Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus?
On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.
Why reform is needed
The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between categories of drugs.
This means that possession of cannabis is prosecuted (and perceived by the public) in much the same way as possession of heroin. With Belarus’s draconian drug laws having a permanently detrimental impact on the lives of untold numbers of youth due to simple cannabis possession, those advocating for legalisation would likely consider any measure of decriminalization a success.
On Legalize Belarus’s website it states that more than 15,000 people are currently in prison in Belarus for drug-related crimes. The majority of those convicted are serving 5-8 year sentences with many working as forced-labourers in prison camps. In an article posted in January 2017 on Belarus Digest, Alesia Rudnik noted that in Belarus a conviction for drug possession can carry a significantly heavier prison sentence than even criminal acts of paedophilia.
In clear cases of petty possession, Belarusian prosecutors tend to always push for trafficking charges, as this guarantees a minimum prison sentence of 5-years. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities’ intolerance of both drugs and dissent puts participants in organisations and events supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis at risk for steep fines and up to 15 days in jail for their activities.
As part of instilling a fear of cannabis into the minds of Belarusian children, the government occasionally holds trials of accused (though soon to be convicted) cannabis users in public locations such as schools. In the Fall of 2017, a 30-year-old woman charged with ‘storing hash’, was sentenced to three years of ‘restricted freedom’. The trail was held in the classroom of a school in Minsk while students watched.
And while three years of ‘restricted freedom’ was a mere slap on the wrist by Belarusian standards, this case was an outlier. Show trials and unreasonably long prison sentences undoubtedly serve as powerful deterrents against cannabis use amongst Belarusian youth, especially when the accused are tried and convicted in schoolrooms full of children.
Cannabis in neighbouring states
Even in comparison to the Russian Federation’s cannabis laws, Belarus is far stricter. In Russia, possession of 6 grams or less of cannabis is prosecuted as an administrative offence, the Russian equivalent of a misdemeanour. You can get a hemp flower online in the country, but there have been restrictions placed on them and slowly, websites selling cannabis are being taken down. In Ukraine possession of up to 5 grams and the cultivation of up to 10 plants for personal consumption is also classified as an administrative offence. Of Belarus’s neighbours, it is Poland who has been the most progressive in terms of cannabis reform and in 2017 legalised medical marijuana. Moreover, nearly 80% of Poles were in favour of the legislation, a level of support that would be difficult to imagine in Belarus.
In 2017, even the production of industrial hemp, a plant that contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, was made illegal. Since industrial hemp has a wide range of practical uses, particularly in the production of textiles and paper products, and no potential to be abused as an illicit substance, outlawing the crop seems to have been a hysterical reaction on the part of the government rather than a serious measure to protect public health. If, however, the Lukashenko regime is shielding Belarusians from cannabis and industrial hemp due to health concerns, they may be focusing on the wrong substance.
Cannabis vs. alcohol
In Belarus, like much of Eastern Europe, alcoholism is a significant health crisis that seems to affect, at least in some way, nearly every family in the country. Based on current statistics coming from the U.S., the legalisation of medical marijuana appears to result in a substantial decrease in alcohol consumption.
In fact, a study published in 2017 found that in states where both medical marijuana and alcohol are sold, the legalisation of medical marijuana had reduced alcohol sales by an average of 15%. Of course, this only sounds like good news to those who view marijuana as significantly safer than alcohol for one’s overall health and wellbeing.
With its never-ending financial crises, if Belarus’s authoritarian government is to be persuaded on the issue of cannabis reform, it will likely be due to economics, not ethics. In 2015, just one year after recreational cannabis became legal for purchase in Colorado, the state’s marijuana tax revenues were three times greater than those from alcohol sales.
Additionally, though Colorado has a population of just 5.5 million, from 2014-2017 the state’s total tax revenue from cannabis sales was $506m. With sales from government-owned alcohol companies accounting for approximately 80% of Belarus’s alcohol sales, advocates for cannabis legalisation in Belarus will likely need to make their case to the authorities by presenting cannabis as a more profitable and less dangerous alternative to alcohol.
Michael Dorman holds an MA from the University of Texas at Austin’s Centre for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. His research interests include WWII and the Holocaust in Belarus, post-Soviet Belarusian politics, and current social issues in Belarus.
“Sex-training” courses sweep across Belarus
On 26 February, Thai police arrested Belarusian model Nastya Rybka (Anastasiya Vashukevich) and her Belarus-born “sex coach” Alex Lesley (Alexander Kirillov) on charges of arranging “sex-training” courses in Thailand without work permits.
Prior to this, Rybka and Lesley sparked a major sex-scandal in Russia involving oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko. Rybka subsequently claimed to be in possession of secret recordings proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and requested US asylum.
While Russians have paid between $600 to $1500 for Lesley’s seduction classes in Moscow, Belarusians eagerly splash similar amounts of money on “sex training” courses and consultations with parapsychologists. Belarusian astrologers, bioenergy consultants, and “sex coaches” vigorously advertise themselves on the internet. The general decline in levels of education, as well as the demographic gender imbalance, have created a perfect breeding ground for the appearance of numerous occult practitioners and self-proclaimed “sex experts” in Belarus.
Nastya Rybka and Alex Lesley – the most famous Belarusian “sex-coaches”
Although several Western media has described Rybka and Lesley as merely “a call-girl and her pimp”, the Belarusian duo lived a much more diverse lifestyle. Nastya Rybka participated in fashion shows, agitated in support of Harvey Weinstein, and released a book called “The Diary of How to Seduce a Billionaire”. Lesley published bestsellers on seduction practices and quietly worked for Skolkovo Innovation Centre (the Russian analogue of Silicon Valley) in the meantime.
While professional psychologists described Lesley’s seduction advice as little more than manipulation techniques, “EKSMO” – one of the largest publishing houses in Russia – has published his books for years. According to Lesley, in order to win the affections of the opposite sex, women should aspire to become “huntresses”, and men – to train as “masters”. “Masters and huntresses” skilfully play with feelings of their “victims” using a carrot and stick approach. The top “huntress”, Rybka, has widely praised Lesley’s guidance, which helped her to lure Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska on a yacht trip near Norway.
At the same time, Lesley’s “sex training” classes have nothing to do with professional psychological help. Neither Rybka nor Lesley holds a degree in practical psychology. They preach a dubious philosophy of “the hunt”, which might eventually harm human relationships. Nevertheless, the Belarusian duo previously arranged tens of “sex-training” courses in Belarus, Russia and Thailand. Until the outbreak of the Deripaska-Prikhodko sex scandal, the Russian authorities turned a blind eye to the self-proclaimed “sex-gurus”. In this way, the scandalous arrest of Rybka and Lesley in Thailand has seriously harmed the growing industry of unlicensed psychological counselling in CIS states.
Why do “sex coaches” prey on Belarusian women?
Rybka and Lesley represent the tip of an iceberg; regularly held “sex-training” courses can be found in Belarus. Numerous “sex-coaches” skilfully exploit Belarus’s demographic imbalance. Taking into account the fact that at least 6% of Belarusian women will not meet a marriage partner, the competition for the available men remains high. To increase their attractiveness and competitiveness in the “marriage market”, women eagerly subscribe to well-advertised “sex training” courses.
A range of Belarusian “sex coaches” and “sex schools” skilfully apply aggressive marketing techniques. For instance, one Belarusian “school of feminity” – calling itself “Blueberry Nights” – offers a range of courses across major cities in Belarus. A one-day class called “Scheherazade Tales” offers to teach “top-secret seduction techniques used by intelligence operatives” as well as methods of hidden hypnosis to lure men.
Another “sex-training” course offered by “Blueberry Nights” – a one-day class titled “The School of a Skilful Lover” – promises to teach how to sweep men off their feet. A two-day course, “A Magnet for Men”, applies a combination of parapsychological exercises, after which women should learn “how to turn themselves into a honeytrap”. A five-week “sex-training” course, “the Geisha school”, offers an intensive coaching to help women become “the strongest drug” for the opposite sex. At the same time, the “school of feminity” does not provide satisfaction guarantees.
Apart from Belarusian “sex coaches”, foreign specialists also frequently visit Belarus, mostly from Russia and Ukraine. For instance, a “sex coach” from Moscow, Oksana Alexeeva, holds a one-day “Sacral Sexuality” seminar this week, where women will learn how to “uncover deep-down sexuality”. Numerous “sex-training” retreats bring Belarusian participants to Sochi and Crimea each summer.
Due to a high demand, prices for sex-courses do not correlate with the average Belarusian salary ($426 in 2017). “Blueberry Nights” charges approximately $200-300 for a one-day “sex-training” class and $300-400 for a two or three-day “sex-training” seminar. Oksana Alexeeva’s one-day class costs $225. A week-long “sex-training” retreat in Russia starts from $600.
Parapsychologists bombard the Belarusian internet
Apart from the regular announcements by “sex-training” courses, the Belarusian internet bustles with adverts from various occult consultants, including astrologers, magicians, and “energy” specialists. The most popular occult services include astrology prognoses, Bert Hellinger’s family therapy sessions, “energy” revivals, and esoteric practices.
Since Belarusian legislation prohibits the public advertisement of occult practices, astrologers and magicians have no choice but to promote themselves on the internet. For instance, a well-known Belarusian astrologer, Tatsiana Kalinina, runs a personal web-page and numerous accounts on social networks. She frequently appears in television talk-shows and publishes horoscopes for politicians and film stars on her blog. Tatsiana advertises a range of services, including a career horoscope, marriage prediction, and seminars for astrology beginners.
Many Belarusians eagerly pay for occult services in hope of quickly resolving their personal issues. Hence the prices of such services do not correlate with the average Belarusian salary. Tatsiana Kalinina’s individual consultation costs $100, a session of “energy revival” costs between $80-100, and an individual consultation of a shaman starts from $200.
In conclusion, Belarusians of all ages aspire to build successful relationships, improve health, and reach financial stability. Demographic imbalance pushes Belarusian women into competition for available men.Therefore, occult practitioners and “sex coaches” will continue to flourish. With the decline of education level and scientific research in Belarus, mass critical thinking diminishes, and magical thinking develops instead. This creates an additional ground for pseudo-experts to exploit a naïve faith in miracles.