice

The Belarusian police boasts of having the most extensive list of illegal drugs among the post-communist countries and the fastest procedures of banning new substances. Despite this, spice trade continues to thrive in Belarus. Still, with a new compound appearing nearly every week in 2013, efforts to combat the distribution of spice were failing.

Finally the Belarusian authorities realised the ineffectiveness of its policy of banning compounds with new ones constantly appearing on the market. As part of this process of review, the government decided to take a look at the experience of the US and EU. There, the authorities ban the basic ingredients that are used to make various drugs, eliminating the necessity of banning a new compound each time one appears. Belarusian policymakers are currently on the verge of adopting a law which bans 18 basic ingredients to produce spice.

The Supreme Court has also joined in the anti-drug campaign and suggested making the potential punishment for drug production and distribution much more severe. The Parliament decided to elaborate on an amendment in its Law on Narcotics and adopt it as soon as possible.

The creation the Anti-Narcotic Interagency Committee would allow the ban on the new substance to come into force in a few days, but Belarusian MPs are complaining that Customs Union's legislation is impeding the process. Under Customs Union law, there is a different procedure of dealing with narcotic substances.

Law enforcement has also suggested that web sites who sell drugs should be blocked by the government for all Internet users residing in Belarus. At the moment, the government is only able to legally block these kinds of web sites inside the confines of state institutions and organisations.

Will Belarus Become Drug-Free?

The typical distribution scheme is as follows. Information on drugs and prices appear on the Internet, the buyer discusses the details with the dealer via Skype. Then the buyer makes an e-money transfer, the dealer makes a delivery, known locally as a "laying" – he puts the drugs in a certain place and informs the buyer where they can pick them up. The police are naturally targeting wholesale dealers who deliver the drug to petty distributors.

On 1 March, the police detained a 37-year old man in a car who was allegedly in possession of a half-kilo of spice. Later on, he allegedly revealed his cache under a city bridge to investigators that held another 13 kilos.

Finally, the police searched his residence, and found nearly 300,000 pieces of blotting paper and 100 grammes of pure spice, as well as a laboratory in his garage with a large amount of the drug.

The police believe him to be Minsk's main supplier and dealer. Several other groups that have dealt in spice were also detained in Babrujsk and Hrodna recently.

It seems like the Belarusian authorities are determined to try to take spice completely off of the streets, but even at the moment of writing, one can still buy spice online. If the new legal initiatives prove to be successful, Belarus may soon become a drug-free country, or at least 'spice'-free.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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